If you want to keep something secret…

…have David Heath state it quite clearly and explicitly, on the record, in the House of Commons.

Tonight, the BBC website is displaying the headline “Clegg says dissolution plans must avoid ‘limbo‘”, bringing us the extraordinary revelation that the Beeb’s (generally very good) Laura Kuenssberg detected earlier in the afternoon, that Nick Clegg might be retreating on the 55% rule by “fudging” a time-limit clause into it to prevent a “zombie government”.

Except it’s not really news at all.

A fortnight ago, David Heath stated, quite clearly and explicitly, on the record, in the House of Commons, that:

The legislation will be framed in such a way that, if no Government are formed within a particular time, Parliament stands dissolved.

He then went on to expand on this, saying:

Returning to where a vote of no confidence has taken place, it is extraordinary to suggest that there would be circumstances in which this House would refuse to vote for a Dissolution when it was clear that a Dissolution and a new general election were the only way forward. However, even given that, we are putting forward the automatic Dissolution proposal, as a safeguard that we will make part of the legislation, if no new Prime Minister can be appointed within a certain number of days. It seems to me that that is appropriate.

I know that the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk has said that we cannot make any read-across to the Scottish legislation, but I am afraid that I do not entirely agree with him. One thing in the Scottish legislation is that although a two-thirds majority is required for an early Dissolution, there is a fall-back position, with which he will be familiar, which provides for automatic Dissolution if the First Minister resigns and the successor is not appointed within 28 days. That seems an entirely proper constitutional safeguard, and I am very happy to propose something of that kind for our legislation.

If you don’t believe me, you can see a complete video record of this, here. The latter quote can be found at timecode 1.09:20.

David Heath said these things on 25th May, the day of the Queen’s Speech, responding on behalf of the government to an adjournment debate specifically about the 55% proposal. And yet, half the media don’t seem to have noticed it. Until Nick Clegg says it at a convenient time of day, it hasn’t happened, as far as the media are concerned. And, it would seem, many in the Labour parliamentary party, who continued to pretend not to understand the proposal properly today in their interventions on Clegg’s speech. Quite rightly, Clegg called them out on grasping for “synthetic” reasons to disagree with fixed term parliaments. It is only when you pay attention to the ongoing debates on this topic, and see Labour MPs and others making the same crappy debating points again and again without ever seeming to listen to the answers, that it becomes obvious this is what they are doing.

Jenni Russell argued recently in a piece packed full of win, that:

This public and media culture isn’t inevitable. It’s just the one that we have developed, where raucous, capricious news machines justify any coverage, no matter how skewed, by pretending that it can all be defined as scrutiny. Too often … denunciation is preferred to understanding.

Sadly, this is the modus operandi of all coverage of political debate these days. “Scrutiny” seems to amount to the general principle that parties should be subjected to a general sort of “stress test” of having a set of stock criticisms flung at them. If they come out the other side still standing, they have been successfully “scrutinised”. If not, they have been found wanting. Nowhere in this process does any concept of objective truth seem to exist; the media long since gave up trying to find such a thing, in favour of maintaining a strict “balance” between government and opposition. The opposition could argue that black is white, and the media would still faithfully put this point to the government, five times a day on radio, TV and in print. They take their cue from MPs, so, even when Labour are being transparently opportunist and partisan, this will be the line of questioning which government ministers face.

Ultimately, we end up with an impoverished national conversation, because the media no longer bother to actually pay attention to what is going on and ask questions of their own. They are so used to being spoon-fed it all by the media operatives of the political parties or by leaks from MPs manoeuvring within their parties, it seems to completely pass them by when something is just said, openly, on the floor of the house. We in the Lib Dems have seen this before, incidentally, in coverage of party conference which seems to owe more to the briefings being given to journalists than to actual reporting of the proceedings of the conference.

I am increasingly struggling to shake off the sense that something has gone seriously wrong with coverage of politics in the UK.

Take Back Power

Nick Clegg has today launched a rather exciting campaign, Take Back Power. I really do hope it takes off; it frankly pisses all over David Cameron’s pledge to “give serious consideration to” a few half-measures. Nick’s plan includes:

1. Commitment to accept Kelly expenses reform in full
2. Recall power for MPs suspended for misconduct
3. House of Lords reform
4. Party funding reform
5. Fixed term Parliaments
6. Enabling legislation for a referendum on AV+
7. Changes to House of Commons procedure to reduce executive power

You can sign the petition to support the campaign here.

OK, so I have my reservations about point 6, but compared to the other two party plans, this is by far and away the best chance to clean up our discredited system. Forget trying to use your vote in the european elections to register your anger with Westminster. Get involved with a campaign directly about the issue at hand. It might not be as immediately satisfying, but it’ll get more done.

The New Mood For Change

Alix wants us all to have a mass debate about reform.

Oh, go on then. Here’s my starter for ten.

As the Guardian noted recently, Rahm Emmanuel’s view that one shouldn’t waste a good crisis is every bit as applicable to our current political crisis as it was to the credit crunch. But even for a crisis as big as the one in which we find ourselves, there is too much possible reform being touted to sensibly address it all. It is going to be necessary to pick and choose our immediate priorities.

