On Brown and constitutional reform

I still think he’s doomed. But I watched Gordon Brown’s statement today on constitutional reform with interest. It’s well known that he’s put the kibosh on many previous attempts at constitutional reform over the last twelve years, so why the sudden conversion?

It’s not a conversion. It’s politics as usual.

We now have, at most, less than twelve months until a general election. There isn’t time to enact huge constitutional changes. They can get some things done – reform of the expenses system, for example – but changing the electoral system? And a fully elected House of Lords? They won’t happen this side of the election.

Brown is talking about these things now to place a wedge between the Labour party and the Conservatives. The perception at Westminster is that the people want reform of the expenses system (which is not strictly true: people want trustworthy politicians), so Brown’s strategy is to link that in people’s minds with more fundamental reforms that he knows Cameron and the Conservatives disagree with. Brown talks about expenses reform, House of Lords reform and electoral system reform as one item, knowing that Cameron only wants the first of those and would actively campaign against the others.

Cameron’s message is “change”, by which he means a general election now. Brown is trying to paint this as “no change”: Cameron doesn’t want reform, he wants to keep the same old gentlemen’s agreements, the same old 19th Century practices, same old Tories, etc. Any attempt by Cameron to disagree with any of the proposed reforms will be presented as opposing all reform.

I don’t think Brown believes in the level of constitutional reform he talked about today. There will be talk, but little action: talking shops, proposals, committees, discussions. Some laws will pass – the expenses stuff, internal Westminster changes – but the big stuff will be punted to the next Labour manifesto, where it can be safely ignored since it looks like Cameron will win anyway.

As a Lib Dem of course I believe that we need electoral reform. I think we need some form of proportional representation, as long as we retain the 1:1 link between an MP and a constituency.

If this means the BNP is represented at Westminster, so be it. The bright lights will reveal their warts. Thatcher was wrong in the 1980s when she tried to deny Sinn Fein the “oxygen of publicity” (leading to the surreality of TV interviews in which actors dubbed the voices of Gerry Adams and others). And the anti-fascist egg-throwers were wrong yesterday when they gave the BNP free airtime in which they did not have to account for their obnoxious views.

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “On Brown and constitutional reform

  1. Anonymous

    “David Cameron is timid when it comes to reform in Britain. He sees the objection to privileging whoever is prime minister with the ability to try to fix the race by calling an election at any time of his or her choosing. He says he will “seriously consider” introducing the fixed-term parliament. Yes, I am sure he would think about that for all of a sub-nanosecond after he had stepped into Number 10.”

    Andrew Rawnsley, Observer 31 May

  2. Anonymous

    Are payment of expenses actually in the constitution? Wikipeda has nice info about the ball of stuff that comprises it – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constitution_of_the_United_Kingdom

    I don’t see what fixing expenses has to do with the constitution. Also what has happened with the freedom of information and similar acts since I left the country? In addition to being about scumbag politicians (is there any other kind?) the expenses issue was also about a lack of transparency.

    • The expenses stuff was all cooked up by MPs in collusion with each other and the Fees Office at Westminster on a nod-and-a-wink basis as a way to top-up what MPs see as their inadequate salaries. Lumped in with this is widespread nepotism (chances are an MP’s spouse is part of their staff, so part of the MP’s office allowance often ends up in the family’s pot).

      Brown is placing all of this in a bucket marked constitution for political reasons. On expenses, the argument is that MPs need a statutory code of conduct with a statutory, independent body to handle salaries and expenses: hence, that’s part of what might loosely be termed a constitution. He has talked about a “bill of rights and responsibilities” but what those might be is as yet unknown to me.

      The Freedom of Information Act is what brought the expenses scandal to light – see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_Kingdom_Parliamentary_expenses_scandal. However, since the authorities at Westminster have tried to delay full publication of the details for as long as possible, redacting various bits of information, it was inevitably leaked in full to a newspaper – the Daily Telegraph. Hence the lucrative drip-drip of juicy info for the last few weeks. Many MPs have, and I’m being generous here, been UTTERLY CLUELESS about dealing with these revelations. One Tory MP said “oh, people are just jealous” – on the record, in an interview.

      Various public bodies are obliged to respond to FoI requests within certain timeframes, though they often do not. There are often spurious rejections to requests, which are then overruled by the Information Commissioner (who is of course under-resourced and way behind on appeals). I read http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/opensecrets/ and http://p10.hostingprod.com/@spyblog.org.uk/blog/foia/ which are both often very illuminating on the bureaucracy seemingly designed to thwart any attempts at transparency.

  3. I almost choked on my glass of wine watching The Daily Show over here showing Griffin saying something along the lines of, “you can tell who doesn’t belong here by how they look…”

    The more that kind of silliness is on display the better.

    OTOH – you only have to look at the likes of Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter and Russ Limbaugh in the US to see that sometimes even publicity isn’t enough.

    • Anonymous

      The US situation is very different than in the UK. In particular ratings matter and ultimately advertising pays for everything, based on those ratings. Since there are so many stations, shows and “personalities” the easiest way to stand out from the crowd is to do what amounts to trolling. Trolling gets many people, both those reacting to the content and those who agree with it (on average people in the US listen/read very few information sources and generally only ones they agree with). Heck you even named your trolls :-)

      In the UK the BBC acts as a kind of control, having to have standards of quality and impartiality. Historically Britons also used to read an average of two newspapers each day in addition to watching TV and listening to radio. Needless to say opinion is that the country is going to hell in a handbasket, readership is going down, the BBC sucks etc. However such opinion has been a constant since Greek times!

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