Friday, 15 January 2010

Power 2010: the story so far

Below is the text of a guest opinion piece I wrote and which appears at A sort of "view from the regions".

Power 2010 has recently published the results of its "deliberative phase" of proposals to re-invigorate British politics. This followed its earlier request for proposals from the public at large, 60 of which were then put to this "deliberative" stage. The deliberation was carried out by a representative sample of 200 UK citizens on 9 and 10 January. The top 29 topics following the scoring which accumulated on deliberation are now the subject of a period of internet voting, after which the five most popular will become the policies for constitutional change which it will ask candidates at the 2010 election to adopt as policy.

In this guest opinion piece I will approach it in the spirit in which it is intended, and not dwell on the fact that it is the party manifestos which set out what it is that the candidates will in fact pledge themselves to. Power 2010 will find it difficult to have any practical effect, but I suppose they are to be applauded on the initiative.


The thing which most struck me was the relatively unradical nature of most of the proposals, particularly those near the top of the list. This is not going to cause any re-enactment of the Chartist riots of the 1830s and 1840s; nor even the repeal of any Corn Laws. The no. 1 ranking following deliberation is given to strengthening select committees in the House of Commons, which doesn't sound to be the most appealing call to the manning of the barricades. The no. 2 ranking was "allowing voters to vote none of the above on ballot papers" which is particularly pointless: such markings on ballot papers are at present labeled and counted as "spoilt votes". (The fact that this ineffective idea did appear at no. 2 gives some hope that this exercise is not stage managed by constitutional enthusiasts.)

As to which my second thought is that the deliberative stage is only as good as the neutrality of the "guidance" given to the 200 citizens during their deliberations. Whilst this clip from "Yes, Minister" is intended mainly for humour, as with much of that series it is making a serious point. Polling companies stake their reputations on devising neutral non-leading questions which do not point to a particular outcome and therefore bias the result.

The proposals

Everyone will have their own views on what might make it to the final cut of 5 proposals. In looking down the list of substantive rather than trivial proposals, I have ignored those concerned with matters of privacy and databases and related human rights issues (and a referendum on substituting the euro for the pound which came in at an astonishing no. 12), as though important in their own right they seem to me to be not sufficiently connected with the re-invigoration of politics. The highest ranked proposal which I find of interest is one to "increase the number of issues decided by free votes" (no. 3), followed by direct democracy, that is to say more national consultation exercises on matters of importance before policy decisions are taken by means of referenda and the like, which forms three linked proposals at no. 4 in the deliberative results. After that, of the proposals in the results which I would regard as substantive and interesting without necessarily agreeing with them are MP recall votes (no. 9); doing away with some of the Freedom of Information Act exemptions (no. 10); giving MPs more control of the Parliamentary timetable (no. 13), linked in spirit at least to there being more free votes and which is much more far reaching than might be thought, because the control of Parliamentary time by the whips office is where much of the power lies; "allowing only English MPs to vote on matters affecting only England and only English and Welsh MPs to vote on matters affecting only England and Wales" (no. 16); only having ministers in the government from the House of Commons (no. 17); more devolution to local government (no. 18); and proportional representation (no. 23).

I have discounted from my list of interesting substantive proposals things like fixed-term Parliaments (no. 21) on the ground that it is not sufficiently ground-breaking, and having a written constitution (no. 26) on the ground that it is so ground-breaking that it asks more questions than it answers: in fact, producing a written constitution would require all 60 questions to be answered, and many others besides. I do not find a written constitution of itself particularly appealing - it is what would be in it which forms the grit.

Supporters of an English Parliament will be disappointed: following deliberation, holding a referendum on an English Parliament went to no. 45 and misses the cut. A referendum on an English Parliament ended up coming below even "Holding separate referendums (sic) on membership of the Union in England Scotland and Wales" (no. 43), which seems an odd selection of priorities by the participants and it does make one wonder how reliably the exercise was carried out. The ranking also jars both with "Holding a referendum on the strongest form of devolution amongst the nations" which is higher again at no. 38, and which would of its nature require the referendum to cover whether there should be an English Parliament or regional government in England (although curiously the explanatory information indicates that "the nations" did not include England).

On the last point, I must come clean on this: readers of my own blog will know that I am not a great supporter of an English Parliament. Instead I would prefer to see real powers given to a parliament and government for three English regions, the North, the Midlands and the South, forming (with those already existing for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) a federal solution for the UK. I think that could give a new vibrancy to the whole of England (as opposed to the pathetic John Prescott proposals of earlier in the decade which were never intended to devolve anything meaningful and were intended to divide the north of England rather than represent it).

