Blogging live from the Electoral Reform Society conference ‘Navigating the New Democracy’ on 26 June 2012.
9:00am Delegates are arriving…
09:45 Katie Ghose. We’re not doing the painstaking work of building a democracy from scratch but let’s not pretend British democracy is ‘finished business’. Politics in danger of becoming a minority pursuit. Today is our chance to look at the changes going on our democracy and to think about what changes we want for the future.
09:54 Kinda Mohamedieh, Arab NGO Network for Development. Arab spring re- engaged citizens in their politics but also in economic and social democratisation. Most discussions in the region are now focusing on constitutional, political and economic reform. Oppressive rule and dictatorship were able to continue in the region because of the exclusion of the citizen from the economic sphere, underpinning their exclusion from the political sphere. Tunisia and Egypt were hailed as successful and stable economies while poverty and unemployment increased.
Huge disparities of wealth and a separation of the people from their leaders is not confined to these regions however. This situation can also be seen in the US. Democracy starts to sicken when citizens are excluded from decisions about their country’s economy. We need to ask whether citizens’ movements have laid the framework for us to question the social, economic and democratic decisions on a model of active citizenship.
This means we need to think about the role of the state and the relationship it has with the citizen. We need to think about a developing state that interacts with citizens and NGOs and allows for inclusivity. There shouldn’t be a conflict between economic growth and people’s rights.
We have been thinking our our institutions only in terms of global models of success rather than linking their performance to the development context of each nation. We need to unpack the measures of efficiency and effectiveness and question what kind of policies they propagate.
10:20 Prof Thorvaldar Gylvason, Professor of Economics and member of the constitutional assembly of Iceland.
After the crash people demanded change and a national assembly helped create the new constitution, authored by citizens not politicians. The citizens involved in developing the constitution – the council – decided to write the constitution from scratch. It took four months.
The electoral system chosen was STV to ensure equal voting rights everywhere. Unequal voting rights constitute an infringement of human rights as pointed out by European Election Supervisors. It was decided that the public should be invited to participate. 522 people had applied to sit on the council and this was a way to engage wider population.
Over 3,600 comments were posted online and webcasts and news debates were used to engage a wide audience of Icelandic society. Special interest groups such as corporate bodies were not given special access – they had the same access as everyone else. Parliament decided to hold an advisory referendum asking whether people supported the bill but also for specific questions on the substance of the bill.
Some MPs had strong reasons for not wanting bill to go through. Equal voting rights would mean no more safe seats but the Bill has been public for 11 months and no problems have been raised with it.
11:30 Panel discussion with speakers William Bain MP, Prof Thor Gylvason, Dr Nicola McEwen, Lesley Riddoch, Prof Roger Scully and Pete Wishart MP just kicking off now…
Lesley Riddoch, journalist: In Scotland change is normal, we are comfortable with reform and expect the Government to keep up.
Pete Wishart MP: Ww will be confronted in the next two years with a huge constitutional shift in Scotland. Looking at all the considerations but ultimately independence would mean the Scottish people have the power to make decisions about Scotland’s future.
William Bain MP: We have an immense crisis of democracy. 47% think politicians put party before national interest. Incremental change isn’t working – we need a full constitutional discussion to consider British politics and devolution. Need to get the second chamber reformed. Need to devolve economic and social power down.
Dr. Nicola McEwen: With regards to Scottish independence, citizenship involvement is vital for any constitutional convention. Referendums are not always that clear – people are not simply voting on the question at hand. Citizens are currently being excluded by debate in Scotland which is being polarised into two very different arguments. A yes/no question wrong is far from clear choice. There is a practical way of having a two question referendum.
Prof Roger Scully. Ongoing political dynamic in Wales that is unrelated to anything in Scotland. Wales has arguably changed most due to devolution but the Scottish referendum will have major implications for Wales. Conversation about Welsh independence not happening yet but Scottish independence could change this.
12noon Katie Razzall sums up and introduces questions for discussion: Does political system need to be wholly coherent and logical? i.e. is West Lothian Question just an anomaly we should live with?
Wille Bain MP: We do need to see radical decentralisation of economic power. That is the way modern Western democracies are going.
Prof Gylvason: No political systems don’t need to be wholly coherent but discussions about them must involve citizens. It should be a living constitution.
Pete Wishart MP. West Lothian was first raised 40 years ago and is still not answered, this needs to be resolved.
