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Time for a new Chartism for the UK

2:27 pm - May 18th 2009

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by Rick Muir, of IPPR

The sight of Ming Campbell, a hitherto widely respected Lib Dem elder statesman, being heckled and jeered on Question Time, was to long-standing observers of British politics profoundly shocking. Over the weekend Tam Dalyell and Gerald Kaufman, also widely respected political veterans, had to go in front of the media to justify claims for £18,000 bookcases and antique rugs.

People are making comparisons with the Italian ‘clean hands’ scandal of the mid 1990s, which wiped out the entire party system. There are parallels with the collapse of the Venezuelan party system just over a decade ago, in which long standing party loyalties, already under strain, suddenly snapped following an economic crash and corruption scandals that implicated the whole political class from left to right. The outcomes of both of those episodes are salutary: the emergence and later political dominance of charismatic populist movements headed by Silvio Berlusconi and Hugo Chavez.

So where might the pieces settle following this unprecedented parliamentary scandal? Could the party system, one of the fixed comfortable constants of British politics, actually collapse?

Although public anger is running at unprecedented levels and directed at the political class as a whole, I doubt it. It looks more likely that as the incumbent party Labour will suffer the highest political penalty and David Cameron’s deft public handling of the affair will carry him into office in 2010 with a substantial majority.

The significance of ‘expenses-gate’ lies not in the seriousness of the individual claims, but rather in the fact that almost the whole political class has been implicated.

The parties can survive this, but only if they deselect those MPs who have abused the system and go to the electorate with a new generation of candidates untainted by the affairs of this last week. Incumbency is now a serious disadvantage and we can expect to see offending MPs in what were regarded as safe seats facing Martin Bell style challenges at the next election.

This is however a serious constitutional crisis and the rules of the game will have to change. And I am not just referring to parliamentary expenses: although that is the direct cause of public anger, the level of sheer rage (calls for MPs to be shot or put in prison, MPs having bricks thrown through their office windows) shows that this anger and mistrust has been festering away for some time.

This scandal has revealed that the gap that has gradually being opening up between the public and the political system is now a chasm. It cannot be bridged through a ‘business as usual’ response.

We need a radical restructuring of our political system.

Constitutional reformers have long bemoaned a lack of public interest in issues like PR and parliamentary reform. This has now changed. Although there is not yet a direct call for electoral reform there is an implicit demand for a political system that is more accountable to the public and less open to abuse.

But for a process of reform to have legitimacy it needs to come not from Westminster but from civil society – we need a modern Chartism. This is the moment that Charter 88 was made for, thirty years late – a coalition of citizens needs to be assembled around a programme of change. This should include grassroots members of the main parties who are as appalled by this as everyone else. The demands of this movement should include reform to an outdated electoral system that excludes the diversity of voices in our society from parliament.

It should also include changes to the way political parties are funded and a localisation of power so that decision-making is made much more closely to the people affected. There should be new channels of direct participation, such as the ability to trigger referenda on issues of major public concern.

But political demand No1 of the new Chartists should be for a Citizens Assembly to re-write the rules of the political game. A Citizens’ Assembly is a body of ordinary citizens selected by lot, like a jury, which is brought together to consider major political issues. These have worked well in Canada as a way of breaking the log jam on electoral reform – whereas the parties gave a vested interest in blocking change, an independent body of citizens can take a more disinterested view.

In our case the assembly should sit for a year to eighteen months and recommend a raft of reforms that could be to a free vote in parliament and for some important questions to a referendum of the public as a whole.

If we are to avoid this crisis leading to a politics of ugly populism we need to channel public outrage into a constructive movement for political reform.

Rick Muir is a Senior Research Fellow at institute for public policy research

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Reader comments

1. Alisdair Cameron

Could the party system, one of the fixed comfortable constants of British politics, actually collapse?

Please, yes, at least the invidiously whipped centrally controlled party system, which may have broadened in representativeness & diversity in terms of race, gender etc, but has narrowed in terms of opinion, outlook and thought.

[n.b. “This is the moment that Charter 88 was made for, thirty years late”. Thirty?]

Yes, the system needs complete reform and overhaul. Any convention must be democratic in structure and in performance. Such a body could, if not done properly, quickly take on the air of a new elite.

It must also be clear that nothing is off-limits from debate. A clear understanding of how the British constitution works needs to be fostered, from the Crown down. Then we can wipe the slate clean and start working from the people up to create a new and genuinely democratic constitution.

One point I believe would be usefully incorporated into a new settlement is that constitutions and institutions are not sacred. If we write a new constitution one year it doesn’t mean we can’t change it a few years later. It’s that deference to institutions and tradition that has so hampered the constitutional reform debate in the past.

