I have spent my whole political life fighting to open up politics. So let me make one thing very clear: This government is going to be unlike any other. This government is going to transform our politics so the state has far less control over you, and you have far more control over the state. This government is going to break up concentrations of power and hand power back to people, because that is how we build a society that is fair. This government is going to persuade you to put your faith in politics once again.
I’m not talking about a few new rules for MPs. Not the odd gesture or gimmick to make you feel a bit more involved. I’m talking about the most significant programme of empowerment by a British government since the great reforms of the 19th Century. The biggest shake up of our democracy since 1832, when the Great Reform Act redrew the boundaries of British democracy, for the first time extending the franchise beyond the landed classes. Landmark legislation, from politicians who refused to sit back and do nothing while huge swathes of the population remained helpless against vested interests. Who stood up for the freedom of the many, not the privilege of the few. A spirit this government will draw on as we deliver our programme for political reform: a power revolution. A fundamental resettlement of the relationship between state and citizen that puts you in charge.
Today I want to talk about how we’ll get there. Three major steps, that will begin immediately:
One: we will repeal all of the intrusive and unnecessary laws that inhibit your freedom.
Two: we will reform our politics so it is open, transparent, decent.
Three: we will radically redistribute power away from the centre, into your communities, your homes, your hands.
Big, sweeping change. Not incremental, not bit by bit. Our democracy has suffered at the hands of encroaching centralisation and secrecy for decades. Take citizens’ rights: eroded by the quiet proliferation of laws that increase surveillance, quash dissent, limit freedom. Take executive authority: consistently increased by successive administrations to the point that we now have a neutered parliament and government that enjoys almost untrammelled control – over precisely the people who are meant to keep it in check. Take the welfare state: one of modern society’s greatest liberators – but now so utterly different to that envisaged by Beveridge, because it has been distorted by the sheer degree of centralised control and micromanagement.
Britain was once the cradle of modern democracy. We are now, on some measures, the most centralised country in Europe, bar Malta.
So, no, incremental change will not do. It is time for a wholesale, big bang approach to political reform. And that’s what this government will deliver.
I’m a liberal. My starting point has always been optimism about people. The view that most people, most of the time, will make the right decisions for themselves and their families. That you know better than I do about how to run your life, your community, the services you use.
So this government is going to trust people.
We know that, when people see a real opportunity to shape the world they live in, they take it. Just think of the election we’ve just been through. Thousands of young people rushing to register to vote before they missed the deadline. When people have power they use it.
And when they are denied it, there is anger and disappointment. We saw it two weeks ago when across the country hundreds of people were turned away from polling stations on election night. I am eagerly awaiting the findings of the Electoral Commission’s review into that fiasco; not least as an MP representing a Sheffield constituency where it happened…
We must make sure this never happens again. You must be confident that, come polling day, your voice will be heard. And – more than that – that the chance to be heard doesn’t just come round around once every five years. You should be able to use your voice, exercise your power, every single day. Under this government’s plans, you will.
Repeal infringements on freedom:
So, three steps to new politics. First, sweeping legislation to restore the hard won liberties that have been taken, one by one, from the British people.
This government will end the culture of spying on it’s citizens. It is outrageous that decent, law-abiding people are regularly treated as if they have something to hide. It has to stop.
So there will be no ID card scheme. No national identity register, a halt to second generation biometric passports. We won’t hold your internet and email records when there is just no reason to do so. CCTV will be properly regulated, as will the DNA database, with restrictions on the storage of innocent people’s DNA.
And Britain must not be a country where our children grow up so used to their liberty being infringed that they accept it without question. There will be no ContactPoint children’s database. Schools will not take children’s fingerprints without even asking their parent’s consent.
This will be a government that is proud when British citizens stand up against illegitimate advances of the state. That values debate, that is unafraid of dissent. That’s why we’ll remove limits on the rights to peaceful protest. It’s why we’ll review libel laws so that we can better protect freedom of speech.
And as we tear through the statute book, we’ll do something no government ever has:
We will ask you which laws you think should go. Because thousands of criminal offences were created under the previous government; yet taking people’s freedom away didn’t make our streets safer. Obsessive lawmaking simply makes criminals out of ordinary people. So, we’ll get rid of the unnecessary laws, and once they’re gone, they won’t come back. Because we will introduce a mechanism to block pointless new criminal offences.
And, we will, of course introduce safeguards to prevent the misuse of anti-terrorism legislation, including a review of existing powers and legislation. There have been too many cases of individuals being denied their rights, and whole communities being placed under suspicion. This government will do better by British justice. Respecting great, British freedoms; which is why we’ll also defend trial by jury.
Second, reform of our politics. Reform to reduce the power of political elites, and to drag Westminster into the 21st century.
Starting with the House of Lords. Did you know we’ve been talking about reforming the House of Lords for over a hundred and fifty years? It’s one of the areas where all the parties agree. The time for talk is over. This government will replace the House of Lords with an elected second chamber, where members are elected by a proportional voting system. There will be a committee charged specifically with making this happen; but make no mistake: our committee will not be another government talking shop. This will be a dedicated group devoted to kick-starting real reform.
The same haste will be applied to fixed-term parliaments. It’s just wrong that governments can play politics with something as important as a general election; cynically picking the date to maximise their own advantage. So this government has already set the date we think the next election should be: May 7th 2015 – no matter who is where in the polls.
