The political reform section of the coalition document is the second longest in the whole agreement, beaten for length only by the NHS section. By now the headlines from this section are very familiar:
- Fixed-term Parliaments
- A referendum on the alternative vote
- The ability for voters to force an MP to face a special by-election if they have been found guilty of serious wrongdoing (“recall”)
- A “wholly or mainly” elected House of Lords, using proportional representation
- Any petition that gets 100,000 signatures will get a formal debate in Parliament
- Implement the Calman Commission for Scotland (an important factor in winning the support many Scottish Liberal Democrats for the coalition)
- A referendum on further Welsh devolution
This list may be familiar, even wearily familiar, to those who have read policy papers, motions, speeches or pamphlets over the years calling for major political reform. But this isn’t just a wish-list; it’s a list of what the government is getting on and doing.
Some of the details in this section have attracted controversy (most notably the 55% threshold for fixed-term Parliaments and the plans to create more peers ahead of reform of the Lords) though there are also many other welcome details, including:
- Implementing the Wright Committee plans for reform of the business of Parliament – already well under way, and crucially so because they involve the government ceding powers to MPs. The longer any government is in power, the less likely that is to happen.
- Stopping MPs claiming Parliamentary privilege to avoid prosecution for wrongdoing. (This is the defence some Labour MPs accused of expense abuses are trying to use.)
- A new “public reading stage” for legislation, giving the public much more opportunity to comment on the detail of proposed legislation.
- Extra support for people with disabilities who wish to become MPs, councillors or other elected officials.
Residents are also due to get the power to call a referendum on any local issue and to veto “excessive” council tax increases, whilst firms will be able to block any proposals to implement supplementary business rates. In this, the proposals mirror a wider pattern through the document of being willing to devolve power but often preferring to the give that power to people or bodies other than local councils and to mix reduce rules for local government with also putting in some new restrictions (and with the freezing of council tax in England yet also reducing ring fencing of funding).
Also in this section is a promise to fund 200 all-postal primaries during the Parliament, “targeted at seats which have not changed hands for many years. These funds will be allocated to all political parties with seats in Parliament that they take up [ie not Sinn Fein], in proportion to their share of the total vote in the last genera election”. I’m rather ambivalent about primaries, however this proposal can’t be faulted for its ambition in giving the idea a very thorough try-out and the focus on opening up politics in traditionally safe seats is a sensible one.
There are also some curious details, such as the speeding up the move to individual voter registration. That’s a welcome move, but it’s surprising that it should have rated so highly as to have made it in to the coalition document.
Plus we have the near-obligatory promises to cut perks and bureaucracy, improve the civil service, run departments better, keep the peace in Northern Ireland and to make MP pensions less generous.
Finally, the ‘West Lothian’ question (should, for example, Scottish MPs in Westminster get to vote on laws that only apply to England?) gets a commission. As this is a question that has been around since Scottish devolution was put to a referendum in the 1970s, setting up a commission does have the feel of “Bugger, we don’t know what to do on this” about it.
That aside, the proposals in this section do get to grips with numerous substantive issues and should make our government and democracy much healthier by the time of the next general election.