Reform shouldn’t be seen as a one-off, it should be seen as part of the normal way of doing politics. Change it, see if it works. If it doesn’t, change it again. So long as those doing the changing are the people, not the politicians.

3. Richard (the original)

Not sure how PR is the cure to the expenses scandal. Under the current FPTP system we can easily kick out any MPs we don’t like.

Rick – you are right. We need a democratic constitution and the route to this has to be through a constitutional convention. The moment has moved in in important ways since 20 – that’s 20 – years ago when Charter 88 made its call. The question is: who will do it? Ch88 was addressed to the political class, especially Labour and the Lib Dems. it appealed to them to embrace an enlightened, modernising coalition approach to deliver a “new constitutional settlement”, to quote John Smith the Labour leader between Kinnock and Blair. They could have done it in 1997. it is much harder for a defeated and demoralised government to make the same call.

A Convention that delivers what you want has to be created by Parliament itself and given the power to decide the outcome, otherwise it will just be a consultation. A Convention set up by us is unlikely to draw in the Conservatives or Labour. The Scottish one created before Charter 88 included the Church of Scotland and the Scottish TUC as well as Labour and the Liberals, ie it was significantly representative.

Also, we don’t have 18 months. We need something fast and outside parliament which will start to address the crisis on the lines you suggest and at the same time begin the shift from the sovereignty of parliament to the sovereignty of the people – with a strengthened independent legislature.

Not always Richard. Especially in our multi-party system there a risk that votes moving away from the incumbant will divide up in such a way they’re still left with a plurality – The only way to be sure is to only run a single anti-incumbant candidate (e.g. Martin Bell) which turns the election of thousands of peoples’ represenative at Parliament for the next four years into a single issue campaign, which doesn’t seem the perfect solution.

However, if we used STV instead not only would we be avoiding the problem of safe seats that encourage these abuses in the first place, we would also give be allowing voters to punish just the MP by making them able to vote for other candidates from the same party – we wouldn’t need the party to deselect them, we could just vote around them. STV would give us far more choice when an MP becomes deeply unpopular than FPTP does at the present.

6. Conor Foley

It is interesting to watch all of this from Brazil. We went through our mensalao scandal four years ago – when it emerged that the government had been buying the votes of opposition MPs. Brazil did not collapse and Lula was re-elected. It did shake things up, but, unfortunately, not enough.

The consequences of the current scandal in Britain are likely to be two-fold.

1. The emergence of some kind of cross-party campaign for political reform
2. Labour getting hammered at the next election and then having a fratricidal internal discussion which will keep it out of power again for two or three elections and possibly finish it off as a mainstream political party

The thing that unites both ‘New’ and ‘Old’ Labour is that they are centralisers and so have never had much interest in constitutional reform. Charter88’s original ‘moment’ came with John Smith who was a genuine reformer. I agree with Anthony that you should be trying to create something similar again and then see who in the mainstream parties rises to the challenge.

I agree with Anthony that you should be trying to create something similar again and then see who in the mainstream parties rises to the challenge.

I’m struggling to imagine anyone major from the Labour party who fits this bill.

Rick, I agree with the essence of the article – that we need change. But no one seems to have identified the vehicle for this change. Even the Libdems are tiptoeing carefully around electoral reform it feels right now….

‘Ming Campbell, a hitherto widely respected Lib Dem elder statesman’ – and I thought he was just the unimpressive failed leader of the third party…

9. Conor Foley

“I’m struggling to imagine anyone major from the Labour party who fits this bill.”

John Denham maybe?

Also we need to look at the type of people who become MPs. People in the 20 and 30 s who do not have established careers are fodder for the whips. Too many MPs become used to a lifestyle which they could not afford outside of the H Of C – beer budget and champagne taste. Constuencies should be selecting people have proven themselves before they become an MP and have a career to return to once they leave the H of C.

Twenty years – you’re all quite right!

Thanks Anthony – in the absence of a Citizens Assembly set up by parliament, I think the Scottish Constitutional Convention model is the most appropriate for a developing an agenda for reform, bringing in elements of civil society, campaigning organisations and people from all the parties who want change. I agree that speed is important!

Sunny – the vehicle would be key people from across civil society, reformers from all the parties and none. There are constitutional reformers across the spectrum – until now the biggest obstacle has been a lack of public interest and therefore political will. And that has changed.

the vehicle would be key people from across civil society, reformers from all the parties and none. There are constitutional reformers across the spectrum – until now the biggest obstacle has been a lack of public interest and therefore political will. And that has changed.

Hi Rick – I’ll accept that, but it still leaves open the questions: How do we organise this movement? We need a vehicle of some sort. And secondly we need some aims. What would you suggest we should aim for?

