Why Nick Clegg’s 100-day plan to save our democracy is necessary
Every election has its own character. Sometimes there’s apathy – a feeling that we’re just going through the motions, the result a foregone conclusion. Sometimes there is genuine excitement in the air, with the prospect of radical change. And sometimes there’s anger – and in the elections we’ve just had, there was plenty of that. Talking to people on the doorstep, the policies of the various parties were swamped by outrage at the behaviour of the people we had chosen to represent us in parliament.
The fact that these elections were for local councils and Europe could not dissuade people from using them to attack their MPs in Westminster. There was not just anger – there was frustration, indignation, and a sense that things were going to have to change.
Nick Clegg has been in the vanguard of the calls for change. While the other leaders played catch-up with each other, failing to grasp the true extent of public feeling, the Lib Dem leader laid out a 100-day plan to tackle the fundamental problems that have destroyed confidence in parliament – including MPs’ expenses, electoral reform, reform of the House of Lords, and much more.
But how on earth did we get to the position where such reforms were necessary?
Think back to May 1997. Tony Blair, the youngest British prime minister of the twentieth century, standing on the steps of 10 Downing Street, promising he would deliver ‘unity and purpose for the future’.
New Labour had displaced – or rather routed – the tired old government of John Major. The Tories, trapped between ‘cash for questions’ sleaze and ‘back to basics’ morality, had nowhere to go. Black Wednesday had shattered the Conservatives’ reputation for economic competence. Major’s waning majority reduced him to announcing desperate initiatives like the cones hotline (apparently the most common request was ‘two 99s and a Cornetto’). They had nothing left to offer. The country was ready for change.
Following New Labour’s landslide victory, Tony Blair told us: ‘For 18 years – for 18 long years – my party has been in opposition. It could only say, it could not do. Today, we are charged with the deep responsibility of government. Today, enough of talking – it is time now to do.’
It was indeed time to do – but New Labour didn’t. Given their huge majority, they could have acted quickly to resuscitate our public services – but they stuck to Tory spending plans for two long years. It was almost as if Blair and his colleagues couldn’t quite believe they were really in charge. Boldness was called for – and all they had was timidity.
Labour’s plans for reform faltered. They tinkered half-heartedly with the House of Lords. The promised referendum on electoral reform was shelved. The Prime Minister became more and more presidential, and back-bench MPs became less and less significant. At the same time, the unelected editors of our tabloid newspapers became more powerful. Blair’s response to the demands of the popular press was always appeasement. When the Daily Mail screamed about immigrants or prison places or single mothers or Europe, the response of Blair and his ministers was invariably to agree that there was indeed a problem and to outline the steps they were taking to sort things out. This has lent legitimacy to the tabloids’ bigotry, and has made this country a less pleasant place to live in.
Many of us hoped for better things when Gordon Brown became leader, and he took over with a huge fund of popular goodwill. The country had tired of spin, public services did not seem to have benefited as we had been promised, and the war in Iraq cast an increasingly dark shadow. But Brown wasn’t up to the job. He promised significant constitutional changes, but nothing has happened.
One of the reforms Nick Clegg has proposed is fixed-term parliaments – this would prevent the current situation where the Prime Minister can give himself an electoral advantage by choosing the date of the election.
Clegg also argues that a new electoral system is needed, to reflect more accurately the wishes of the whole population. One of the reasons people feel so disgruntled by the whole Westminster shambles is that the our current first-past-the-post system encourages parties to focus their attention on a very small number of voters in a very small number of seats – the voters most likely to change their minds in the seats most likely to change hands. (This is not the place for a detailed discussion about proportional representation – but if you are interested, you could try this article: A Fair Voting System At Last?)
The focus on a small number of swing seats has left the rest of us feeling unrepresented – and this vacuum has created an opportunity for the BNP and other assorted fringe parties. And this is another reason why people feel so angry about MPs and their foolish expenses claims. It’s not just the pathetic greed – though that’s reason enough to be angry – it’s the fact that our elected representatives have brought parliament into such disrepute that people will stay at home, or will feel pushed to vote for charlatans and racists, just so that they can say their voices have been heard.