Constitutions ought to be straightforward things. Bits of political plumbing to make sure democracies work properly, so power can transfer smoothly from a dying Government to a new one without a punch-up.
But that’s not what ours is doing. The plumbing is blocked. We’ve got a Government that can’t govern because there’s no majority, but an Opposition that can’t replace them because it hasn’t got one either. A Parliament where MPs have failed to deliver a referendum result after more than three years of bickering, with halffinished bits of vital Brexit preparation legislation stuck like fatbergs halfway around various Parliament U-bends. And a nation that’s thoroughly fed up with whole thing, screaming for someone to turn up with a plunger and sort the horrible, smelly mess out.
The sad truth is that we’ve only got ourselves to blame. The plumbing is only blocked because, a few years ago, we changed our constitutional rules and got it badly wrong. How? Step forward the Liberal Democrats, who demanded fixed-term parliaments as part of their price for joining the coalition government in 2010, and the departing speaker, John Bercow, who invented new rules to strip control of parliament’s agenda away from the government earlier this year.
Before the changes, the constitution would have dealt with a hung Parliament easily. Either the opposition would have toppled the government with a no-confidence vote, giving them a chance to form a rival government themselves, and triggering a general election if they couldn’t. Or the prime minister would have decided Parliament was too fractured to provide a stable government and asked the Queen for an election himself.
But that’s not what’s happening now. Because of fixed-term parliaments, Jeremy Corbyn only needs a third of MPs to block an early general election. But he still needs more than half of them to topple the Government and form one of his own. In a hung Parliament, where he’s got a third but not half, the result is deadlock. He can block the plumbing, but not clear it. The new rules are slanted in favour of no change, even though that’s precisely what our democracy needs, and what a constitution should be delivering.
And Bercow’s changes make things worse. Even though the opposition aren’t strong enough to form an alternative government of their own, his changes let them grab control of parliament’s agenda every once in a while, whenever they can cobble together a single-issue majority for a one-off vote. Just enough to frustrate change, but not for the decisive, stable government we really need.
The smell has reached as far as the courts. Because the constitution isn’t doing its job, problems that ought to be solved through the ballot box or in parliament aren’t being addressed effectively. Instead they’re being taken to court, which puts judges in an impossible, politicised position where they’re asked to make new laws in the middle of a democratic firestorm.
How do we unblock the plumbing? Where’s the political drain cleaner to clear the fatbergs and get democracy moving again? Our first step should be to axe fixed-term parliaments: we should either repeal the act completely or, if that hands too much power back to prime ministers, make calling an election a normal vote in Parliament rather than the two-thirds majority that’s currently needed, so oppositions that can’t form a government aren’t able to block an election too.
Secondly, we should stop future Speakers from making up new rules whenever they feel like it, as Bercow has done. It’s an unaccountable power that is easily misused. If they want to reinterpret the rules that govern how Parliament works, then Parliament should have a say first; they should put it to a vote of all MPs before the change can take effect.
Equally important, we should take more care over changes to Parliament’s rules themselves, regardless of how the Speaker interprets them. Constitutional changes are best done slowly, with cross-party support, so both the government and opposition can work out whether new rules would still be fair when they’re on the other side of the fence. Let’s make changes to Parliament’s rules subject to a two-thirds majority of MPs, so no government can change them to suit itself unless the opposition agrees too.
That’s three big doses of drain unblocker to pour down the constitutional plumbing. Enough to clear away even the biggest of fatbergs, get rid of the stink, and start things moving again.