Whistling in the wind (30 September 2008)
Labour’s plan to rewrite the Act of Succession is very small beer, but few Conservatives dare to entertain radical constitutional reform either
Electoral reform is a difficult sell at the Conservative party conference; promoting it sometimes seems like trying to sell Chelsea tractors at the Greens’ annual gathering. But there are some stirrings, and some new arguments about the constitution and elections are being heard at Birmingham. Tories who support proportional representation have in the past tended to be liberal in their general approach, but reform is finding some adherents among hard-edged right wingers such as Douglas Carswell, MP for Harwich since 2005 and one of the more interesting thinkers within the Tory party – one of the few MPs who can refer to Weber and Gramsci and sound as if he knows what he is talking about.
Representation in parliament is one of the last monopoly public services left. Carswell asked at an Electoral Reform Society fringe meeting in Birmingham why it was that in a world where people are used to shopping around, telephones and electricity had been made competitive, there was still a single supplier of representative services that you had to like or lump. In an environment where consumer choice is the dominant force, and people increasingly look at politics as consumers, why not have multi-member constituencies? Competition and choice improve standards. Lazy MPs, or those who did not represent the views of their constituents properly, would face internal competition, and there would be fewer barriers to new talent and new ideas coming forward. While Carswell is vague on which electoral system he favours with his multi-member seats, his vision is perfectly compatible with the long-term electoral reform goal of the Single Transferable Vote (STV). It is also part of Conservative history – after all, Disraeli introduced the three-member boroughs and the “limited vote” in 1867.
Carswell is very much a maverick Conservative, and he was joined on the ERS panel by more familiar Tory voices. Eleanor Laing represented the pleasant, moderate face of Tory partisanship and constitutional immobilism, and Bruce Anderson adopted his familiar role as the voice of candid reaction who frankly acknowledged the benefits of elective dictatorship – as long as it was the Conservative party doing the dictating.
I doubt that many opponents of the Conservatives would be unduly worried by the arguments of Laing or Anderson, but Carswell’s case would be unsettling. He uses reforming language to argue for quite radical Conservative projects – a more securely founded Conservative government would have the hegemony necessary to deal with the alleged progressive bias of the broadcast media, the civil service and the education system. Carswell also favours direct democracy and the right of recall. His embrace of change is based on more intellectual self-confidence than the old fashioned belief in grabbing the controls of the machinery of the centralised, elitist British state and making it serve Tory ends. New Conservative constitutional reformers can talk confidently about trusting the people, because they believe that the people ultimately agree with them. And left of centre constitutional reformers feel some anxiety that Carswell may be right about this. The interesting debate may end up being between radical Conservative direct democracy, and progressive reformers trying to define the acceptable limits of popular control.
Unfortunately, neither front bench seems interested. Labour’s increasing timidity about constitutional reform is sad indeed. From the radical change promised (and largely implemented) in 1997, the party now trumpets reforms such as changing the Act of Succession to make the first-born, rather than the first-born son, heir to the throne, as radical. This reform affects one, theoretical, person in perhaps 70 years’ time. The Conservatives are vaguely aware that the current electoral system is biased against them, but grumble in an entirely ill-informed fashion about constituency boundaries. Their main solution is to try to game the current system better than Labour by swamping marginal constituencies with Ashcroft money. It may work in the short term, but it is a cynical exercise in gaining and maintaining power on a minimum of public support that will ultimately do politics no good. It is a sign of how seductive the embrace of the Westminster establishment is that neither main party really intends to do much to shake up the power structure.