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Political compromise bringing constitutional reform

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All eyes have been on Britain this past week as the three main political parties there tried to shape a government following the inconclusive results of the May 6 general elections. As predicted, the elections, held under the British first-past-the- post system, provided no outright winner and the parties, the Labour Party, in power since 1997, the Conservatives, the main Opposition for those 13 years, and the Liberal Democrats, were forced to engage in negotiations to form a new Government.{{more}}

Fortunately, in spite of not having a written Constitution, British political traditions maintained stability, outgoing Prime Minister Gordon Brown remaining in office for almost a week until it was clear that his party had no chance of forging a majority coalition. He finally resigned on May 11, to be immediately followed by the announcement of a Conservative/Lib.Dem. coalition. Less than an hour after Queen Elizabeth accepted Brown’s resignation, Conservative leader David Cameron was sworn in as Brown’s successor. Lib.Dem. leader Nick Clegg is the new Deputy Prime Minister.

Whatever the shortcomings of the Westminster Parliamentary system, at least it is admirable that without a clear indication of the shape of the post-election government, political stability was maintained. There was some disquiet in the financial markets, but with Buckingham Palace refusing to entertain Brown’s resignation visit until it was clear that a Parliamentary majority had been forged, chaos was avoided. There was none of the confusion that reigned in the USA following the controversial outcome of the 2004 Presidential elections. As for us here in the Caribbean, professed devoted upholders of the Westminster system, could you imagine a Prime Minister holding on to office for almost a week after he/she had lost the elections? Clear majority or not, a crowd would literally have dragged that PM out of office!

So Britain has its first coalition government in three-score-and-ten years. Not since the wartime National Unity Government of Winston Churchill, formed to combat fascism, has anything like that emerged in the United Kingdom. Bar this act of national salvation to face a specific threat, the British people are not accustomed to coalition governments. Indeed the first-past-the-post system, by delivering numbers of seats, out of proportion to the share of the national vote, has helped to keep the two-party dominance intact and to marginalise credible third parties. If there had been a system of proportional representation for the May 6 poll, the Lib.Dems. would have come out with over 100 seats, rather than the 55 they eventually got. In fact the seat tally under proportional representation would have been Conservatives, 36% of the vote, 234 seats (306 under the present arrangement); Labour, 29%, 188 seats(255 now); and Lib.Dems with 23% getting 150 seats, nearly 100 more than the current 55.

Adding to the intrigue is the fact that the Lib.Dems. are considered to be more natural allies of the Labour party than the right wing Conservatives, having been formed out of a breakaway faction of Labour. Yet such has been the shift in British politics to the right, that they could find an apparently more comfortable nest in the Conservative party than with Labour. The personality factor undoubtedly helped too. Ever since Tony Blair’s personal Presidential style of politics gained success there has been an emerging new breed of British politicians. The new Prime Minister Cameron and his Deputy, Clegg, fall into that category. They make a sharp contrast to Gordon Brown’s rather colourless character. Now that Brown has gone, Labour is almost sure to choose one of a similar type as party leader.

The most remarkable outcome of the new coalition is the clear commitments to constitutional reform that the Lib.Dems. have been able to extract from the Tories (Conservative party). Nether Labour nor the Conservatives had any vested interest in real political reform, on purely practical and selfish political grounds. For the Lib.Dems, as a third force, political reform is fundamental to it not being forever condemned to the fringes of British politics. The Conservatives in particular, the chosen political partner, was on record as being dead against proportional representation as advocated by its new allies. Hard bargaining had to be done and in the process, to the amazement of many, compromise on this key issue has been forged.

For us in SVG, who have just thrown away the opportunity for constitutional reform, holding on to the British Parliamentary system, the Conservative/ Lib.Dem agreement in this area makes very interesting reading. Take a look at some of the areas:

1. A fixed date for elections- A binding motion is to be put before Parliament “in the first days following this agreement that the next general elections will be held on the first Thursday of May 2015”. Then legislation will be introduced for a fixed five-year term of Parliament and provision for a dissolution if 55% or more members are in favour. We rejected this in our November referendum.

2. A Referendum Bill on electoral reform is to be put before Parliament. The size of the House of Commons is also to be addressed, providing for fewer, more equal-sized constituencies. This would include provision for an Alternative Vote system in the event of a positive result in the referendum.

3. Early legislation giving constituents the power to recall Parliamentarians is to be introduced. Voters are to be given the right to force the holding of by-elections “..where an MP is found to have engaged in serious wrongdoing and having a petition calling for a by-election signed by 105 of the constituents”.

4. A Committee is to be established to draft proposals by December 2010 for a wholly or mainly elected Upper House (House of Lords) on the basis of proportional representation.

5. There will be legislation providing for the registration of lobbyists, the restriction of their numbers and “..a detailed agreement on limiting donations to political parties”. Other areas of reform include preventing electoral fraud, reform of the discredited House of Commons system allowing MPs to abuse taxpayers funds, and local government reform.

All these are now on the agenda of the right-wing Conservatives in Britain. We here would have none of them in our referendum. Even the governing side refused to support provisions for recall. I have said before that we are gradually placing ourselves on the wrong side of history. But, more on that and related matters, another time.

Renwick Rose is a community activist and social commentator.

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