Political Reform: Promises Lacking Promise

(Guardian) – IN THE PLANNING GRIDS and the morning broadcasts, it was billed as the day for political reform – the moment for members of a rotting parliament to sow the seeds of a fresher future. In the event, yesterday brought a dismal dose of Westminster business as usual.

While Gordon Brown and David Cameron and their baying tribes jeered at each other about everything except the constitution, real reforms to the Commons were being secretly strangled by the whips. Later on, the prime minister set out strong proposals to elect the Lords and modest ones to overhaul the voting system, but he has claimed to be a reformer before, and his words now carry little credibility since – after three years in office – he is going to the country with no progress made on either of these counts. The Conservatives, by contrast, are openly bent on frustrating progress on both. The country is being asked to choose between a party which talks bold but does not deliver, and one which does not even bother to talk.

Faced with the great tide of fury unleashed by the expenses saga, the Conservatives have felt obliged to devise some detailed schemes which they can claim would change the way politics is conducted. Like Labour and the Liberal Democrats, they are pledging to give people the power to recall rogue MPs, and the eminently sensible shadow leader of the Commons, Sir George Young, has devised a workable plan to allow voters to root out parliamentarians in those rare cases where they are caught with their hands in the till. But Tory and Labour traditionalists alike seem utterly unable to grasp the wider connection between our sclerotic institutions and the culture of sleaze. A bankrupt electoral system creates 400 safe seats whose representatives have no need to care a fig what local people think. What could be a more obvious invitation to skulduggery?

One thing that might be is an upper house composed of unelected legislators appointed for life. Channel 4 recently lured the Conservative backbencher, Sir John Butterfill, into marketing himself on the basis that he soon hoped to be free to serve business interests in the Lords. He got caught out, and so this one individual will not have the chance to profit as he had hoped, but his self-serving behaviour should not surprise – it is the predictable product of an institution which confers power without accountability.

The Liberal Democrats have long made such arguments against the Conservatives, and have made them much more consistently than Labour. But out of power for 90 years, their demands for reform only gain traction when they can work with others across party lines, and politicians are for the most part loathe to clamber out of their trenches. The great coalition of MPs that recently came together to endorse reforms to the way that the House of Commons timetables its business provided an impressive exception to this rule.

The question might appear a technical one, but it really does matter a great deal whether the governing faction continues to have sole control over what MPs discuss, or whether instead the power is shifted to the people’s representatives as a whole. Labour’s Tony Wright set out the case for reform, in plans which won cross-party backing on the floor of the house. But now, in a manner which only underlines Mr Wright’s point, the government is saying that there is no time to effect the house’s will. More enlightened ministers are sorely disappointed, not least because they are well aware that as they could soon be on the opposition benches, so it is hardly in their interests to bequeath a neutered house. They have, however, been let down by a prime minister who, when it really counted, lacked the bottle to back them in seeing off the forces of reaction in the whips office. He said yesterday that: “too much of our politics has been a closed shop … for too long”. It is a pity that, up until now, he has failed to find the courage of his convictions.