Daily Archives: 19 May 2010

1832 and all that

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.

Is Charles Kennedy organising a Liberal Democrat putsch?

Independent political commentator John Rentoul does a neat line in pricking the balloon of journalistic and political hyperbole with his “questions to which the answer is no” series, so it is curious that he has managed to come up with an absurd, over the top conspiracy theory almost entirely devoid of fact today. Writing about Charles Kennedy’s article in the Observer on Sunday in which he poured cold water over the Lib Dem-Conservative coalition, Rentoul speculated:

What was he up to, eh? I can’t help thinking that he thinks he still has a chance of returning to the leadership of the party, the position out of which he believes he was cheated by Sir Menzies Campbell and his bag-carrier, Nick Clegg. Kennedy seems to be positioning himself to lead a Lib Dem rump out of the coalition government when things turn sticky in a few years’ time.

Ooh, maybe. Except for a couple of things:

1) If Kennedy is planning a comeback, somehow he has failed to spend any time ingratiating himself to the party membership. Since resigning as leader, his presence at party conferences has not been particularly high profile. Neither has he made much effort to ingratiate himself in the media (sitting on the This Week sofa for a month notwithstanding). He hasn’t exactly been working the rubber chicken circuit.

2) The general response that I have witnessed to the Kennedy article on Sunday amongst the membership has been one of irritation. It is one thing to oppose the agreement and take a principled stand. I have enormous respect for people who have put their head above the parapet in this way, such as Linda Jack (maybe we should make her leader if it all goes wrong?). It is quite another to express some concerns, sit on one’s hands during the crucial vote itself, write an innuendo-laden article in a national newspaper and then fail to even turn up to the party’s special conference to make your case.

It is entirely possible this coalition will go tits up and the Lib Dems will find themselves adrift. However, one thing that none of us can deny is that we all share responsibility for the decision to enter government. If we do find ourselves looking to find a new leader in a few years time, it is unlikely to go to someone who has simply carped from the sidelines.