Roger Scully. No political system is ever perfect but no reason not to try and make ours clearer. Trying to tinker with each Nation individually probably won’t work. Have to try for a more holistic solution that involves all the Nations in the Union but this will create diversions within parties as well as between them.
Lesley Riddoch. Must get away from exceptionalism in this country. Need to ask the basic questions in order to find out why we are so disenfranchised. There is something very wrong which won’t necessarily be addressed by independence but all of us need to think about the small steps to a more meaningful participation.
Dr. Nicola McEwan. Need a constitutional arrangement that protects citizens rights and democratic rights.
12:15 Q. Should electoral reform be gradualist or big bang in nature?
Prof Gylvason: Constitutions invariably come into being after a crisis but even severe crises don’t always provoke change. No answer as to which is best for provoking long term change.
Willie Bain MP. This Government has a very radical constitutional reform agenda. Boundary review and Individual Electoral Registration could mean even larger numbers of people dropping out of British democracy.
12:26pm Q. Does the possibility of reform in Scotland make other reforms more likely?
Roger Scully. Too many vested interests in the status quo and without a crisis to act as an impetus many reforms fail. Very difficult to see at the moment a coherent agenda that’s likely to have sufficient support. Currently party most reactionist towards electoral reform in Wales is Labour. Without consensus change cannot happen.
Willie Bain MP: Unfair that an English parliament makes economic decisions which effect Scotland with no Scottish mandate.
12:38 Q. Does representative politics in the UK actually represent us?
Dr. Nicola McEwan. One side alone cannot define what independence for Scotland should look like. It has to be a negotiated settlement.
12:42 Q. What does the future hold?
Prof Gylvason: Scotland looks to a more Scandinavian model giving them a good basis for change. In 15 years either Scotland or the UK will have developed a new constitutional agreement that allows for greater devolved powers.
12:45pm Lesley Riddoch charges Willie Bain MP to stand up for constituents and get down to fixing the constitutional changes Scotland wants.
Wille Bain agrees that devolution both from Westminster and into local governments in Scotland is important and thinks the approaching referendum will be the right mechanism for doing this.
12:50 Katie Razzall introduces Angela Eagle MP.
12:50 Angela Eagle. Strange when new democracies are springing up around the world that we accept an unelected second chamber in Britain.
Need to tackle dangerous anti-politics mood in UK. A deep respect for democratic politics is the key to achieving change.
The current House of Lords is an affront to the democratic principle. The British people are shut out from the ever more bloated house (800 and rising) while the elected House of Commons is being reduced by the Boundary changes.
Cannot behave as if the parliament acts of the 20th century never existed.
The bishops presence in the house needs to be debated as does the electoral system and term lengths. Would a 15 year term allow us to hold the Lords to account?
If a democratic Lords is right for the future why isn’t it right now?
Absolutely imperative to make the case for democracy in a positive way to work towards re-engaging people with politics. Neither AV in the Commons or reform in the Lords would change this. The crisis isn’t about process it’s about outcome.
13:03 Katie Razzall asks if Labour will vote against the system proposed for the House of Lords.
Angela Eagle: The draft bill is not perfect, we will be sticking to manifesto pledges
Katie Razzall: But it’s a good opportunity to stick it to the Government?
Angela Eagle: We want to focus on the issues.
13:05pm Questions being taken from the floor.
Q. Is there really a need for the referendum? Polls suggest a consensus has already been reached?
Angela Eagle: We can’t pick and chose which bits of our manifesto we pursue.
Q. Should the Bishops lose their seats in the Lords?
Angela Eagle: 100% elected chamber would get around this issue. Nevertheless 80% better than nothing. Important the Commons is given enough time to debate every element of this bill as the more it has been debated the more legitimate it will be by the time it gets to the Lords.
Q. Should the wording of any referendum be agreed by all parties?
Angela Eagle: Cross party agreement extremely important but this government has not involved opposition is discussing the Bill. We have not seen the Bill and won’t see it until it is published tomorrow. It is important that a referendum would be conducted on terms agreed cross party.
13:16pm We are now breaking for lunch and then the individual workshops. The live blog will start up again at 15:30pm so see you back here then!
15:45pm Panel chaired by Polly Toynbee includes Fiona Booth from the Hansard Society, Campbell Robb from Shelter, David Babbs from 38Degrees and Adrian Ramsay, Deputy Leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.
