In Trust for the People

By Alexander, Robert | New Statesman (1996), September 19, 1997 | Go to article overview
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In Trust for the People

Alexander, Robert, New Statesman (1996)

Labour's constitutional reforms should include a charter of economic rights

The great and lasting legacy of the Conservative government was radical economic reform. By contrast the Tories became totally uninterested in calls for constitutional change.

It is beyond doubt that our democracy needs updating. Power is centralised in Britain as in no other country in western Europe. There has been virtually no change in our democratic rights since all adults were given the vote in 1928. Yet there have been dramatic changes in society. Government now penetrates much deeper into all aspects of our lives. People are better educated, more aware and more sophisticated. The result is a yawning democratic deficit. Labour is eager to overthrow this complacent Conservative heritage. There are many aspects to be considered, however, and the party that vigorously proselytises for the economic change it once opposed, must address itself to more than merely political rights.

As Lord Hailsham said some 20 years ago, we live in an "elective dictatorship". Voters mount the barricades once every five years to hurl votes rather than rocks at the incumbent government, but then retreat into enforced impotence for another five years. With a solid parliamentary majority, the executive is supreme, not parliament. And a solid majority can be commanded with less than 50 per cent of the votes - as Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair know.

So any constitutional reforms must be considered against a backcloth of principle. In this country, unlike most others, we have no written constitution to protect us and it is not in the realm of practical politics to write one. So it is even more important that we should identify what that guiding principle should be. It is simple but emphatic: we should give people a greater say in government. We are eloquent in urging subsidiarity in Europe. Yet subsidiarity is not Euro-jargon but a way of saying that decisions which affect individual lives should be taken as close to the people as practicable. We need a raft of constitutional reform to achieve this: PR, greater powers for local government, a more representative and powerful House of Lords, and referendums.

But why, if government is to be brought close to the people, do we also need to entrench fundamental human rights by making the European Convention on Human Rights part of our law? History shows that we must protect people against blind populism. This is a role for judges. A bill of rights should be capable of standing firm as a sea wall, not only against executive action but against legislation that clashes with its principles. Our citizens should be able to take any claims that our legislation infringes our rights before our own judges, and not just to Strasbourg.

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