Political reform in UK and Ireland is no quick fix for public trust

In the throes of financial crisis, government is desperate to seem to be in charge and the opposition to be different. As there is no radical difference between them on emergency measures apart from a blame game, they reach out for political reform. Not surprisingly given the extent of their shared political culture, this is true in both the UK and Ireland. The problem is, political reform – more accountability, transparency, better scrutiny in Parliament etc -rather than increase trust, can just as easily reduce trust by exposing new depths of skulduggery and depths of complexity. In politician’s boilerplate prose, Enda Kenny’s recipe parallels an agenda in Britain which right enough, brings reform a few steps nearer. In each State, the big ticket item is a smaller and more effective Parliament. (Far be for me to be parochial, but NI parties be warned).
Enda Kenny says

Our New Politics plan will reduce the size of the Dáil by 20 and seek public approval for the abolition of Seanad Éireann. We are determined to bring more women into politics and new Dáil committees will have strengthened powers of investigation so costly tribunals become a thing of the past. The Dáil will become the forum of accountability to the people.

The Constitution Unit has assessed the likelihood of UK reform based on party positions that will inform their manifestos, on Monday to Wednesday next week. This is my own view of the politics of UK reform.

The raft of political reforms on the agenda for this election is the biggest for a century but is not as substantial as it seems. Very little of it will increase public trust in politics. Too many ideas to put to referendum can suggest weak resolve and an each way bet, rather than reaching for the ideal of greater democracy. Different Conservative and Labour reforms are likely to figure in some pretty blatant wooing of the Lib Dems for a hung parliament.

The eye catcher of a power of recall to allow voters to sack their MP is backed by all three main parties but has almost never been used in countries where it applies and could be exploited to destabilise governments. Some ideas are solid enough. The most promising is the Conservative pledge to reduce the number of MPs by 10% from 2015. This echoes a Lib Dem Dem commitment to go further. The Tory plan to hold simultaneous referendums for elected mayors in big English cities packs a bigger punch than the usual pieties to increase the power of local government.

Other Conservative ideas would fail to make a permanent mark. Their flirtation with English votes on English laws is likely to fade as the idea is basically unworkable in practice. Although loudly trumpeted, their promise to hold referendums on all future EU treaty changes cannot commit future Parliaments.

Labour’s pledge of fixed term parliaments removes the chance of opportunist early elections, an option Gordon Brown dithered over in 2007 and from which his reputation never really recovered.
Although partly unfair, scepticism has greeted Labour’s disinterring of old plans for electoral reform for the Commons. Labour’s support for AV clashes with Lib Dem preferences for either STV or AV+ and would run into the implacable opposition of the Conservatives who are wedded to first-past- the post. A smaller Commons elected in constituencies of roughly equal size would reduce the Tory deficit in seats.

The tangle of competing bids which the Constitution Unit analyses strongly suggests that party consensus remains necessary to achieve significant reform. A closely fought election is not the best way to achieve it. Bargaining in a hung parliament could be a different matter. Here on big medium term themes, the Lib Dems could impose their will in a way they have been unable to do for generations. Labour and the Conservatives might move faster on an elected Upper House and on reforming party funding at last, because the Lib Dems are keener than they are on both.

The slow grind to improve Parliament’s reputation may be best served by implementing the broadly consensual Wright committee reforms, to increase the power of Parliament in relation to Government, and to pass fewer and better laws.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London