Fiona Booth. Public increasingly disengaged with politics. The changes the public want and the reforms on offer are very different. People are far more positive about the efficacy of getting involved in their local communities as they see that they can make a difference and they don’t view this as politics. For the most part people don’t want more power for themselves they just want the current system to work ‘the way it should’.
15:50pm Campbell Robb. If we are genuinely interested in involving people in democracy it is not the electoral system that is the problem, it’s the fact that most people see politics as something remote and unconnected to their lives. People feel the democratic system isn’t necessarily the way to challenge the things they are angry about. People don’t just need the right to vote they need to feel that they have a genuine say in the debates which affect them.
15:55pm David Babbs. 38degrees members feel very very negative about politics and the way things work. This is a huge problem for reformers as if people feel negatively about elected politicians they aren’t going to be convinced by answers with involve more elected representatives. It’s not about apathy, this has been greatly exaggerated, it’s that people are fed up. If you give them a means by which to get involved they will.
16:00pm Adrian Ramsay. Need a real decentralisation of power and much stronger political education, particularly in schools. Young people must be encouraged to debate the big issues in society to get them engaged. Strongly support reducing the voting age to 16 as if decisions are being made about education and tuition fees, 16 year old should be allowed to have a say.
All parties have to put aside political point scoring to move ahead with having an elected upper house and we need PR for all British elections.
16:09pm Polly Toynbee: Is there a danger with short burst activity; demonstrations and petitions, don’t engage people in politics in the long term?
Campbell Robb. We massively underestimate young people’s ability to get interested, get involved and make things happen. Giving a talk at his daughters school on homelessness there were 90 questions at the end!
Fiona Booth: Citizenship teachers have only received 45mins of training. Teachers themselves feel politically illiterate and are scared of being politically partisan in their teaching which is a sackable offense. We should not be sending young people into the world who don’t understand their rights and responsibilities as a citizen.
16:15pm Q.What change would improve democracy?
Fiona Booth: Accountability and transparency. Diversity of MPs
Adrian Ramsay: Political education and improving the lack of awareness about local democracy.
Cambell Robb: It’s about people not process. It will take politicians being braver in making people feel involved and that they can make a difference.
David Babbs: Diverse, pluralistic and contested democracy and a change to the way people see themselves; from being passive and powerless to engaged and powerful.
16:20pm Danny Alexander MP. Going into coalition was not an easy decision but we are united in the common goal of getting the economy stable – this is the number one priority. It doesn’t mean it’s the only thing that is important and it is not the limit to this government’s expectations.
We set out the government’s plans to reform our politics and now we have set to work: reforming party funding, fixed term elections, elected mayors and PCCs and reform of the House of Lords. We have a responsibility to see through the reforms we set out.
Those who suggest that the whole of government can focus on only one thing at a time forget that it is the government’s job to fulfill all our pledges. We should all collectively feel the responsibility to commit and see reform through. It is the right thing to do. The case for reform is indisputable. Lords reform started 100 years ago and there have been enough failed attempts.
The House of Lords is not fit for the 21st Century. The limited progress the House has made is not sufficient. All law makers should be elected. Our failure to make progress on Lords reform means we have fallen behind.
The second chamber is growing in size and many peers fall into the category Boris Johnson called ‘has-beens and never-wasers’. Most are exMPs. For many of the current ‘experts’ it has been years since they practiced in their area of expertise. Members form London and the South East dominate. Four times as many Peers are over 90 than under 40. 40% attended just 12 private schools.
Every peer is entitled to £300 a day tax free just for turning up. They have the job for life without any reflection on their performance.
Some characteristics are worth protecting – the ability to take the long view for one. Reform should not take away from this but add to it while also making the Lords more representative of the British public.
The reform will remain true to the principle of democratic representation. The cost will be no more than the savings made and should be sustainable. We have no plans to spend 100 million on an unnecessary referendum. I will be pushing for further ways to reduce the burden on the taxpayer. I am confident that these are the reforms we will deliver.
Big reforms can only be delivered through consensus and we will not let the better be the enemy of the good.
It is a disgrace that Labour may be planning to vote against the timetable to saboutague reforms. The majority of people are supportive of some form of reform of the Lords which is why all parties put it in their manifestos.
It’s time to complete the transitional reforms that started 100 years ago. I’m sure it won’t signal the end of the debate but this Government is totally united in delivering the reform we promised. To give people a say in who sits in the Upper House.