Hand Democracy to the People


Our democracy is broken. Only the people can fix it. We, the citizens of the whole of the United Kingdom, can thank the Scots, for finally putting constitutional reform at the forefront of public debate.

And in their passionate, deep-rooted engagement in the referendum debate – which looks likely to continue, they helped to make it clear who should carry out the reform: the people.

The fallout from the referendum vote – with the collapse of the supposed “devo-max” deal almost before the last weary, hard-worked counting official had laid down their pen – makes it clear that the Westminster elite cannot be trusted, and are simply not capable of leading on constitutional reform.

The row over the English Parliament “solution” to the West Lothian problem – with its clear self-interest on both sides – is a further demonstration of that.

The Tories’ “solution” of “English votes for English laws” within all of the existing frameworks is no answer at all – two separate governments in the one parliament and one building, quite likely of different political hues, continually at each other’s throats, with many of the same officials trying to serve both, and seeking always to blame the other for its difficulties and failures – would simply be untenable. When you consider that the “English” vote on tuition fees had implications for Scottish education funding – through the much debated Barnett formula – then it’s clear that no simple division is possible.

And an “English parliament” within Westminster, with the same members as before, carrying on otherwise much as before would, to much of England, look like a very minor variation of the London-centric, finance sector-dominated disaster that we’ve endured for decades.

I happened to be in Carlisle at the weekend, talking to Green Party members – and the topic of demonstrations against the Iraq War arose. I was quickly set straight in talking about the one million people in London; everyone at the meeting had been in Glasgow on February 15 2003 – and could remember the 60,000 count there. For many parts of England, London is a very long way away, a distant place, both geographically and, they feel, politically – it isn’t their centre.

From Cornwall to Newcastle, Birmingham to Blackpool, stopping at many points in between, no London-centric, centralised, business-much-as-usual system is going to satisfy voters.

That’s why the Green Party, along with civil society groups such as the Electoral Reform Society, is calling for a people’s convention to draw up a new constitution.

We’ve got ideas about what that should include: greater powers for local and regional government, “total recall” rights for citizens over their representatives, proportional representation, votes at 16 and everything codified, written down, so everyone can read and understand it.

And we have a suggested principle that should underlie it: that power flows up from the people, not down from the top.

But those are simply our suggestions, which we would put to the people making up a constitutional convention – to consider along with others.

And we’d also say it’s important that flexibility is built into the system; the possibility of change. For it is worth contemplating for a second how the “Mother of All Parliaments” got into such a parlous state.

The fact is, we have a Westminster that hasn’t seen significant reform in nearly a century – women getting the vote in 1918 was the last truly significant change.

Tinkering with this early 20th-century, now hopelessly out-dated and untrusted system (a recent survey found 15% of Britons have no trust at all in it, and 68% put their trust at rank five out of 10 or lower), is no kind of answer at all.

But the massive reform we need certainly shouldn’t be rushed, as David Cameron’s old Oxford tutor has been saying.

We’ve muddled through for a century with a constitutional settlement that may not have been too bad by world standards in 1918, but looks like a right undemocratic, confused mess that’s failing to produce functional, representative governments now.

Had we made reforms along the way – like proportional representation and an elected House of Lords – we might not be in this situation, but now we are, there’s simply no alternative but to start with an almost blank sheet. (The “devo-max” promises on which the Scots thought they were voting need to be kept to maintain at least a thread of democratic trust, and they need to live up to the promise of that name: giving Scots true control over their economic destiny, leaving only defence and foreign affairs at Westminster).

Hand democracy to the people – and implement their decisions. That’s a 21st-century model – the only model that’s going to get us out of this constitutional and political tangle.

By Natalie Bennett

Leader of the Green Party of England and Wales

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