We need a new settlement between people and government: a People’s Constitution

Until now, the flagship policy of a progressive alliance has been electoral reform and the introduction of proportional representation. Bring in proportional representation, so the argument goes, and we will see a sea-change in our politics with a new expansive, collaborative politics of the centre left. But this may not happen in the way that we think.   It is one thing to change our electoral system but quite another to change an ingrained culture of fractious tribal politics.   

The teething problems thrown up by a protracted transition of cultural change will afford ample opportunity for a right-wing press to play on public exasperation at the insoluble arguments and disagreements between centre left parties – especially new entrants. And that could in turn play into the hands of a resurgent Conservative party that seeks to ‘modify’ the electoral system in its favour. It is a risk we have to take – and we have to pray that the centre left see the risks and co-operate for all our sakes. In short, we will have to re-learn the political skills of negotiation and consensus building that our European neighbours have practised for decades.

This is not to discourage efforts to promote PR or throw cold water on real democratic reform – far from it;  it is simply to inject a degree of realism in terms of our expectations of the benefits of PR because  it will inevitably involve a steep learning curve.

PR is only the beginning: we need a new written constitution, a ‘People’s constitution’

Electoral reform is only a beginning, not an end. It must be part of a series of step changes that brings about root and branch constitutional reform; specifically a written constitution that circumscribes the power of parliament while maximising  devolution of power to the regions. Such a project might be a decade in the making but we need to now, not in ten years’ time.  This cannot be a lawyers plaything, nor be left to traditional political parties. They have a part to play but we, the people need to take the lead.

An immediate objection is that constitutional reform is seen as remote, even irrelevant to a broader public more concerned with a failing NHS, a housing crisis, grotesque inequality and low pay. But  these crises cannot ultimately be resolved without reference to principles of economic, social  and environmental justice – and these in turn should not be separate from the  legislative principles that guide the work of parliament.

At the moment, there are no legislative principles that guide the work of Parliament. Parliament does as it pleases.   It is the supreme legislative power in the land and can make or unmake any law; it can over-turn Magna Carta, reverse devolution to Scotland and Wales or suspend elections – all  by a simple act of Parliament. Such unbounded power is dangerous. It is especially dangerous when Parliament is run as a gentleman’s club for a self-serving political class who make up the rules of government as they go along. It is utterly amoral.

We need a People’s Constitution

Root and branch constitutional reform must achieve three things:

Firstly, a governing set of legislative principles that guide the work of Parliament and which parliament must abide by. They will be written in plain English and mandated by referendum, so that we the people understand the rules by which we agree to be governed. These legislative principles should be no different to the basic moral principles that most decent  people subscribe to in their daily lives – principles of economic, social and environmental justice. Importantly they must have legal bite. This means that any legislation by Parliament that breaches these principles would  be open to challenge in the courts and struck off as unconstitutional.

Secondly, it must circumscribe the power of Parliament while maximising devolution of power to the regions. Local authorities will be put on an independent constitutional footing with enlarged legislative and fiscal powers of their own. Cornwall would have its own assembly and enhanced autonomy along with other regions such as Yorkshire who also demand the same.  Cornwall might even have its own constitution within the larger constitutional framework and bill of rights that govern the regions and nations that make up the UK. Room must also be made for new participatory forms of governance and the development of a shared economy – the vital public and environmental resources that we all depend on and which must be permanently removed from the market.

Thirdly, introduce proportional representation at both national and local level so that every vote counts and no vote is wasted. We cannot do this soon enough; fourteen out of the last seventeen government voted for parties to the left of the Conservatives and yet for most of that period we have been ruled by a Conservative government. That is not the sign of a functioning democracy.

What would the core legislative principles look like?

What these core legislative principles would be is normally the work of a citizen’s convention. But if I am thinking out loud I would like one of them to be: a constitutional duty imposed on every future elected government to reduce economic inequality. It may not be possible or even desirable to impose an exacting equality in all circumstances  but neither should we tolerate the grotesque inequality which sees food banks for the working poor and massive pay hikes for FTSE CEO’s.

The legislative work at both central and local government would be guided by this principle in all its affairs; in particular to promote an economy that works for everyone. Any impact assessment that revealed legislation working against this principle would be stopped in its tracks – or challenged in the courts and thrown out.

We need a new chartist movement

To kickstart the project for constitutional change would require something more hard-edged than a citizen’s convention. These are usually deliberative forums for blue sky thinking; they do not have the kind of campaign leverage required for public buy-in. What we need is a new Chartist movement of the kind that mobilised millions of our countrymen 200 years before. They fought for the same rights to vote, freedom of speech and assembly that we now take for granted.  A new People’s Charter must set out  the legislative principles that Parliament must abide by. This is not framed in the form of a petition, it is a set of demands.

Can it be done? Almost certainly but with this caveat: the charter must be a means of knitting together the diverse groups and interests agitating for change into a new collective ‘WE’. Each of these groups, large and small, must see their interests expressed in the charter; if it is only a charter that frames the interests of one predominant group, it will almost certainly fail.

We are back to consensus politics again – and the need to talk to different interest groups and communities who at first sight don’t appear to share our values and vision.  But to repeat, it can be done and let me leave you with a voice from the past who observed the same   struggles   that any mass movement for change goes through:

There were [radical] associations all over the country, but there was a great lack of cohesion. One wanted the ballot, another manhood suffrage and so on … The radicals were without unity of aim and method, and there was but little hope of accomplishing anything. When, however, the People’s Charter was drawn up … clearly defining the urgent demands of the working class, we felt we had a real bond of union; and so transformed our Radical Association into local Chartist centres 

John Bates, activist, in the year 1838 (Dorothy Thompson, The Chartists: Popular Politics in the Industrial Revolution (1984)

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