Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Cameron's constitutional caution

David Cameron shows characteristic dexterity in pitching into the Guardian's New Politics debate with a piece projected across a double-page spread with a front-page news story to preview his speech today.

But the content surely falls far short of the 'massive, sweeping, radical redistribution of power' which is billed. And one does not have to read far between the lines to find that Cameron is rather keen to control what should and should not be part of the reform agenda - particularly seeking to remove the electoral system from the menu for possible reform.

A good test of proposals to redistribute power is whether any power is ceded, and by whom. I see nothing wrong with a proposal to "open up the legislative process by sending text alerts on the progress of Parliamentary Bills and by posting proceedings on YouTube". But this is better communication and presentation from Parliament. It can hardly be billed as redistributing power.

Probably, the biggest change mooted is that of fixed term Parliaments (though this is just being floated for now, with Cameron stating the pros and cons. And there is some devilling in the detail. One important caveat is that Cameron appears to be offering a get-out clause for minority governments, so that a stable minority government like that of Alex Salmond's in Scotland would be able to pick and choose when to try for a majority of its own).

Fixed term parliaments would be a good reform. It is also clever politics. It sounds like a rather big power for a would-be PM to give up. But is it really? Reviewing the history of election date decisions suggests it is rather overrated: hence my prediction last year that a major party leader would seek to win plaudits by offering to give it up. When governments have been re-elected - in 2005, 2001, 1987 and 1983 - the choice of date has tended to make little difference. Attempts to gain advantage from tactical deployment of the power - as with Heath in 1974, with Callaghan not calling an election in 1978 and the election speculation of 2007 - have tended to blow up in the face of the premier concerned.

Elsewhere, there are several useful areas of emerging consensus. The need to scrutinise the use of Royal Prerogative powers by the Executive was set out by the Fabian Monarchy Commission in 2003. Both frontbenches are now talking about this - but the question of whether scrutiny will be substantive depends on the broader parliamentary reform agenda.

Removing the powers of the whips over who is on Select Committees is another useful reform, which is suddenly turns out that everybody agrees on after all this time. But Chris Mullin makes a rather sharper point in The Times today - in noting that the size of the frontbench payroll vote is part of the problem, particularly with the extension in the number of unpaid PPS and special envoy positions. Strikingly, the Conservative website suggests that, even in opposition, David Cameron has almost 100 MPs involved in his frontbench in some way, almost exactly half of the Conservatives in the Commons. He talks a good deal about strengthening the role of backbenchers - but there need to be some credible, senior backbenchers for this to be matter.

An auction between the two major parties on political reform is to be welcomed. David Cameron is offering incremental reforms of a rather similar kind to that which has been pursued by the government, where Gordon Brown's intention of a "new constitutional settlement" has so far become something more of a tidying-up exercise of moderate reforms.

David Cameron's intervention sets out two possibilities for the next few weeks.

One is that a broad consensus is emerging on an incremental and somewhat cautious agenda of useful but piecemeal constitutional reforms of the type he sets out. This would strengthen Cameron's claim to have responded confidently to the Parliamentary crisis, though in several areas his proposals are similar to those of the government.

The alternative is that the Labour government realises that Cameron has left considerable space for a more comprehensive constitutional reform agenda, and seeks to reignite an agenda which has lost momentum since 2001.

How should the bidding be raised? Alan Johnson's intervention on an electoral reform referendum is gathering further support.

The most significant would be to move well beyond talking about responding, consultation and 'listening' to the public mood - and to cede significant power to shape the outcomes of political reform to a new constitutional convention.


Colonel Smedley said...

Recall elections are a much better proposal than any idea of fixed term parliaments. Cameron himself outlined a couple of the downsides of fixed term parliaments in his speech today.

There are other options to remove from the PM the right to call a general election: and the best option involves the right of recall.

Two types of recall election are needed:
(i) local people forcing a by-election on their sitting MP; and
(ii) public petitions calling for a general election: once more than 50% of the electorate had signed a properly conducted petition, then the sovereign would dissolve parliament for a general election. The present 5 year term would apply.

This is the one change in our political process that is absolutely fundamentally needed on top of the present striving for transparency.

Voting system changes and constitutional conventions are all red herrings. Give the people the right to recall and the people will retire from the present seige around parliament as the people will know that at last they have power over the representatives that they send there and have the means to stop their MPs 'going native' against their wishes.

We need changes to delivery power to the people, not on the basis of party political calculations.

Philbert said...

Of course a recall law where 50% of the electorate (I presume you mean those partaking in a referendum and not those entitled to vote absolutely) can dissolve Parliament would be a severe challenge to FPTP, as right now no majority party can dream of attaining 50% of the vote in a general election.

In the last GE about 65% of voters did not vote Labour, which would supply an ample pool from which to recruit impromptu coalitions bent on at least interrupting the process.

The more general problem I see with a recall law is that it would make it much harder for a government to pursue policy choices which will only yield their full results in the long run.