Call for a constitutional reform

The following article was published on the Guardian website (Comment is Free section)

We need reform now, an election later
A clean-up of our parliamentary system is long overdue – but it is not beyond repair

26 May 2009

Should there be an early election? The clamour grows. On The World at One last Monday, discussing the crisis over the Speaker, my fellow Labour MP, Rob ­Marris, argued for a general election as the only way to resolve the crisis over MPs' expenses.
I tested his thesis this weekend against the view of a senior Tory MP, a former minister, who remains diligent and hard-working in opposition. He gives the lie to the notion that all MPs are in it for the money. His thoughtful constructive work on a select committee and in other areas of parliamentary work are a full-time job. He is a true blue Tory and has made life very uncomfortable for ministers in his area of expertise.
So I asked this top Tory if he thought an early election was a good idea or ­necessary. "Yes, please," he smiled. "You would be mad to have one, as you would lose overwhelmingly. But we would be very grateful indeed."
Out of the mouths of older men come much wisdom. The cant about an early general election advanced by every high-volume columnist on the Telegraph and Mail is a Tory ramp and should be seen as such.
And what will the election be fought on? Parliament is being cleaned up. The Speaker's resignation overshadowed the important announcement on new rules that will do away with all the practices currently exposed. David Cameron claims £700 to prune his wisteria. He is safe. Sir Peter Viggers is refused a claim for twice that amount to give his ducks a home. He is thrown overboard. A young leader laying down the lives of his old veterans to save his own is not a pretty sight.
Labour's ranks are also thinning as Brown the PM and Brown the chief whip act ruthlessly. But an election must be fought on policy, not on who is the tougher centurion at decimating the ranks. Cameron has to keep playing the man, as his policy ball is threadbare. He wants the English people (as there is little Tory presence in Scotland or Wales, this is an election fought on England's political battlegrounds) to buy a Tory government sight unseen. It is eBay politics, in which you pay your money and hope you get what you like.
But Labour also needs a forward offer, and a clean-up of the way we do our politics is long overdue. Lots of ideas are around. Some, like PR, will be a gift to the BNP, as every country with a PR system invites racist extremists into its parliament. Should we move to democracy by plebiscite in the Swiss mode? Referendums hand power to offshore media owners like Rupert Murdoch and the Barclay Brothers. In Switzerland, the participation in electoral politics is the lowest of any European nation as referendums replace representative democracy. Calls for a referendum make a good column – ask William Hague, who wants one every five minutes on Europe. But they hand power from elected and accountable representatives to the secret wire-pullers with offshore wealth to spend.
A written constitution would be welcome, but the infinitely worse political and parliamentary corruption in countries such as Greece, Italy, Germany, France and Ireland all take place under a written constitution. The House of Commons meets longer than any other parliament in the world. It could meet 50 weeks a year – but to what end?
Of course we need devolved government. That was in Labour's 1997 and 2001 manifesto. But a referendum sabotaged the efforts to set up devolved government in the north-east. Vox populi is not always vox dei, and when Nick Griffin and Nigel Farage tell us to listen to the people, we know what they mean.
So representative parliamentary democracy still remains worth defending. What can we do to make parliament come back to life? For the last three parliaments there has been a big Labour majority. If the next government has a majority of five or 10, the Commons will come back to life. Whether it is healthy for one or two MPs to hold a government to ransom I am not sure. One rightwing Labour MP connected to big business stopped steel nationalisation in 1964, despite it being agreed party policy. A hero for the Daily Telegraph, but the people had narrowly elected a Labour government on the basis of a different policy.
But parliament can operate very differently. Start with making parliament a fixed term. It could be four years, as in America or Germany. Move election days to the weekend and make the ­middle weekend of May the time when we all know there will be an election. Of course, if the government loses a vote of confidence, an early election is needed, but in general a fixed-term parliament would be a ­welcome reform.
Stipulate that no prime minister or ­minister would serve more than two terms. Being an MP, a parliamentarian and not just a minister would change our politics. Ex-ministers on select committees know how government works and the tricks the civil service get up to push through their policies. More rotation between red boxes and back benches would refresh parliament.
Yes, of course, to an elected House of Lords. I still remember flying back with Tony Blair and Jack Straw from a summit in France to vote on the House of Lords reform proposals put forward by Robin Cook. Charles Clarke and I made clear that we would vote for an elected Lords. Blair and Straw made clear it would better if we left the plane without a parachute.
Ten per cent of all parliamentary ­legislation should be reserved for private members' bills. The Friday morning sessions devoted to private members' bills should be midweek, around PM questions, so that MPs, not the government machine, have more control over what laws Parliament passes.
These are five modest proposals (fixed term parliaments, no PM to serve more than two terms, an elected House of Lords, MPs not Whitehall to initiate legislation, rotation between ministries and backbenches) which are not as grand as the great chattering-class constitutionalists want, but each would make a difference. Labour should come up with a package now and make clear that if it is re-elected in 2010, there will be major reform of how parliament does business.