Yesterday's statement by Gordon Brown on electoral reform, which could include the end to the first-past-the post voting system in general elections, has been given a cautious welcome by democracy campaigners who also expressed concern.
The Prime Minister’s proposals included finally reforming the House of Lords - probably making it 80 -100 percent elected, lowering the voting age to 16 and a considering a fully written constitution.
His proposals also pointed toward a referendum on whether a new voting system - probably the Alternative Vote - should be introduced for the House of Commons and on more devolution of power, particularly in the areas of policing and justice.
But campaigners raised concerns that the once-in-a- lifetime opportunity to reform Parliament would fail to address crucial questions, would be dominated by the interests of the main parties and lacked both concrete commitments and a timetable.
Jonathan Bartley, co-director of the thinktank Ekklesia, which last week produced a new paper on political reform ( http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/9579 ), said: “This is a moment of opportunity for wide-ranging and positive change but there is a huge risk that crucial issues will be overlooked and the Government will follow a path that serves its own interests, not those of the country as a whole."
He continued: “A truly proportional voting system such as the Single Transferable Vote (STV) which, like the Alternative Vote (AV) system, maintains a link between MPs and constituencies, would be far more preferable. Similarly, the voting system chosen for the House of Lords is crucial. A big question remains about what will happen to the role of independent cross-benchers, 200 of whom currently play a very positive role in the Second Chamber. It would be a tragedy for this non-partisan element of Parliament to be lost."
Ekklesia recently commissioned a survey through pollsters ComRes which suggested that there was widespread support for non-party candidates. 63% of the public said they thought Parliament would be enriched by more independent members.
The thinktank also points out that proposals to devolve power in the areas of policing and justice may afford new opportunities for community-based initiatives around restorative justice.
The campaign Unlock Democracy, whose proposals the thinktank Ekklesia supports, urged that Martin Caton’s Citizens’ Convention Bill be given time in the House of Commons.
The Citizens’ Convention Bill received its first reading in the House of Commons on Monday (8 June). Supported by a cross-party group of MPs, the bill would establish a citizens’ convention of randomly chosen members of the public to look at ways to make the UK political system more accountable.
Among other things, it will bring forward proposals to bring elected representatives to book when they step out of line, to change the way in which Parliament is run to ensure that the government is properly held to account and to decide on the electoral system for Westminster.
If the Bill is to stand a chance of becoming law, the government will have to allow Parliamentary time for it to be properly debated and scrutinised.
Commenting on the Prime Minister’s statement on constitutional reform, Alexandra Runswick, the Deputy Director of Unlock Democracy said: “Gordon Brown was reduced to performing the role of a bingo caller, listing a whole series of potential reforms yet offering almost nothing of substance.
“It is a crushing indictment of Gordon Brown’s premiership that we have made almost no progress on democratic renewal since the Commons statement on the subject he made at the start of his tenure two years ago. Today was an opportunity for him to end the drift and announce specific reform. He has blown it.
“We welcome much of the rhetoric about, for example, a written constitution. But the rhetoric itself has now become part of the problem – it has become a substitute for action.
“If Gordon Brown is serious about giving the public a role in democratic renewal he must allow Martin Caton’s Citizens’ Convention Bill time to be debated in the Commons.”
You can read Simon Barrow's research paper 'The state of independents: alternative politics' here: http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/9579