Reform the constitution - Clegg

TO much applause from party delegates in Liverpool at the weekend, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg issued a challenge to Labour and the Conservatives.

Graham Dines

People in Politics

TO much applause from party delegates in Liverpool at the weekend, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg issued a challenge to Labour and the Conservatives. If either needs the Lib Dems to prop up a minority government after the next election, the price will be major constitutional reform.

“Will I ever join a Conservative government? No. Will I ever join a Labour government? No. I will never allow the Liberal Democrats to be a mere annex to another party's agenda.” Fine words - but the reality is that the number of MPs Mr Clegg will have after the election is almost certain to be less than now.

Nevertheless, with an election unlikely until 2010, he's given Gordon Brown and David Cameron enough time to consider just what they could offer the Lib Dems in the event of a hung parliament.

Mr Clegg told activists: “I am not just talking about electoral reform. A change in our voting system is a vital part of what we need, but it isn't enough.”

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I'm in the Clegg camp on constitutional reform - there is much that is wrong with the governance of Britain, which has evolved over the centuries without the guiding light of a written constitution.

And that should be the first imperative on any Royal Commission on constitutional change. That we haven't got a written constitution means we are governed by a hotch-potch of legislation and parliamentary and legal whims such as common law, the Act of Settlement, the Act of Union, the Government of Ireland Act, various Representation of the People Acts, universal suffrage, and devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Mr Clegg will no doubt want demand proportional representation. As this would lead to perpetual coalitions, there's not much chance of either Labour or the Tories agreeing, although both might be persuaded to bring in PR for council elections.

This would ensure that the Conservatives would be likely to win seats in cities from where they've been evicted under first-past-the-post, such as Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle, while Labour would get more councillors elected in England's shire counties.

Any reform of the constitution must address the current democratic deficit in England. Devolution has not been kind to England - Scottish MPs voting on England-only issues at Westminster - while reform should include the reassertion of the authority of the Home Office over the whole of the United Kingdom by clawing back policing from Scotland so it goes hand-in-hand with national security and border controls.

It's time to end the undemocratic power exercised by Prime Ministers to call a general election when he or she thinks they can win. We must have fixed term parliaments, either for four or five years.

Finally, there needs to be a sensible debate on the disestablishment of the Church of England, the primacy of the House of Commons over the Lords, acceptance of the role of our constitutional monarchy, and the end of the ban on Roman Catholics from succeeding to the throne.

Such a massive upheaval would have to be approved in a referendum. But as a written constitution also would have to define our relations with the European Union, what chance would there be of a “yes” vote?

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