Expenses Reform is Not Enough to “End Gentlemen’s Club”
Only Radical Institutional Reform can save British Democracy
Last week I attended an interesting Fabian seminar entitled a “vision for local government”. The panel was impressive, including John Healey MP, the Local Government Minister, Simon Jenkins of The Guardian and Steve Bullock the elected Mayor of Lewisham.
However, the mood of frustration was palpable – when are we going to stop talking about devolution and actually devolve?
The problem was framed by Minister Healey as too much focus on financial, managerial reform as opposed to radical, political reform. However, it wasn’t entirely clear what the Minister meant by radical, political reform as distinct from finance. To some it seemed the distinction was illusory. As Simon Jenkins noted, power will follow money so we have to get the money right first.
However, Minister Healey is right. I can think of three contenders for radical, political reform.
The first option is all the rage: locally elected mayors. Steve Bullock, the mayor of Lewisham, praised the model – as did Simon Jenkins – as essential to clarifying and localising accountability. It’s worked for London, as well as Lewisham. However, it’s hardly radical. If this is what’s to pass for radical political change, Burkean conservatives can sleep soundly.
A second option: why not abolish the department of Communities and Local Government? As one of my colleagues questioned, does nobody see the irony in a national department in charge of devolving power? Why not just get on with it and devolve?
The Third option could bring about the needed sea change: reforming the House of Lords, and creating two houses of Parliament which consist of locally elected officials would loudly signal a shift in British democracy.
Gordon Brown declared an “end to the gentlemen’s club” yesterday by announcing expenses reform. This is not enough. A real end to the gentlemen’s club will only come when both houses of British Parliament are held accountable to the British people.