"...for someone who says he has embraced a new way of doing politics Clegg’s grand rhetoric bears all the hallmarks of the spin and over-selling which the previous Labour administration was said to be guilty of..."
The parallels with 1832 are a bit unfortunate. For many who passed the Reform Act gave middle class men the vote so that working class men need not be enfranchised. It brought in new groups of property owners into a system that remained otherwise unreformed. If it was the first step towards one-person-one-vote it was a journey that took over a hundred years to complete, one that at every stage was bitterly contested.
Many will welcome most of Clegg’s proposals. The repeal of various measures said to infringe liberty – and the rejection of ID cards – will raise a cheer, for now. These are however second order issues – for by invoking 1832 Clegg implies that his reforms will do more than alter existing laws but will actually redistribute power, from Westminster politicians to the people.
While his speech was called the ‘New Politics’ his actual programme builds on the incremental reforms started by New Labour. It is disingenuous of him to not accept this. The record of the last government was certainly mixed but it does include the devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and the creation of the London Assembly.
Labour also gave the Commons more powers over the executive. Moreover had Gordon Brown been re-elected he would have introduced the final stage of Lords reform and held a referendum on the Alterative Vote, significant elements in Clegg’s own programme.
The extent to which AV – surely meant to be the jewel in the crown of these proposals - marks any real shift in power is highly debatable. Clegg’s embrace of AV mark a significant step back for most advocates of electoral reform: quite how it will alters the people’s relationship with their elected representative is open to question. What has happened to the LibDem’s long-standing commitment to more radical electoral change?
Some might think that the real novelty in what amounts to a mixed bag of incremental reforms is that the leadership of the Conservative party supports them. For a party that opposed devolution and Lords reform surely this marks a real change of attitude? Maybe. But the Conservatives have embraced reform when they felt it could not be resisted or might exploited for party advantage. Hence the 1867 Reform Act that gave votes to skilled working men and the 1928 Reform Act that gave votes to women on the same basis as men.
So, Clegg has not unveiled a new Great Reform Act. Moreover, for someone who says he has embraced a new way of doing politics Clegg’s grand rhetoric bears all the hallmarks of the spin and over-selling which the previous Labour administration was said to be guilty of – by its Conservative and LibDem opponents.
Professor Steven Fielding