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‘Labour Must Be Bold on Political Reform Beyond It’s Own Self-Interest if we are to have a Properly Functioning Democracy’

A big problem facing UK politics is that both main political parties see the status quo as in their narrow self-interest, writes former diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall

Photo: PA/Alamy

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There’s no shortage of good ideas to address the UK’s political and economic decline. The challenge is how to get there.

The calamitous consequences of 13 years of Conservative misrule on the UK are plain to see – loss in public confidence in our democratic institutions and public services, our economy forecast to be the worst performing in the G7 this year, and our country no longer as respected or trusted internationally.

The twin calamities of Boris Johnson’s botched Brexit and Liz Truss’ disastrous premiership were only the most damaging stages in what has been more than a decade of decline. 

Our strong stance on Ukraine, commitment within NATO, status at the United Nations, and enduring quality of our universities, scientists, creative and service industries continue to preserve us some goodwill and standing. But not enough to offset the damage elsewhere. 

The cuts to our aid, diplomatic and military budgets further reduce our global influence, while the Government’s threats to renege on its Brexit deal, leave the European Convention on Human Rights and violate international refugee law undermine our moral standing to urge other countries to adhere to the rule of law. 

It is increasingly clear that serious constitutional reform is necessary to address the weaknesses in our system that brought us to this pass in the first place. 

In a properly functioning democracy, Johnson would have been held to account for his serial dishonesty, financial impropriety and dubious associations with Russian oligarchs long before ‘Partygate’.

In a properly functioning democracy, the process of delivering Brexit would have been more measured, consultative, transparent and accountable – rather than rushed through, without proper scrutiny or honest explanation of its implications, and would have resulted in a less divisive and damaging outcome.

Iraq and Brexit: A Common Thread of Hubris

Both events were driven more by ideological conviction – than rational analysis – and against the advice of most experts, writes former diplomat Alexandra Hall Hall

In a properly functioning democracy, the country would not have been held hostage these past few years to the arbitrary whims of one political party, elected without a majority, making decisions based on its own self-interest, at the expense of the country as a whole.

In a properly functioning democracy, the needs and wishes of the people of Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales would more systematically have been considered and respected – rather than ignored by leaders in Westminster, exploiting the UK’s over-centralised system.  

In a properly functioning democracy, it should not be possible for a new head of state and a new head of government to be installed through purely internal processes, or hereditary principles, without any wider public involvement at all.

In a properly functioning democracy, people should not be able to gain positions of influence in the House of Lords, through crony relationships with, or large financial contributions to, the ruling party.

In a properly functioning democracy, there would be no hereditary positions whatsoever, or preference given to one religion over another. 

In a properly functioning democracy, the press would act as a check on the executive, and highlight abuses in office, rather than cover up for them.

In a properly functioning democracy, it would not be possible for non-accountable, non-dom billionaires to own the bulk of our media and dictate its editorial content. 

In a properly functioning democracy, civil servants would be able to tell truth to power, without fear of being sacked or sidelined.

In a proper functioning democracy, ministers found to have breached the Ministerial Code would be required to resign.

In a properly functioning democracy, there would be no ‘revolving door’ between government and the private sector, without proper due process.

In a properly functioning democracy, regulators of our public utilities, media, public broadcaster or other institutions would not be appointed by the executive, but properly independent from it.  

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Solutions

The good news is that there are solutions to these problems.

Numerous think tanks, reform groups, constitutional scholars and advocates of change have identified ways in which our democracy could be strengthened – ranging from reform of the monarchy and House of Lords, to putting our unwritten norms and conventions on a statutory footing, increasing the power of Parliament to scrutinise legislation and hold the Government to account, reforming our electoral system, and devolving more powers from Westminster. 

Not all of these changes require major reform, but could be quite easy quick wins – such as making the Ministerial Code legally binding, contracting public appointments out to an independent body, and reducing the ability of governments to pass major legislation without proper scrutiny. 

The real problem is how to get such ideas implemented, when both main political parties see the status quo as in their narrow self-interest.

The Conservatives have not offered any proposals for constitutional reform. Labour has said it will back some changes to the House of Lords, but not committed to making it a priority. Its Leader Keir Starmer has ruled out electoral reform altogether – even though party delegates at last year’s Labour Party Conference overwhelmingly backed a move to proportional representation. 

As long as the gateway to constitutional reform depends on one of our main political parties embracing the need for change, we will never get there. This is the real challenge our democracy faces. 

I understand why the Conservatives are keen to keep the status quo, because they have been its main beneficiaries, who have milked the system most for their advantage. But I simply don’t understand Labour’s hesitation. 

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If Labour fears to support electoral reform because it does not want to share power in a coalition, this also means consigning itself to spending most of its time in opposition, given how the ‘first past the post’ system favours the Conservatives – and also seeing successive conservative governments undo their achievements.

If it does not want to use up valuable parliamentary time in difficult constitutional debate, at the expense of other legislative priorities, then it could at least commit to allowing the issue more parliamentary time in a second term of office. 

It could also simply contract out the matter to an independent commission on constitutional reform, tasked with consulting scholars and experts, current and former politicians, and engaging members of the public through citizens’ assemblies, and again, then commit to giving parliamentary time to debate the commission’s recommendations in a second term of office.

Constitutional reform should not be the preserve of one party or another anyway, but a properly national endeavour. 

Labour may also simply just think that political reform is not a priority for most voters, who are more concerned about the cost-of-living crisis or the state of public services. But I believe this misreads how voters are starting to join the dots between the challenges they face in their personal lives and the inability of our political system, in its current format, to address them. 

They say fortune favours the bold. If Labour truly wants to change Britain for the better, I believe it should not run away from political reform, but embrace it as a top priority. 



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