Lastly, there may be lots of civil society will out there, but we still need a plan of action that involves some direction… which will eventually have to involve some politicians…

The expenses row just isn’t going away, so Rip Her To Shreds couldn’t resist one more round of putting the honourable members in the Spotified spotlight.
This week we’re asking ‘Who’s Sorry Now?’ (Obviously not The Speaker)

This is all very well but there is another dynamic that is taking hold and it is the one that the media is pushing, namely that this is all the fault of the Labour/Liberals.

As I said a few days ago, this affair is having no effect on the Tory party and the way the story has been reported has been done by a supporting Tory newspaper who knows that it is the governing party that is unpopular and it is they that the public will vote out of power. I have nothing against people being angry with Labour Mps but there is an anti Labour movement which is using thIs for it’s own political ends.

15. councilhousetory

I would suggest two approaches to run concurrently. First, go for the full constitutional convention which would result in a written constitution. At the same time seek or promote individual reforms, which individually may not be as satisfactory as a full constitutional convention, will improve matters. Eg, democratic Lords, reformed voting system for the Commons.

I presume you accept the tories would be a part of this, so here’s a few tips for approaching/selling it to them from a tory:

1) When talking about reform of the voting system in the Commons, don’t use the term PR, if you actually mean STV. Virtually all tories hate pure PR and will oppose it. However, I have found when talking to Lib Dems and some Labour members, that when they say PR, they are actually talking about multi-member STV constituencies.

A big difference and you will find sympathy amongst tories for MM-STV if it means they get to vote against, eg, Mackay, without having to support other parties.

2) With regard to the Lords, the tories are by nature conservative, so treat reforms of old institutions with a large dose of suspicion. So how to sell it? Go negative. With the removal of hereditaries and the wanton appointment of life peers, the Lords has become something of a plaything for the government and the political elite more broadly. Also, they will see that a future government can dominate the Lords by simply appointing hundreds of peers. The spectre of 1997 still looms large in the collective tory conscience.

Lots of tories, especially those in the ‘squireocracy’, are horrified by what has happened to the Lords and are there to be convinced that a democratic Lords would be an improvement.

3) Seek reformers. They are there. You might not agree with all of their politics but that’s not the issue here. Douglas Carswell supports multi-member constituencies for example.

Me personally, I would try to get the Lords democratic first, through some form of pure PR based on votes cast at a GE. I also think MM-STV should be introduced for the commons and constituencies equalised. For example, one of the constituencies in Hackney is 50,000 in size, whilst Croydon North is 80,000 in size.

Anyways, good luck.

Sunny – it looks like a movement is already on the march. We all need to link up and contribute to this.

thanks councilhousetory – very useful comments! I think we need an agenda like that of Charter88 which managed to combine a number of important elements, including those you mention, and unite people from many different perspectives. engaging with conservative constitutional reformers is crucial.

17. Mike Killingworth

A “politics of ugly populism”? I think it’s almost certain – after Cameron gets his landslide (and yields to backbench pressure to exempt MPs from the FoI Act) the media will have a vested interest in ensuring that the non-Tory vote is split as many ways as possible. And in particular to demonise the 30% or so of voters who are left-wing in as many ways as possible.

18. Chris Baldwin

I think the time has come to re-open the republic question. Abolishing the monarchy wouldn’t solve the problems, but it would be of huge symbolic importance, sending the message that this country is finally ready to modernise its political system. Does any MP fancy resurrecting the Commonwealth of Britain bill?

I am no instinctual lover of monarchy, but this issue really has nothing to do with it. But I do think we need to look at the legislative powers of the real executive (i.e. the civil service plus ministers). It is bad enough that huge bills get railroaded through parliament with a whipped majority. It is rather worse that some of the bills read more like a wad of blank cheques permitting the executive to decide the detail of what the law will be in secondary legislation at a time of its convenience. Any constitutional shake-up needs to put explicit in what sort of areas the executive can legislate without the explicit permission (as a result of debate) in parliament.

I think the Lib Dems need to go on the offensive over Electoral Reform.


They aren’t going to get a better chance. What are they waiting for? Clegg hit a home run by telling the Speaker to resign, but he needs to follow up.

Good article, but I think the idea of a citizens assembly is pap. No need to elevate any citizens above any others: let us all be equal and cast our vote. This government has made far too much of a mess with its “panels of citizen advisors”.

“As I said a few days ago, this affair is having no effect on the Tory party”

They’ve gone under 40% in the polls for the first time in months or even years.

“I think the time has come to re-open the republic question.”

Funny you say that when at the moment the monarch is probably the only institution that has come out of this affair with its reputation improved. Say what you like about the Queen but she isn’t a crook. If she dissolved Parliament here and now she’d probably become even more popular.

