Wednesday, 24 February 2010

Power 2010: the sequel

The internet voting stage of the Power 2010 proposals has now finished. I wrote here about the deliberative stage which preceded it.

There has been quite a change-around in the ordering of the proposals. The idea now is that voters will ask candidates in their constituencies to commit themselves to at least three of the top five1, these top five being proportional representation, the scrapping of ID cards and the "rolling back of the database state", an elected House of Lords, English votes on English laws, and the drawing up of a written constitution.

I am disappointed that the more achievable direct democracy proposals, namely the holding of national consultation exercises on matters of importance before policy decisions are taken by means of referenda and the like, more free votes and giving MPs more control of the Parliamentary timetable haven't featured, but glad that the pointless "allowing voters to vote none of the above on ballot papers", formerly no. 2, has now sunk into its merited irrelevance.

Apart from databases and English votes (which I deal with separately below), we are therefore left with the constitutional hobbyists' usual causes, namely proportional representation, an elected House of Lords and having a written constitution. As compared with the outcome of the deliberative phase, these have the relative merit of consistency, in that if we are going to have an elected House of Lords we are probably going to need a written constitution also, because it opens up a whole host of issues about the role of the House of Commons, and (if the second chamber is elected) what function, if any, an elected second chamber is to have in relation to the devolved legislatures or whether, by only shadowing the House of Commons, it should in the main be concerned in its legislative capacity with England-only or England-and-Wales-only issues. However, an elected House of Lords impacts on proportional representation, because if the House of Lords is elected by proportional representation it would seem to me to make sense for the House of Commons to be elected by first-past-the-post or by single transferable vote (alternative voting), which would thereby retain the House of Commons' position as having a constituency based membership.

What we can reasonably deduce is that none of these three will be implemented in the foreseeable future.

Of the five, the matter which probably most stirs my juices is the winding back of the database state. Having said that, such things as the outrage of the DNA database seem to me to be of a different category from the other four in the Power 2010 list: issues arising in connection with the database state are concerned more with human rights than with the re-invigoration of politics and constitutional structures, so I am not certain that this is really suitable as a Power 2010 pledge. (I say "outrage" because, outside Scotland, to get on the DNA database a mere arrest is enough - you don't even have to be charged let alone convicted of anything, which has brought about an abuse of the power of arrest by the police. To get off the DNA database after an arrest you have to be a celebrity or someone in the public eye, such as Damian Green MP: ordinary people who are not likely to have their letters printed by the Times are just potential criminals and suitable as DNA-fodder in Jack Straw's thinking.)

What to make of English votes on English laws? It must have come as something of a shock (or at least a disappointment) to the Power 2010 organisers because as I say constitutional enthusiasts generally are more concerned with the three subjects I have already mentioned. It is a reminder however that any new constitutional settlement involving an elected House of Lords or a written constitution is going to have to grapple with the problem of England. The current situation is untenable in the long term, particularly as more things will be devolved to the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments and institutions in the course of time. To consider constitutional structures without considering the position of England, which I suspect the Power 2010 organisers hoped they could do, is ridiculous. To that extent, including English votes within the Power 2010 pledge may well serve a purpose.

However, outright preclusion of members for constituencies outside England or England and Wales voting on a Bill having an England or England and Wales only extent at all stages of a Bill is not really a workable solution, but I think a form of English votes can be made to work which I will not repeat again here. Those interested can look at previous articles in this blog on the subject, such as my earlier article on the Power 2010 proposals to which I have referred and also at this.


1 The earlier Power 2010 intention was to ask candidates to sign up to all five.

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