The British constitution is in a bad way. The Westminster system of absolutism is creaking and falling apart as we speak, centralisation has been taken to a point under the Blair-Brown dual monarchy of New Labour beyond caricature, and the British political classes are held beneath contempt, along with bankers and journalists. This should be a golden era for radical reformers and democrats, with idealists and campaigners pushing at an open door in terms of the popular imagination and mood, a political community looking desperately for a different kind of politics, and a country knowing that the eviction of one political party of the Westminster state, Labour for the Tories, will change little for the better. One of the paradoxes of our current malaise is the widespread crisis of the British political system is combined with a crisis of confidence amongst reformers. The crisis of our politics seems to have not only affected the corrupted, tainted ‘mainstream’, but those who want to replace the whole rotten edifice.
The usual culprits to cite here are the Lib Dems under Nick Clegg’s strangely demure, cautious leadership, which has failed to make any real headway in the economic and political storms we have endured (and this despite Vince Cable). Thankfully for Lib Dems another group have come along in recent weeks, mouthing the platitudes of reform, while engaging in processes and ideas which don’t have any real spark or urgency. The Power 2010 inquiry has significant monies from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust and its Reform Trust (1). Chaired by the formidable and impressive Helena Kennedy and led by Pam Giddy, previously of
Charter 88, it has attempted to build on the work both did with the Power inquiry a few years ago.
This isn’t the best place to start, because the Power inquiry was characterised by a convincing, powerful critique of our failing democracy and politics, which in its recommendations went nowhere, focusing on narrow political structures and processes, such as PR and state party funding (and could not even bring itself to make the case for a written constitution). There was no acknowledgement of the interwoven nature of the economic and political concentration of power which had happened in Britain under Thatcher and Blair, and that any serious reform needed to respond in kind: with a programme of economic, social and civil transformation. The Power 2010 campaign then held a series of deliberative discussions out of which emerged a list of 29 reforms to the UK political system, and it in this that the problems began. For a start, there was the lack of imagination of engaging in what amounts to a self-selecting super opinion poll which is of little real value, and can be blown apart by critics as being totally unrepresentative.
The last time I looked at the overall figures they were at 80,000 votes, and considering you can vote as many times as you want as long as you vote only once for each demand, the overall reach will be many times smaller. Yet, there are even bigger flaws with the whole process. The Power 2010 campaign decided from their super February primary to select only the top five and then promote and argue for them in the forthcoming election, just like New Labour’s five pledges on their infamous card in 1997. However, another problem was lurking in the issue of the English dimension. The final list of 29 left the English question represented by English votes on English Laws, while a referendum on an English Parliament, which had been on the original list, was knocked out. As we entered into the last few days, Unlock Democracy, the successor to Charter 88, asked supporters to vote for an elected second chamber, the demand which was below English votes. The Campaign for the English Regions urged their supporters to vote for any issue but English votes. Peter Facey, director of Unlock Democracy, stated that his motivation was that: This was not an anti-English votes for English Laws email, simply a positive one for an issue we think needs to be in the top five. (2) The disingenuousness is shocking from supposed radical democrats, combined with their complete lack of understanding of the lack of democracy at the heart of the UK in the English question.
This was articulated by Paul Kingsnorth in a powerful piece in ‘The Guardian Comment’: Imagine that you live in a nation which is, or claims to be, a democracy. Imagine that in this democracy, your elected representatives make laws by voting on bills in parliament, as they do in pretty much every other democracy in the world. He goes on to say: ‘Thus is the country in which 80% of the UK’s population lives; this is England’ (3). Fascinatingly as we speak with hours to go to the closing of the Power 2010 vote the whole thing has backfired on them. Yes, their campaign of attempting to fix the ballot has raised the number of votes for a fully elected second chamber and pushed it into third place, but the counter-campaign to their
manipulation, has pushed English votes up to fourth. What is more striking is the tiny number of votes involved which with just over three hours to go stood at: Proportional Representation 11,878 Scrap ID Cards 10,325 Fully Elected Second Chamber 6,454 English Votes on English Laws 6,197 A Written Constitution 6,051 Fixed Term Parliaments 5,909 And then after this there is a long drop off.
What is striking is the tiny number of votes, the sheer lack of political imagination and radicalism, along with paranoia about letting the English tiger out. This has been combined with an attempt at a form of fixing. And a set of processes, which seem to be incredible in terms of their banality. At the heart of the Power 2010 failure is the collapse of the liberal radical tradition in Britain. Thatcherism and New Labour didn’t happen by accident; they happened because we allowed them to happen, and we allowed the political system, the state and radicalism to be captured by zealous anti-democratic revolutionaries.
The Power response is, according to Facey, to have a ‘Constitutional Convention’ which surely sums up the political worldview of such chatterers. It is based on an elite view of politics, and an inaccurate view of how change came in Scotland, which didn’t happen because of Canon Kenyon Wright and his blessed Constitutional Convention, but because civic and political Scotland, both organised and disorganised, wanted it. In short, such change is driven by shaping political space, identity and imagining a nation: a long, diffuse, messy process which can never be summarised by establishing a Convention.
There are many by-lines to this story, but one is that Rowntree gave a significant amount of monies to employ a substantial body of staff of well over a dozen to oversee such a poorly thought through project. It has thrown up the limitations of much for what passes for constitutional reform and democratic renewal in the UK, and also reminds us that despite the multiple crises of the system, there is a distinct prospect that it will just muddle along, for want of anything better.
Rather like the current crisis of neo-liberalism, for want of a better alternative, the British political system could just stagger along, in an undead state. Truly we could be entering the age of Zombie politics and a Zombie political system which still felt it had the right and power to act like an all-powerful leviathan.
1. Power 2010: Countdown to a new politics, http://www.power2010.org.uk/votes
2. Peter Facey, ‘Shock: Unlock Democracy supports an elected second chamber’, Our Kingdom, February 17th 2010, http://www.opendemocracy.net/ourkingdom/peter-facey/shock-unlock-democracy-supports-elected-second-chamber
3. Paul Kingsnorth, England is a pseudo-democracy, The Guardian Comment, February 18th 2010, http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2010/feb/18/devolution-england-pseudo-democracy