It’s not the House of Lords that needs to be reformed but parliament itself. What point is there in seeking to make the Upper House marginally more democratic, when the House of Commons has ceased to be any kind of check on the executive power wielded from Tony Blair’s sofa?
Parliament needs to find the strength to reassert itself as the source of power in the land, not as the cheerleader of a personality cult. Too many MPs settle for the booze-and-bitching lifestyle of Westminster, which recently claimed the life of the Labour MP Fiona Jones. Self-destructive behaviour is often a sign of self-loathing; a plea from the powerless.
For ten years Labour MPs have turned out, meekly, at their leader’s command, to support the next war, or the next affront to civil liberties – like 90 day detention, which is due to return to the Commons shortly. Many now regret their willingness to comply over the years, but argue that they lacked the power resist the party whips.
Tony Blair has, more than any previous prime minister, exposed the weaknesses of our unwritten constitution, by forcing the country into an unpopular war on the basis of executive authority alone. Gordon Brown must not be allowed to follow suit.
Elective dictatorship is no longer a constitutional abstraction, but a matter of life and death. Two of the largest backbench parliamentary rebellions in over ahundred years failed to stop the Iraq war. Somehow, Britain must find a way to prevent this kind of thing happening again.
There is a window of opportunity opening here, if MPs have the will to go through it. When power changes hands, as it will in Downing St shortly, ordinary MPs have a chance to shape the future. And there are signs that Brown is open to ideas about how to renew British democracy.
Brown has dropped hints about this in his recent speeches. In July 2004 he told the British Council about his concern for “the golden thread of British liberty.. rooted in the protection of the individual against the arbitrary power of first the monarch and then the state.” His party conference address last year said that “while we do not today have a written constitution” there was a need to “be far more explicit about the common ground on which we stand, the shared values and habits of citizenship”. Many took that speech as a hint that Brown now favours a written constitution.
There have even been reports in the Sunday Times that Brown is to set up a Bill of Rights committee under the Labour Peer, Helena Kennedy – an outspoken critic of the government’s war on terror. The idea is that the commission would define for the first time the rights of the individual, while clearly setting limits for the power of government in areas like war making.
Academics around bodies like the Constitution Unit at University College London are also expecting Brown to move on the constitution because of the implications of devolution. There has been a good deal of grumbling over the last year about the West Lothian Question and the Barnett Formula, and it’s expected that Brown will make some moves on these issues if only to quell criticism in the conservative press about his nationality.
Some commentators have been questioning the right of an MP from a Scottish constituency to become Prime Minister, when the writ of parliament no longer runs in that constituency on devolved issues. The Tory home affairs spokesman, David Davies, has called for “English votes for English laws” and for Scottish MPs to be barred from voting on English legislation in the Commons.
Add to that, the urgent need to reform the Lords, following the cash for peerages scandal , and it’s not hard to see why some people believe that Brown may make the constitution a key theme of his first hundred days. There is all the material necessary for a constitutional “Big Bang’ if Brown is prepared to ignite it.
The chancellor has “done” the economy, what he wants to do know is to reform British politics; reshape it in his own image. Brown likes ideas, and speaks to people, so he understands the nature of the problem – even if his own penchant for control-freakery makes him an unlikely politician to deal with it.
This represents a once in a lifetime opportunity for MPs to re-enter British political life. If parliament is to be more than mere constitutional decoration, then it has to be given a proper job to do. MPs need to demand that parliament is given the means to do the task it was created for: which is to check the arbitrary power of the state.
But time is short. If Brown fails to address the problems facing the constitution in his first year, it is likely to get lost completely in the chaos of day to day “events” that preoccupy all prime ministers. He may also become seduced, as his predecessor was, but the privileges of office.
The UK prime minister exercises the residual powers of the absolute monarchy. Royal Prerogative is most egregious in the power of the prime minister to declare war, but it permeates every aspect of British public life. There is a presumption of centralisation in the British constitution, presumption of executive supremacy. The electoral system for Westminster, by furnishing an artificially large majority, recreates the arbitrary power of a monarch every four or five years.
Tony Blair had a 160 seat majority in the Commons on the eve of the Iraq war on the basis of a minority of the popular vote – 41%. That is simply unacceptable in a democracy. It is just as unacceptable as awarding peerages to businessmen who have secretly loaned the Labour party millions of pounds.
Now, the one problem is that Gordon Brown doesn’t agree with fair voting, and nor do most Labour MPs. They still believe that first-past-the-post gives them the best chance of staying power, if only because it locks minor parties out of power.
But if ever Brown could be persuaded, then it is surely now. It is most unlikely that he will be returned at the next general election with a substantial majority, and he must already be thinking about the possibility of having to do a deal with the Liberal Democrats in order to remain in office. A condition of that will be electoral reform.
But even if he cannot be persuaded on electoral reform right away, the effort must be made to focus Brown’s attention on the constitution. The very process of reforming the Lords, compiling a bill of rights, reviewing the post-devolution role of MPs will bring Brown face to face with the ugly reality of power in parliament. There isn’t any.