My thinking on this subject starts with this thought: I wonder whether this might be a “bottoming out” of cynicism in politics. Let’s not kid ourselves, this isn’t a storm that has blown in from nowhere, wrecking once-sound edifices in one fell swoop. The public has been fed up with politics for some time now, and in particular, the growing sense that politicians are “all the same” has been increasingly poisonous to people’s will to engage. It needn’t be its current incarnation, “all the same, just in it for the money”, it has also been “all the same, hardly a policy difference between them”, “all the same, promise everything, deliver nothing” and “all the same, it’s all spin and lies”. This crisis, I suspect, has been so quickly seized upon as the time to clean up politics more widely because it happened at about the right time. The downward trajectory of public faith in politics has been on such a prolonged downward trend that, had it continued much further, the system would have become completely untenable. People sense that – and by that, I mean political people who think about these things.

If we are to make appropriate use of the reform momentum, any reforms must not stifle the appetite for further reforms. They should be things that have an obvious benefit, and are perceptible to the public in as short a time as possible. If people sense that all that is happening is technocratic faffing, it will not have the desired effect of nurturing any green shoots of optimism that might have appeared.

For a start, what the public wants, anecdotally and from polling data, is for more heads to roll. Every party should be quite trigger happy with the deselection process before the next election, and appropriate investigations should take place into those cases which look to have been fraudulent. If other reforms feel like a substitute for these actions, they will only make people more cynical. As has been noted elsewhere, it’s quite difficult for the Lib Dems to lead on this, because none of our MPs have done anything heinous enough to warrant the kind of synthetic fury with which David Cameron has greeted revelations of moat cleaning and duck islands. Nonetheless, some movement has been welcome; Lord Rennard’s announcement today is timely, and it’d probably help if a few MPs stood down at the next election.

But assuming we manage to get past this first, most important, most basic (and lets face it, least interesting) first step, what next? The sense that things are not simply going to carry on as normal will only be challenged by something that people care about. Secondary legislation, for instance, is all very well, but if the reform is to something you have to explain what it is first, it’s not going to get anyone all that excited.

Of course, the obvious thing to reform is the interface between the political system and the public: voting. It might not surprise anyone to hear a Lib Dem call for electoral reform, but it really is the most obvious reform here. We have been banging on about this for so long, precisely because it is one of the most effective things we can do to hand power back to people, which is exactly what they want. The Lib Dem preferred solution is STV in multi-member constituencies, for well rehearsed reasons that I won’t go over in tedious detail here.

(Incidentally, while we’re at it: we should under no circumstances change to any kind of messy, bodge job like the Jenkins Report-recommended AV+ system. It would only give reform a bad name, and stop any recovery in participation in the democratic process in its tracks.)

The Conservatives, so far, have advanced open primaries as a way to re-invigorate democracy. Well, OK, I can see how someone could have watched the US elections and decided that some primaries would make life exciting, but can we really see it being quite as interesting when it’s the contest for Labour candidate for Colchester? Having said that, if a move to STV is as effective as I hope it would be in getting people more involved, then I might just imagine open primaries attracting enough attention to be worth doing for constituencies that are rather bigger than those we have at the moment. That, though, would be a secondary reform. STV would remove safe seats (so long as parties cannot deliberately limit the number of people who can stand for them in a given constituency), and with it the sense that a vote can be “wasted”.

The other thing which would force the political class to engage with the public more is reform of political party funding. Personally, I’m in favour of state funding of political parties, for the simple reason that it removes the issue of people with more money to spare having more influence. I’m not dogmatic about that, and other solutions might help. Limits on donations would be a start.

An elected House of Lords is, of course, right, but somehow it doesn’t seem like the biggest priority right now. Yes, there’ve been scandals about peers taking cash for ammendments, but there already are rules against that, and they’ve suffered the consequences. The Lords is, frankly, not the biggest problem we have with our legislature at the moment.

Which brings me to the last thing: the divide between parliament and the executive. Personally, I’d quite like an executive who aren’t necessarily drawn from the legislature (like the USA), but in the absence of that, could we just have an STV election for Prime Minister, with the leader of each party standing? That would remove some of the downside to PR systems that people always bang on about – the PM would have a strong mandate to lead, but they wouldn’t necessarily have an overall majority in parliament.

As I believe Simon Jenkins observed some time ago now, one of the biggest problems we have in the UK is that we get very worked up when we’re arguing about PR vs FPTP, because some people want a proportional legislature, and some people want a strong, decisive executive. Essentially, we’re talking at cross purposes. A single party executive and a proportional legislature would allow for both, albeit that the executive would have to build sufficient support for its legislation (no bad thing).

So, that’s more or less my programme of reforms:

1. In the immediate term, some heads must roll after due process.
2. We should move to multi-member constituency STV after a referendum at the next election. Failing that, the Tories’ open primaries plan wouldn’t be a terrible idea.
3. Political party funding should be reformed.
4. The business of the first parliament elected under STV should include wider constitutional reform, including what becomes of the Lords, and thoughts about reforms to the relationship between parliament and the executive. While they’re at it, they might as well write it all down, too.

Any questions?