I was initially pleasantly surprised by some of Nick Clegg’s speech on the “new politics” today, even if cancelling things that don’t yet exist hardly constitutes groundbreaking reform along the lines of universal suffrage. There is a need to renew our political system and reconnect people to politics, but looking deeper into the substance of the speech, the tangible actions proposed seem a little underwhelming.
On government involvement in everyday life, he made some important statements about pulling back from a database state, but this primarily involved scrapping initiatives that would probably never have been implemented anyway – compulsory ID cards, children’s registers and fingerprinting, for example. Not seeing something that the public haven’t seen up to now will not be felt as a seismic shift in everyday life. However, I will happily give him credit for recognising that government has become overbearing in some areas of life and checking this is a positive move.
There were some loose ideas about handing control of hospitals and schools to people, with echoes of the “Big Society”, but this is not political reform, it is policy reform, and the two are very different. We will need much, much more information about how we are supposed to control our public services (and how this will improve them) before this can be judged. It is also nothing to do with reform of the political system.
And it was on the reform of that political system that Clegg’s speech was both more important and much more disappointing. Behind the rhetoric lay, well, not very much. A referendum on AV is not the groundbreaking change to our voting system we require – it’s a massive fudge from a Liberal Democrat who has always said proportional representation was essential. AV is not proportional, just slightly more equitable. It doesn’t mean that parliament reflects the first choice wishes of the people any more than First Past the Post. A partially elected House of Lords, especially with the proposed interim appointment of coalition peers is another halfway house which will improve virtually nothing. We need a fully-elected, proportional upper chamber with a clearly defined role. Another proposal, on cutting the number of MPs, doesn’t make any sense at all to me. The speech was full of fine words about giving people more control, but having less MPs serving the public across natural boundaries of local authority control will make it harder for people to connect to their representatives. It’s Tory gerrymandering and it does Clegg no credit to promote it as a great, liberating reform.
So, look ahead two years and what will have changed because of the ideas in this speech? What change will ordinary people actually notice in the way politics works? I think very little. There may be a slight change in the ballot paper come May 7 2015 (Clegg’s date for the next election), but with Cameron actively campaigning against AV, don’t bet the farm on it. It remains to be seen whether the policy proposals turn out to be more profound than the political ones.