If there is one thing the media seem to agree on, it is that Nick somewhat over-Clegged it today by claiming that the package of proposals he announced today represent the biggest political reform since 1832. The BBC have compared it unfavourably to Tony Hancock’s famously ignorant quip about Magna Carta (or the unstopable sex machine as it isn’t rather better known). C4 News’ Cathy Newman has branded it as “fiction” (it has been factchecked, so it must be true). Meanwhile the increasingly vituperative and bonkers Mehdi Hasan (what has he been on? His performance on Question Time last week was just embarrassing) has branded it, originally enough, as a “Con-Dem con“.
I feel the need to slightly back Clegg up here a little for the simple reason that universal suffrage was a process not an event, and that the watermark was in 1832. In terms of the UK constitution, electing the second chamber and changing the electoral system of the first is a big deal.
But yes, you certainly could claim that the reform is no more earth shattering than the 1997 parliament (the programme of which was drawn up in the Cook-Maclennan agreement and indeed initially resisted by Labour), or the various staging posts along the road to universal suffrage in the 19th and 20th centuries.
However, if the biggest criticism of the proposals (leaving aside the noto55 nonsense) is that it isn’t all that radical, then that’s fine with me. Clearly we can just rubber stamp it all and move on then?
There is two other criticisms of the proposals doing the rounds: the first is over these rumoured plans to create 170 new peers as an interim measure. The problem for people like Mehdi Hasan is that Nick Clegg explicitly ruled this out in the Q&A after his speech today. I’m sure the Lib Dems and Tories will create new peers over the next few years and in my view they shouldn’t, but after the hundreds created by Labour over the previous 13 years (and let’s not forget the loans for Lordships debacle) that is hardly something its supporters can claim any moral high ground over.
The other one is over these Tory plans to cut the number of MPs and ensure that the new boundaries are more equal in size. We are told this is gerrymandering on the basis that, um, it might remove some of the inbuilt Labour advantage inherent in the first past the post system. Both Labour and Tory politicians seem to be remarkably excited by this prospect, especially given the fact that most academics seem to agree that its impact will be marginal.
We are also to understand that it will weaken the constituency link and lead to MP being less able to handle individual bits of casework. The answer to that is: good. The notion of MP-as-caseworker is a toxic one which has undermined our political system over the past few decades. It is being done at the same time as bolstering local government, meaning that people will have fewer issues to go to their MP over. If you believe in fair votes – and thus a further dilution of the constituency link – and you believe in stronger local government. Both these things are entirely welcome.
If the Tories want to sow the seeds for the destruction of single-member constituencies in this way, I’m all for it. And if all the other reforms are so insignificant that we can just get on with them, I’m all for that too.