That is unless parliament votes to dissolve itself first. As we legislate to fix parliamentary terms the details will of course need to be worked out; but we believe that the support of 55% of MPs or more should be required for parliament to opt for an early dissolution. That is a much lower threshold than the two thirds required in the Scottish Parliament. But it strikes the right balance for our parliament: maintaining stability, stopping parties from forcing a dissolution to serve their own interests. Now this last week, former Labour Ministers who were once happy to ride roughshod over our democracy but are now declaring this innovation some sort of outrage are completely missing the point: This is a new right for Parliament, additional to the existing unchanged powers of no confidence. We’re not taking away parliament’s right to throw out government; we’re taking away government’s right to throw out parliament.
Parliament’s power will also be strengthened as we bring forward the proposals of the Wright Committee, published in November. Starting with provisions to give MPs much more control over Common’s business.
And, in addition to strengthening parliament, we will of course make sure we’ve cleaned it up. Which is why I have already commissioned work on introducing the power of recall. If you’re MP is corrupt, you will be able to sack them. You will need the support of 10% of people living in the constituency, and your MP will have had to have been found guilty of serious wrongdoing. But it happens in Switzerland, in Canada, in 18 US states, and it’s going to happen here.
We will regulate lobbying in parliament. It’s wrong to present all lobbying as sleazy. Much of it serves a hugely important democratic function, allowing different organisations and interests to make representations to politicians. But it is a process which must be completely transparent. But let’s get real: this is a £2bn industry, where, according to some estimates there are MPs who are approached by lobbyists a hundred times every week, and that activity needs to be regulated properly. Which we’ll do, for example, by introducing a statutory register of lobbyists.
More broadly, as long as money plays such a big part in our politics, we are never going to end the tyranny of vested interests. That’s why David Cameron and I are determined to reform party funding.
All of the parties, all of the parties, have had their problems, and governments have been stopping and starting on this issue for years. But so long as big money continues to hollow out our democracy, everybody loses. So we will pursue a detailed agreement on limiting donations and reforming party funding in order to deal with this once and for all.
And, in our big clean up, we’ll act to tackle electoral fraud too, speeding up the implementation of individual voter registration.
And no programme to reform our political system is complete without reform of our voting system. This government will be putting to you, in a referendum, the choice to introduce a new voting system, called the Alternative Vote. Under that system far more MPs will have to secure support from at least half the people who vote in their constituency, and, hand in hand with that change, there will be new constituency boundaries, reducing the number of MPs overall and creating constituencies that are more equal in size.
David Cameron and I are very relaxed about the fact we may be arguing different cases in that referendum. But my position is clear: the current voting system, First Past the Post, is a major block to lasting political change. According to some estimates, it ensures that over half the seats in the Commons are “safe”, giving hundreds of MPs jobs for life, meaning that millions of people see their votes go to waste.
Is it any surprise that, with a system like that, we end up with politicians who are seen to be out of touch with the people they serve? New politics needs fairer votes. This referendum will be our opportunity to start to make that happen.
Redistribution of power:
The third, and final step, is the redistribution of power away from the centre. It’s something the Prime Minister spoke about yesterday, and it is something we both strongly believe in. All politicians say they want to give people more control over their lives. This government is going to make it happen.
In fact, if there is one area, where the differences between Liberal Democrats and Conservatives are almost impossible to spot, it’s here. We don’t, unlike Labour, believe that change in our society must always be forced from the centre. Unlike the previous Labour government, we’re reluctant to relinquish control.
So rest assured, you will get more control over the hospitals you use; the schools you send your children too; the homes that are built in your community. In our legislative programme we will be setting out plans to strip away government’s unelected, inefficient quangos; plans to loosen the centralised grip of the Whitehall bureaucracy; plans to disperse power downwards to you instead.
And we are serious about giving councils much more power too over the money they use, so they depend less on the whims of Whitehall, and can deliver the services and support their communities need. We know that devolution of power is meaningless without money.
Our plans to disperse power also include strengthening devolution to other parts of Britain: Working with Holyrood to implement the recommendations of the Calman Commission; working with the Welsh Assembly on introducing a referendum on the transfer of further powers to Wales; supporting the continued success of the devolved government in Northern Ireland. And, of course, asking what we can do about the difficult issues surrounding the old West Lothian Question.
So, the repeal of illiberal laws, the reform of politics, and the redistribution of power. Our very own Great Reform Act.
Not everyone will like it. Not every MP, not the vested interests that want government to stay closed, opaque, easily captured. But this new government, this new kind of government, creates an enormous opportunity for those of us who have spent our lives fighting for political reform. This is a moment to step back and look at every bit of damage that has been done to our democracy, before we launch into the most radical programme of reform, empowerment, enfranchisement in over a century.
A programme so important to me personally that I will take full responsibility for seeing it through. And as I do, I will be open, I will be ambitious, and I will listen. I’ll still be holding my town hall meetings that I’ve been holding for the last two years around the country, where you can come and ask me whatever you like. The next one is actually in Sheffield on Friday. As I lead the transformation of our political system, I want you to tell me how you want your politics to be. Power will be yours.
That is new politics.
Thank you very much for listening to me.
If you feel benevolent and particularly generous, this writer always appreciates things bought for him from his wishlist