Constitutional change must come: But how?

By Green Party leader Natalie Bennett.

A recent poll put the average combined satisfaction rating of the leaders of the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat party leaders lower than previously seen in recent history at an equivalent time before a General Election. “None of these” is clearly what voters wanted – and still want.

Young people are increasingly moving away from mainstream party politics and channelling their activism into a new generation of NGOs and pressure groups like 38 degrees, Change.org and Avaaz. So, increasingly, do their elders.
The reasons for the loss of hope, the loss of trust, the loss of belief in our politicians to deliver on their promises stretch far beyond the failed economic model, the pernicious impacts of inequality and poverty, and the utter failure of this government to react to the reality of climate change with practical policies.

In part, the dissatisfaction reflects continuing fallout from the expenses scandal, helped back into the front of people’s minds by the current (for now anyway) Culture Secretary Maria Miller. But there’s so much more …

There’s the awareness of the power of the bankers and other corporate giants to defend themselves and their interests despite the clear need to rein them in. I’m proud that the Green Party has been at the front of leading a new push against the pernicious influence of the City of London Corporation.

And then there’s the power of the lobbyists. The Big Six energy companies, the would-be frackers, the tobacco companies, the arms manufacturers, have an open door to this government. Indeed there’s a revolving door between their offices and those of government departments, through which staff swish all too often.

A further major source of disillusionment with government is outsourcing. The problem is not just the stupidity of the model which picks companies on one basis – their ability to bid for government contracts. The deeper problem, which eats away at our democracy, is that, once a role is outsourced, the Minister has two critical ways in which he or she can avoid democratic accountability. First: costs? Well “that’s a matter of commercial confidentiality”. Second: foul ups and disasters. Sorry, “contractor error”, “not my problem Mr/Ms Voter”.

More, there’s the failure of representation. I can’t say that there’s new cause for disillusionment in the gender (im)balance of our Parliament. And there’s nothing new about the lack of ethnic minority representation, or failure to select and elect a representative number of people with disabilities. But what is a new, and growing, problem, is the take-over of our politics by the ‘political class’ – people from an extraordinarily narrow range of backgrounds.

Change will come, because it has to come. The current early 20th-century model of Westminster politics, our increasingly powerless local councils, a Europe that’s not implemented the subsidiarity demanded by the Lisbon treaty, have clearly failed and will not continue.

So from where might the real change come?

One possibility lies in the Scottish referendum. At a public meeting recently I was asked: “If the Scots voted ‘yes’, wouldn’t that produce constitutional chaos?” My response was instinctive: “Yes, isn’t that good!” There’s a host of unanswered questions about what happens in the event of a ‘yes’ vote, and new pressure for a written constitution for England and Wales. There’d surely be a host of undemocratic, archaic hangovers that even the most staid bureaucrat couldn’t bring themselves to write down.

Another potential route lies within the Neo-Gothic halls of Parliament. The vote against military intervention in Syria was something of an accident, a careless dropping of a ball by our second successive government to not really “get” that Parliament does have power. But it had far-reaching consequences. It’s possible, just, to imagine a profound reshaping of British politics happening within Parliament.

Another comes from Ukip voters. The pollsters will tell you that Ukip is unlikely to win a parliamentary seat in 2015. Yet they could get a very large vote in 2015, say 15%, without winning a single seat (as the Green Party did in the European elections in 1989 before they became proportional). That would leave a lot of angry voters. I’m not sure what a march combining Occupy and Ukippers would look like, but it would surely be something any government would have to worry about.

One possible response would be in local government elections. The trouble with House of Commons, and Lords, reform is that you have to get turkeys voting for Christmas. But local government offers another opportunity – a chance to get turkeys to vote for chicken dinners. For the largest parties don’t much worry about local councils – as demonstrated by their centralising, budget-slashing approach to it – and the chance of a single transferable vote in local elections, as the Scots already have, might look highly attractive to MPs and peers seeking a sop for angry voters.

And then, of course, there’s the House of Lords. The three largest parties promised us an at least partially elected house. With consistent pressure, this has to come – and the election method has to be proportional representation. That will leave the House of Commons looking like the first-past-the-post dinosaur it is.

I’m not going to say any one of these changes will happen, but something significant, something substantial, something revolutionary, will change in British politics in the short to medium term. The current situation is untenable.

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