How do we attract people of experience;, idependent of thought and action and not just fodder for the whips? What sort of people do we want in the upper chamber? If we have the same sort of people in a new H of C and upper chamber/H of L, then they will change any new system to a similar version of the old system. Part of the reason why we have so many failures is that the MPs have very little practical experience and therefore cannot see the pitfalls of any proposed legislation/vote. Milliband is the type of person who is a liability as a foreign secretary. The best foreign secretaries since WW 2 have been Bevin and Carrington, people from the extreme ends of the social spectrum. How do we enable people of Churchill’s calibre become MPs ?

Whatever system comes into being; it will be only as good as people who are elected.

I can’t see why PR is any part of the solution. PR surely just makes independent candidates even less likely than FPTP.

Not if you have multi-member constituencies, Bishop. Either that or smaller more grassroots parties that are less beholden to corporate interests – that’s how Die Grunen and Die Linke grew into prominence in Germany. If they had FPTP they’d probably be embroiled in the kind of scandal we have now. It’s not a panacea, but hey, if people are talking about changing how we elect our MPs then it should be on the table for discussion.

25. councilhousetory

23 and 24

This illustrates my point. If you use the term ‘PR’ to describe what is actually multi-member constituencies, you will simply lose the support of anyone who is minded to reform but opposes PR.

PR = Party list pure PR in the minds of most people.

[15] CouncilHouseTory made some interesting points. I think too many of you seem to see the Constitution as a play thing – it is not. We have a very fine Constitution (the American one is largely based on it) but what has happened certainly since 1911 it has been gerrymandered.

I would endorse much of what CouncilHouseTory wrote, BUT it is useless to reform the House of Lords without repealing both Parliament Acts. In other words the power of the Lords, and its ability to say ‘NO’ and it to mean No is very very important. By rebalancing the Constitution you would go along way to restore a true political culture and prevent many bad laws. What we have now is the dictatorship of the Commons, as we have seen with the whipped ranks of New Labour over the last 12 years.

I also think it is significant that no one (from a cursory glance at all the posts) seems to have mentioned the role of the EU in politics. So much of our law is now imposed on us from Brussels without any proper debate – I think it amounts to a staggering 70% – and the effect this undemocratic structure has had to political life, where it has really sucked the life blood out of politics like some sort of vampire. Frank Field was on the nail when he said MPs turned up week in week out with very little to do. Not only does the Government not want proper debate (they allow minimum time to debate quite complex bills) nor do they want proper scrutiny of what they do.

26. Andy Good Point. The commom fisheries and agriculural policies are typical EU disaster zones.

28. Stuart Weir

I agree with Anthony Barnett who possibly only implicitly suggested that the right model is not Charter 88, but the Scottish Convention. But the impetus can only come from outside Parliament. The most telling moment so far within the House of Commons came when Mr Speaker told MPs that it was Gordon Brown who held his fate in his hands and who cd decide on whether or not to debate the no confidence motion. MPs in Parliament where now Brown, soon Cameron, will be in coimmand cannot release themselves from the executive stranglehold; and they have shown no real sign of wanting to. we have to go for the organ grinder, not the monkeys. The agenda for change should cionsider new ways of empowering the public as well as Parliament, through for example giiving constituents a power of recall over MPs and making scrutiny in Parliament inclusive of the public and participatory through on-line & similar processes (as Graham Allen MP argues).

Does Labour have anyone who cd give a lead? There are various good Labour peolple in the Parliament First group, but I suppose that Alan Johnson is the most likely person, being untainted by cheationg or milking his expenses and being for PR.

29. Gev Pearce

Looking at the ideas from Alix’s site and the lib dems is a good start.

30. Gev Pearce

I cannot see much reform coming from the Tories, if their acolytes like Nick, Journeyman, ccjc are CHT are to be taken at face value.
As for Labour party , well forget it.

31. Mike Killingworth

[29] A key point – people no longer enter Parliament to act as legislators (in the way that, say, Sydney Silverman did in his long campaign against capital punishment) or to represent a particular locality (most seats don’t have boundaries that relate to any “real” communities” – think of any with a compass point or an “and” in its name for starters) but as a stepping-stone to Ministerial office. For whatever reason, we are moving towards an executive without a legislature.

And as China shows, provided you offer people ongoing consumer choices (including the income to make them) political liberty is a pretty low priority for most folk. We are going down a road that will lead, if not to a dictatorship, at least to a post-democratic polity. Perhaps we are quite a long way down it already.

Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    New post: Time for a new Chartism for the UK

  2. Tom Griffin

    RT: @libcon Time for a new Chartism for the UK

  3. Liberal Conspiracy

    New post: Time for a new Chartism for the UK

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  7. alexsobel

    @neilrfoster IPPR seem to be the new chartists Sure we can join

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