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Since being elected in May, the Conservative government has made a raft of incoherent, reactive, stop gap measures on our democratic future which are endangering the Union. These important changes are being made behind closed doors without proper consultation from parliamentarians, let alone the electorate.
There is no denying that there is currently a crisis in our democracy and in the Union. Public satisfaction is low, legitimacy has to be restored.
Huge questions are being asked about our future in the aftermath of the Scottish referendum last year. Not least on what will happen to Scotland should the Scottish people not feel satisfied with the devolution settlement. In order for the Union to evolve, we need to get this right. We must ensure that the Scottish people feel involved and a part of the Union, instead of the current feeling of detachment many Scots feel from Westminster.
The events north of Hadrian’s Wall have lit a spark in England about the need for power to be prised from the grasp of Westminster and Whitehall.
The talk of English Votes for English Laws, or EVEL, only serves those currently with power, namely MPs. Moving the furniture in the House of Commons will not satisfy the disillusion most people have with politicians. We need to take long look at ourselves and ask what will happen if we continue down this path. Power can no longer remain centralised, when there is not only the want but the need for it to be passed down.
It is time that Labour, and its leadership aspirants in particular, stand for taking power away from Westminster and Whitehall and devolve it down to the lowest possible level, like a modern Western democracy. Subsidiarity is the ugliest word to describe the most beautiful concept. We should be looking to give powers to local councils and lower down than that. Although there is some positive progress, such as the deal with Manchester, it is coming from the government. Labour needs to go much further. Whitehall should not be allowed to dictate what happens in places like Leeds, Nottingham and Glasgow. The people of these cities know what is best for them and should be given the freedom to pursue their own paths. Indeed, deals with those and other core cities, similar to the one with Manchester, would be a great start.
Another key issue the new Conservative government is looking to change is the Human Rights Act. The government is clearly picking its battles very cleverly, withdrawing the repeal of the HRA possibly until 2016. This kind of major decision about our rights is exactly the kind of change which needs to be addressed. These basic rights form the backbone of our democracy and we must ensure that they are secured and entrenched so that consecutive governments cannot easily change them. Labour should lead the call for a written constitution within a constitutional convention.
The government’s proposed boundary changes and plan to cut the number of MPs will be another change that is going to drastically affect our democracy and again it is being done without proper consultation. In a similar manner, David Cameron’s plan to fill the House of Lords with more personal appointees highlights the dire need for a reform which involves a ballot box. The Prime Minister talks of cutting the cost of politics, but while he is cutting the number of MPs he is increasing the Lords, which will eat into whatever money is saved.
Both the Lords and constituency boundaries change according to the political climate. Upon coming to power, each party will seek to influence both in their favour and this cycle will continue for as long as we do not agree a clear set of rules.
Now we are also seeing voter suppression being imported from the USA with voting for passport holders only rather than getting the 16 million disenfranchised onto the register. Individual Voter Registration, although in principle a good idea, is being handled in the most rushed way possible, again to the benefit of the governing party. The timetable is being rushed and it will be imposed by December 2015, a full year ahead of the plan. This means that millions of people will be missing from the electoral role for the next set of elections in May 2016. Despite the best efforts of campaigners such as Bite The Ballot, there will still be huge numbers of electors not able to vote because the government has introduced this change at such a rapid pace. This is just another example of how important decisions about our democracy are being made without much consultation or are being handled in a poor way.
It is time we considered moving to a federal UK and a federal Labour party. Our reluctance to give power and freedoms very nearly led to the breakup of the Union last September and if we fail to act, it could very soon become a reality.
All of these issues leave a number of unanswered questions. What is the solution? Instead of installing a Labour person to pull the central leavers, our ambition should be much greater. The candidates need to respond with a democratic alternative. A constitutional convention building on the Scottish precedent and open to all. It is becoming clear that regardless of which party is in power, government will never be bold enough to grant a full and proper convention. Therefore it is up to us, as citizens, to organise one ourselves. If it is led by ordinary people, open to the involvement of parliamentarians of all parties, the media, academics, legal groups, pressure groups and others, we can apply enough pressure as a collective to make government listen to our demands.
We need to go back to the drawing board, hold a thorough, citizen-led discussion and recapture the ownership and legitimacy of our democracy. Only then can we build a healthy, united democracy in which the people feel involved. The Scottish referendum showed us that people can still get engaged and involved with politics if it is done in the right way. The current constitutional issues I’ve discussed above would all be decided not by the few but by the many and whatever is decided it should re-energise our democracy and our self confidence.
Ideally, if a constitutional convention can produce a written constitution then the citizens of this country would have the rules and principles of our nation in their pockets. These rules would be clearly defined and would not be easily changed. Currently, we don’t know the rulebook. It does exist, but in the most obscure way, in numerous Acts of Parliament, conventions, precedents and other documents.
Some critics argue that there will need to be a “defining moment” in which something drastic will need to happen in order for there to be the need for a convention. The Scottish Referendum, the 2015 Election, the state of the Union, the disinterest in our democracy, the threat from UKIP, the dysfunction of the Labour party, our future with Europe all provide a trigger to action for all but the most unthinking centraliser. We need to be bold and take a step into the unknown.
A constitutional convention is not as it appears in the Labour manifesto an excuse to postpone but a way of acting on our democraticcrisis, now! Currently there is a bill in parliament calling for a constitutional convention to be set up. It has been put forward by Lord Purvis of Tweed in the House of Lords and I have put the same bill into the Commons. The bill has broad cross-party and external support and is a good starting point for any move towards holding a debate about our democratic future.
Our democracy is not the private property of government. It is up to the millions of people in the UK who should ultimately decide where power lies. Holding a crowdsourced, popular constitutional convention will allow everyone to have their say on how they should be governed and create an opportunity for the citizens to engage, debate and find answers to these important questions. It’s time for likely and unlikely leaders to step forward and get this moving.
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