Constitutional reform: postponed not cancelled

Happy New Year!  Looking back on 2012, some constitutional reformers might consider it a year best forgotten.  And historians may cite the last twelve months in concluding that, as a junior Coalition partner, it is nigh on impossible for Liberals to secure the most radical parts of their agenda while in Government with Conservatives.  However, we must not be wholly downcast.  2012 was the year when the House of Commons voted by a huge majority of 338 to approve a Bill to introduce elections to the House of Lords.  That support has never been secured in the past and no such progress was even properly attempted by Labour in government.

The efforts made in the Coalition Bill to balance the objective of a democratically legitimate House of Lords with the need to retain an asymmetrical relationship between the two chambers had strong cross-party credentials.  They went back to the recommendations of Wakeham in 2000, of a Joint Committee in 2002, the Breaking the Deadlock group in 2005 (which I convened with Robin Cook), and of Jack Straw’s Labour White Paper in 2008.  Whatever else might have been said of the Bill, it was definitely not “ill considered”.   Indeed, I sat on yet another Joint Committee, which exhaustively examined the Bill in 30 separate meetings!

All of that work and that progress must not be lost in the next Parliament.  Liberal Democrats will enter the election appealing to voters on all the issues we know matter most to them – the economy, education, the environment, crime and healthcare – but we should not allow ourselves to forget the importance of our democracy.  If we are in a position to influence or participate in the government next time, we have a Lords Reform Bill ready to pass.  No more committees, no more reports; this time, the job must be done.

And the constitutional work of the existing Coalition is not yet finished.  Chris Rennard and I have been keeping a careful eye on the Government’s plans to move to Individual Electoral Registration.  The change is absolutely right in principle – of course everyone should fill in their own form – but the transition to the new system must be handled well, so that we do not lose large numbers of people from the register.  The Bill will come back to the Lords on January 14th, and we will be working hard to improve it at that point.

Our Peers will also support moves to use the Bill as a vehicle for stopping the current parliamentary boundary review in its tracks.  When Nick Clegg announced in August that the Conservatives – having reneged on Lords Reform – could not expect our support for the final schemes proposed by the Boundary Commissions, David Cameron should have stopped the process immediately.

This change in the government’s agreed constitutional programme was not just ‘tit-for-tat’.   The Lords Reform package would have strengthened Parliament in the face of the executive, but reducing the number of seats in the Commons – on its own, with no Lords Reform – would have had the opposite effect.  Meanwhile, the Electoral Commission’s latest official figures (published well after the boundary review legislation passed in 2010) show that the electoral registers are far from complete under our existing household registration system.  In some areas 1 in 4 eligible electors are not registered.  In these circumstances, it is right to revisit the principal objective of arithmetic equality among constituencies, based on numbers from the electoral register.  Our cross-party amendment to postpone the review will allow that to happen, and end the uncertainty over boundaries for the next general election.

Also in the pipeline is some work on party political finance.  When Sir Christopher Kelly published his report last year, all the parties were nervous about the potential loss of income from new regulations on donations, but all were equally keen to show that in present financial circumstances they wouldn’t take extra public money to fill the shortfall.  As a result, Kelly’s proposed reform package was effectively stillborn.  However, there could still be scope to agree some reforms for future Parliaments, and to look at the vast amount of public money which is already spent by or on behalf of political parties.  This may be able to be used more effectively, improving democratic engagement and at the same time negating the Tory and Labour excuses for rejecting more comprehensive changes to donation and spending rules.

If ‘big money’ disfigures our democracy, so potentially can the lobbying power of big business and wealthy foreign governments.  Our Ministers are therefore working away at getting agreement on tighter regulation of lobbying.  We are trying to keep the government focused on the prize of clear transparency about who is lobbying whom about what, along with how much they are being paid (and by whom) to do so.  If you have views on how this should best be done, let us know.

Another big change in the coming year will be the sight of Scottish electoral registration officer preparing to allow 16 and 17 year olds in Scotland to vote in the independence referendum.  For years conservatives in both the other parties, have complained that Liberal Democrats approach constitutional reform in a ‘piecemeal’ fashion.  Yet this latest initiative – agreed by all parties – is absurdly ad hoc.  There is no symmetry in Alex Salmond’s demand that 16 and 17 year olds should be allowed to vote in the referendum, while some of the very same young electors will then be disenfranchised again in the subsequent general election.   Meanwhile, all their contemporaries south of the border will have to wait two years for even one bite of the cherry.

Together with Conservative, Labour and Crossbench Peers, I have therefore introduced a Bill to reduce the voting age to 16 throughout the UK and for all elections.  It will be intriguing to see how the reactionaries react!  16 year olds deserve permanent access to the franchise, not a one-time opportunity to vote in a political fix cooked up by Alex Salmond.

Finally, there is the Westminster Parliament’s little local difficulty.  That is Parliament Square.  The Coalition has rightly removed Labour’s draconian rules about protest in the vicinity of Parliament.  But the area around what is sometimes called the “cockpit” of our democracy is still depressingly uninviting, repellent even, to any pedestrian.  I am making attempts with some allies in the other parties, and those in no party at all, to have some improvements made there by 2015.  That will be the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta and 750th birthday of the first effective House of Commons; watch this space!

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