Tackling the Tory democratic deficit

The advent of a Conservative government might once have meant no reform at all to our political system.  However, David Cameron is almost accidentally opening the door to a review of party funding regime, the electoral system and the procedures of the House of Commons.  During the Queen’s Speech debates, the Lib Dem team in the Lords has been tackling all three issues.

The Government wants to dry up some of the money available to Labour by placing restrictions on trade union funding.  The principle that trade union members should consent to their subscriptions funding a political party is quite right.  Yet it will be totally unbalanced to introduce that reform without something on the other side of the ledger, namely a cap on the large individual donations which fund the party arms race in spending.

As Chris Rennard pointed out in debate on 1st June:

 One of the most disappointing failures to fulfil something set out in the Coalition Agreement was the commitment to take ‘big money’ out of politics.  In the year before the 2005 General Election, the reported donations to the main parties amounted to £44m. By 2010, the figure was £72 million, and this year it was over £100m.

Many Lib Dem activists will have seen the effect of that spending in marginal constituencies, where the tide of Conservative cash drenched, and swept away, all in its path.  When the Trade Union Bill comes before the Lords, we will do all we can to introduce amendments for a balanced package of party funding reform reflecting thecross-party draft Bill (pdf) I produced in 2013.

Next on the list is boundaries, where existing legislation provides for a review to start soon and report in 2018, with a reduction in the number of MPs to 600.  It looks like the Government will ignore recommendations from the erstwhile Political and Constitutional Reform Select Committee to modify the rules.  The Conservatives will have much to say about “equal votes of equal value” but of course they glide happily over the huge inconsistency between votes cast and seats won.  Chris Rennard gave all the figures in the recent Lords constitutional affairs debate, showing that it took just 25,972 votes to elect a SNP MP but 3,881,129 votes to elect a UKIP MP.  I would add that the Lib Dems having won 13 times as many votes as the DUP now have the same number of seats.

These disparities can only be amplified by the Government’s plan for “English Votes for English Laws”.  We will continue to argue that this should only be introduced on a proportional basis, not least because doing it any other way hands even further totally disproportionate power to the Executive.  In England, the Conservative Party:  318 English seats out of 533 (just shy of 60%) are Conservative, despite their getting only 41% of the English vote.  It is disparities like these that persuaded Labour to agree proportional representation for the devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales and London.  England should be no different.

On that same note, our team intends to press the Government on the need to address “rotten boroughs” at local government level.  My contribution to the Queen’s Speech debate is here.

This will be especially important where powers are to be concentrated in new elected mayors.  As John Shipley put it during recent second reading of the Cities and Local Government Devolution Bill:

We run the risk of creating a one-party state in which one party controls the metro mayor, the metro mayor’s appointment of the deputy, the combined authority—at least in terms of having a majority of seats—and the scrutiny of the mayor and of the combined authority. This concentration of power in the hands of a very limited number of people, when this Bill is all about devolving power, seems to me to need some urgent revision.

Finally, we are continuing to pursue the right of 16 and 17 year olds to vote.  It is longstanding party policy that this should apply to all elections, and so it should.  However, for this year, we are focusing our argument on the coming European Union referendum.  It is just ludicrous and wrong that a 16 year old who voted in September 2014, on the future of Scotland in the United Kingdom, might be denied a say in May 2016 (if that is when the referendum is held) about the future of the UK in Scotland.  I have introduced a new private member’s bill to underline this point, and The Independent reports  our firm intention to pursue it in amendments to the EU Referendum Bill.

Paul Tyler is the Liberal Democrat spokesman in the Lords on constitutional reform issues

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