Constitutional Convention - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:32 pm on 13th December 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb Green 1:32 pm, 13th December 2018

I am afraid that I cannot promise not to be insulting again; that is how Twitter works.

The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, was absolutely fascinating about all the issues that he has worked on. It means that I now know where to go with any complaints on those matters, so I hope that he will not be leaving us too soon.

At the moment we are in the awful throes of what to do about Brexit. Whether or not we leave the European Union, we have to grapple with something that other noble Lords have touched on: how to heal the divisions within our deeply divided country. Anger, frustration and mistrust is endemic in parts of society. We need a complete overhaul of the so-called British constitution, which could begin with a constitutional convention.

Many people were surprised and confused when proceedings in the other place on Monday night came to a halt because someone had picked up the Mace. A lot of foreigners were expressing their confusion on Twitter and wanted to know why it mattered. The explanation illustrates an incredibly important point, which is that the Mace represents the authority of the monarch. Parliament sits only under the authority of the monarch and when the Mace is removed, Parliament has no authority. I was deeply saddened to disagree so strongly with my friend the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport. He, I and the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, have a little leaver block-sympathy going on on this side of the House, so I was sad to disagree with him. I do so because the British constitution is not a democracy in any sense of the word. We have a feudal monarchy with a few bits of democracy bolted on to it. It is difficult to identify a single development in the British constitution which has not been the result of a compromise between the ruling elite and some sort of opposing force that threatened its power. A little bit of power is ceded by the most powerful people in order to keep the greater amount of their power intact. Most of the rights and freedoms that exist in our country have come about through these little compromises. It has never been about doing the right thing for its own sake.

For example, we celebrate the Magna Carta as the “Great Charter of the Liberties”, but it was actually a very small step in reducing the power of the king. The English Bill of Rights was another deal where the rich men in Parliament obtained a guarantee of their rights and freedoms in exchange for granting the throne to William and Mary. The Representation of the People Act and the Parliament Acts have all been compromises that have allowed us to call ourselves a democracy when in truth we are not. Each of these developments has its unique historical and factual quirks, but the overall narrative is one of a power struggle resulting in a compromise to maintain as far as possible the status quo.

As another noble Lord has mentioned, almost every other country in the world has a written constitution. These have normally come about after some massive historical event such as a civil war or a revolution. We have never got to that stage. It means that we have something which is wholly unfit for a country that wants to call itself a 21st-century democracy.

Now we have Brexit. As has been said, in a sense it is a symptom of people feeling excluded and alienated by a system that was only ever devised to protect the rich—the ruling elite. The intense frustration directed at Brussels is made up of a sense that politics is something done to us, rather than something we are active participants in. This is just as true of our local, regional and national politics as it is at the EU level. The Green Party policy is very much about devolving power down to the most appropriate level. An example of that failing utterly is up in Lancashire, when the Government overruled every level of local government and imposed fracking on a community that did not want it. Democracy has failed utterly in that case because the Government were not the best part of our system to decide what to do.

Leaving the EU will not resolve that intense frustration and anger. People will feel just as disfranchised by our electoral system and our politicians. Equally, if the tide turns and we end up remaining in the EU, people will be just as frustrated because neither option on its own provides a viable way forward. I would therefore argue that a constitutional overhaul is the only solution. I have a lot of questions that I would like to put privately to the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, about how he sees this going forward, and perhaps I will contribute in various ways. Organic change, as has been suggested, is simply not enough. There has to be an overhaul.

We in this House have tried to discuss changes that will make us more relevant. I brought forward a Bill on reforming the House of Lords to the point where it would be abolished completely. I almost did not get it through its First Reading because of the grumbles from all around the House. It did in fact get a Second Reading, and I will be tabling it again. I look forward to hearing from noble Lords who have said in this debate that they would like to see reform. Reform of this place is inevitable, and I look forward to their supporting the Bill when I bring it back.

I would also argue that first past the post has absolutely failed to supply strong and stable government in the way we have always supposed it would, so it is time to consider proportional representation. I have been elected under first past the post and under proportional representation. They are both perfectly valid ways of being a voice for people who would otherwise go unheard. I spent four years on Southwark Council as one of 63 councillors, which was very hard, and then I served for some years on the London Assembly combating Boris Johnson, which was much worse. The only way forward now is to rethink our democracy, and this convention would be a good way forward.