However, regional federalism came out even lower than an English Parliament, at no. 46, and in truth I have always recognised it to be a dead duck politically. Westminster career politicians are not going to vote to divest themselves of most of their current powers and leave themselves only with foreign affairs, defence, immigration, macro-economics and the benefits system as toys to play with, and reclaiming things from Scotland such as health provision to give politicians more to do at the UK level is likely to prove politically unachievable (there is no National Health Service at the institutional UK level any more and probably there cannot now be again). But by the same token, Westminster career politicians are not going to sign up to most of the other Power 2010 proposals either. And I recognise that an English Parliament is, in the decades to come, a more likely outcome than genuine regional devolution because it allows the more straightforward and less challenging metamorphosis of UK power structures into England power structures on matters which will have already become devolved in the remainder of the UK. The England rump ends up defining itself.

For those interested in voting systems, single transferable votes (sometimes also called alternative voting) ended up at no. 34 following deliberation, below proportional representation and missing the cut. Single transferable voting is, however, the only change to the voting system which is ever going to be implemented in practice, were first-past-the-post to be abandoned.

Another interesting one was "Selecting the Upper Chamber by lot from the population" (no. 49). This has a certain whimsical purity about it - a return to the ethos of the old House of Lords but with membership of the House of Lords determined by pure chance at birth (or perhaps on attaining majority) rather than by the chance of heredity at birth. It has a cousin "Selecting some councillors by lot from the local population" (no. 48) for the local level.

The problems

I have commented on the neutrality point, but one other significant problem with the exercise undertaken by Power 2010 is the fact that the issues dealt with cannot in truth be treated as discrete decomposed items in the way that appears in the table of post-deliberation results.

An example is the House of Lords. Having an elected House of Lords ended up ranked no. 28, just making the cut. However, whether the House of Lords is elected has an obvious effect on its political legitimacy and therefore on its power to override the House of Commons. If wholly elected, then the case for it to be able permanently to block rather than just delay a Bill also becomes considerably stronger. Likewise if the House of Lords is elected by proportional representation, the case for keeping first-past-the-post for the House of Commons becomes stronger, and there could be little justification for preventing members of the House of Lords from becoming ministers in the government. It also raises the question whether this new elected chamber should act as second chamber, or at least as an advisory chamber, for the legislatures for Scotland, Northern Ireland and (after a successful referendum under Part 4 of the Government of Wales Act 2006) Wales, given that a great deal of its time would otherwise be devoted to England-only legislation.

In fact, an elected House of Lords would require a wholesale review of the UK constitution going well beyond most of the other relatively modest proposals of the Power 2010 document. It might well require preparation of the written constitution to which I referred earlier.

By way of another example, one of the main arguments against English/Welsh votes on English/Welsh laws is the argument that the UK government must be able to get its business through, and to do that it may need to rely on (and whip the votes of) MPs for Scottish constituencies even though a matter may not by virtue of devolution affect Scotland. This is indeed what happened on student top-up fees in England and on some aspects of foundation hospitals. However, if there are to be more free votes as proposed, where each MP votes for what he or she thinks is the best for his or her constituents rather than in accordance with the party line, the argument for limiting voting rights to those whose constituencies are actually affected by the matter under consideration becomes obviously stronger.

Another problem is the inability of the process undertaken by Power 2010 to offer nuance on a number of the issues. On English/Welsh votes on English/Welsh laws, even though some protection for those in England against a recurrence of the student top-up fees affair is likely to be introduced at some point (and more quickly if the Tories win the next election), the formula at no. 16 which I have cited above does not in fact represent anything ever likely to be implemented, nor is the formula in its stark terms particularly realistic. Instead, the Tories propose an English Grand Committee at committee stage (a little different from the Scottish Grand Committee which used to sit on Scottish legislation, and in theory still can), together with restricted voting at report stage. Under the Tory proposal no Bill affecting England only or England and Wales only could pass either second or third reading without a vote in its favour by all members of Westminster Parliament. My own proposal in the absence of regional federal devolution or an English Parliament has been more limited: this is that, by analogy with the power of delay for a year available to the House of Lords, if a Bill or separate Part of a Bill were not to have a majority in its favour at third reading for the portion of the UK to which it applies as well as for the whole house, it could not be forced through against the wishes of the majority of those members representing that portion until the following session of Parliament. At all stages of a Bill all members would still exercise a vote; but people in England/Wales would get some protection at third reading against laws and decisions, applying to them only, being forced on them which are not approved of by their elected representatives. Possibly after a period of experience, this power to delay could be transformed into a power to block. (I also realise that those who want an English Parliament regard this as inadequate.)

Where we are

Power 2010 may counter criticisms of the kind I have mentioned on the grounds that their approach is the best which is achievable with "open authorship", and on that they are probably right. But the value of the outcomes can be judged from the coherency of the exercise undertaken.

I add to this that some good ideas have undoubtedly come from the process. The "direct democracy" proposals at no. 4 were right to come out near the top, and might if implemented do much to help counter public distrust in politics and politicians. But overall, the exercise and its outcomes seem to me a little like a Jackson Pollock art work. Throw some paint at it, stand back and hope that something has been achieved which hangs together as a complete work.