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Making a Muddle of Constitutional Reform

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or “How to Amend an Unwritten Constitution”.

Immediately following the salvaging of his career, yet again, Gordon Brown outlined his initiatives for Constitutional reform in yet another attempt at relaunching his Premiership. One of the many peculiarities of the United Kingdom, in addition to the Isle of Man, is its unwritten constitution. The inherent flexibility of such a non-document is both a strength and a weakness. Examples of the former are plain; witness the relative ease that the House of Commons emasculated the House of Lords via the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949. The corresponding elimination of the United States Senate borders on the impossible in comparison. Yet, as the constitution is malleable, the rules of the game can easily be changed. The absolute muddle that is devolution is a case in point.

Brown’s statement on Constitutional reform included a bunch of, frankly, boring stuff. He wants to do something about preventing another MP expenses scandal (no, really?), further regulate MP’s financial affairs (perhaps a good place to start is disallowing a sitting MP from, say, serving on a corporate board? I’m just saying . . . ), introduce further reforms of the House of Commons in an attempt to democratize the institution, etc. etc. blah blah blah. House of Lords reforms: eliminating the remaining 92 hereditary peers, thus breaking one of the last links that British politics and government has with the glorious medieval past. Personally, I have a difficult time working out just what the House of Lords is for, but that’s a topic for some other day. Oh, Brown has also suggested actually writing a constitution down on paper. Now there’s a revolutionary idea.

The interesting stuff went implied or unmentioned. The Constitutional Renewal Bill will consider electoral reform. As I implied at the end of my previous post, it’s too late to save Brown’s skin, but interesting nonetheless. I’ve included an essay question the past two or three years in one of my first year comparative politics classes that examines the conditions under which Gordon Brown should switch to PR in advance of the next election, and the current context is precisely that time. While Labour have, in the past, flirted with electoral reform (even promising the LibDems a referendum on PR back in 1996, a promise that went broken once Labour worked out that the existing electoral system looked pretty good in the wake of the 1997 landslide), if there ever was a time to do it, it was about six to 12 months ago.

Brown, it turns out, doesn’t like PR. He feels the constituency link to be paramount (in other words, it’s just as important to represent dirt and trees as people) but is keen to move beyond the SMD / plurality system. (Why not the Mixed Member Proportional used by Germany and New Zealand . . . and, erm, Scotland, Wales, and the London Assembly?) Rumor has it that Brown is lining up behind the Alternative Vote. This is an interesting choice. It retains the representation of dirt and trees principle, yet creates incentives for sincere voting, removing those for tactical voting. While at first blush it doesn’t eliminate all of the problems with the current system (e.g. geographic concentration of partisan support will still result in unproportional outcomes) we should no longer have the bizarre outcome where Labour can translate 35% of the popular vote into a commanding 55% of the seats in Westminster.

Of course, assuming that Brown applies his trademark dithering approach to electoral reform (which he is; Brown is in search of “cross-party consensus” on electoral reform, which the Tories near immediately torpedoed), Labour will lose the next election before any of this gets off the ground. I know I’m not going out on a limb here in suggesting that a Tory government will not show the same reforming zeal, especially when they translate 40% of the vote into 65% of the seats in 2010 . . .

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