Friday, January 29, 2010

Bhikhu Parekh and Raymond Plant on proposed constitutional reform in the UK

Lord (Bhikhu) Parekh's speech in the House of Lords can be found here. The text in full:

"[. . .] My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, for securing this debate and for introducing it with considerable passion. Demands for reform in almost every aspect of our political and constitutional life are in the air and the question is how we respond to them. The noble Lord outlined a syllabus of reforms, and there are many others. We can approach and discuss these reforms in one of two ways. One way I find satisfactory, but the other I do not.

One way is to take an abstract, theoretical view of democracy, representation or this or that aspect of our public life, measure existing institutions against it, find them inadequate and criticise them. For example, we might say that democracy means election with a majority. The House of Lords is not elected; therefore, it must go or must be elected. We might say that we are a secular society; therefore, bishops have no place in the House of Lords. This is an a priori, theoretical way of approaching reform.

The second, much more empirical, pragmatic way of approaching reform is to identify problems, which institutions and practices are unjust or dysfunctional and how best we can put them right. For example, we might feel that an overbearing Executive are dominating Parliament. As a result, parliamentary debate and parliamentary control of the Executive are considerably diminished. What do we do about it? We think in terms of concrete suggestions. How did the scandal of MPs' expenses come about? Why was it not detected for so long, and what can we do about it? In other words, we can approach every institution in terms of whether and why it is unjust or dysfunctional and what we can do about it.

It is also important to bear in mind that reform in one institution invariably has consequences for another. For example, if we try to elect the House of Lords, we run the risk that the same party might be in power in both Houses, and therefore our concern to check the overbearing Executive would be frustrated. Every reform has a knock-on effect on another and cannot be discussed in isolation from its impact. We therefore need to ask two questions: to what problem is this reform an answer, and is the reform compatible with other reforms that we also want? There is always a danger of talking about reforms in the abstract and canvassing this or that without spelling out its implications. Much as I admired the speech made by the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, I felt that many of his reforms are likely to be incompatible with each other. In this spirit, I want to look at our constitutional and political system through the lens of one question. One can look at it through the prism of the scandal about MPs' expenses and ask how it came about and what our system looked like, but I want to look at our political system through the prism of the war in Iraq.

That war led to massive civilian and military casualties, the breakdown of law and order, sectarian violence, profound mistrust, loss of property and profound damage to our national pride and self-respect. It is a deep, massive and indelible stain on our national conscience, and the question is how we got it. When we were talking about the war in Iraq, my noble friend Lord Morgan and I wrote a letter to the Prime Minister giving seven good reasons why the war was counterproductive. We were not taken in by the arguments on WMD. Anyone who knew his history would know that that argument was untenable.

How did this happen? Why was intelligence manipulated? Why was the Cabinet bounced into supporting this decision? Why was there no planning and post-war reconstruction? Why was there no check on prime ministerial hubris or sense of self-righteousness? We will have to wait for the Chilcot inquiry report, but in anticipation of what he will say-he might not say what I suspect he will say-I end by making three important suggestions.

First, in the light of the war on Iraq and the lead-up to it, I am increasingly convinced that there should be no declaration of war without majority backing in both Houses of Parliament. In the Commons alone, there is always the danger that the party in power has a majority. Your Lordships' House has the advantage of being free from party control.

Secondly, intelligence should be vetted and certified by an independent body of experienced statesmen drawn from all walks of life so that we can be reasonably sure that it has not been manipulated or skewed.

Thirdly, there must be some sanctions-formal or informal, legal as well as political-on those who fail to exercise proper judgment or who positively misjudge. In this context, it might be worth remembering the practice of classical Athens and Rome, where the roots of our democracy were planted. In classical Athens, those who were guilty of misjudging or who failed to exercise judgment were sent into exile. In classical Rome, they were disqualified and asked to withdraw from public life. We might have some lessons to learn from the practices of those two great societies. [. . .]."

Lord (Raymond) Plant offered the following words in the House of Lords after Parekh (found here):

"[. . .] My Lords, I want to use the short time available to argue in favour of supporting a referendum, or some kind of national debate, on a choice between first past the post and the alternative vote. I believe that that view is supported by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and many other members of the Cabinet. Taking my cue from my esteemed teacher and noble friend Lord Parekh, I say this not for theoretical reasons but because the alternative vote would be a way to answer two quite deep problems that we have in British politics at the moment.

First, after the expenses scandal, we need to do as much as we can to repair the legitimacy of individual Members of the House of Commons, but in a way that does not destroy constituency accountability. That is one risk, at least, with the single transferable vote in multimember constituencies and it would certainly happen under a national rigid closed list system. The alternative vote would keep the constituency link while enhancing the individual legitimacy of successful candidates, because they would have to gain 51 per cent of the vote in their constituency.

Secondly, the alternative vote would mean that candidates had to broaden the appeal of their electoral pitch in order to have a chance of collecting significant numbers of second-preference votes. That would be ideal. It would allow an individual candidate to preserve his or her political identity-as a member of the Labour Party, say. However, they would also have to reach outside that form of identity to engage with other people with different points of view in order to secure second-preference votes. That would break down some of the tribalism of British politics, which people who are not political nerds find completely maddening. That tribalism does not in any case map on to what, in non-electoral terms, we know about how people generally perceive political issues.

The alternative vote would also help us to deal with two other problems that will be intractable for the next generation: climate change and international terrorism. They are challenges of a quite different sort from those that previous Governments have faced because they are general, highly complex and long term-they are likely to be, anyway-yet they are also less obvious, palpable and tangible. Terrorism is not like having an army facing you in northern France, or something like that. Climate change is about the balance of probabilities and the precautionary principles that we have to follow in the light of that for the long-term future. Yet facing terrorism and climate change will require us to change our behaviour now, and make sacrifices now, in favour of some rather intangible challenges in the future.

In order to do that, it seems to me that we cannot pursue the policies to meet those challenges on a highly partisan basis. We need an electoral system that will allow and give an incentive to parties to reach out to other groups, so as to create greater strength and legitimacy for the policies that they are devising to tackle some of those very problems. We need to mobilise more consent and legitimacy around those policies if, as I have suggested, they are to be able to do the work that we need them to do.

Of course, it is perfectly possible that an electoral system such as the alternative vote would lead to cross-party or coalition government. It is argued strongly by those who believe it that this means weak government. That is not true. There is a distinction to be drawn between effective and strong government. We have had two or three examples in the past 15 or 20 years of strong government. The poll tax was an exercise in strong government. The Iraq war was an exercise in strong government. However, these constituted some of the greatest misjudgments in modern British politics. Exercises in strong government of that sort we could do without. We need effective government, which needs a high level of consent behind it.

Germany has had extremely effective governance. It was in the front line during the Cold War. It managed to deal with an unforeseen reunification process in an extremely capable way. You cannot just say that coalition Governments are always weak; that is ridiculous. Coalition Governments can be extremely effective. If they rest on an electoral system that gives parties an incentive to reach out beyond themselves while retaining their own strong identity, they could mobilise a great deal more consent behind the policies that we need to deal with some of the long-term and intractable difficulties that we face. [. . .]."

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