Andrew Tettenborn

Reform’s radical manifesto would do wonders for democracy

Nigel Farage launches Reform’s election manifesto (Getty Images)

In this election, neither Labour nor the Tories are particularly interested in serious constitutional reform. By contrast, there’s one smaller opposition party that makes it quite clear in its manifesto that it does believe in serious democratic change to make government radically responsive to what voters want. That party is Reform.

True, there’s a lot in its manifesto, launched today, to make you cautious: its elements of rehashed free-market Thatcherism, for instance, not to mention its fairly sketchy funding projections. But a number of its constitutional proposals make for interesting reading. Some ideas are predictable, such as replacing the ECHR (European Convention on Human Rights) with a British Bill of Rights, or changing the voting system to prevent abuse of postal votes. But some of the others are much more significant.

The fairly raw democracy which Reform’s manifesto promotes has a great deal going for it

One concerns the House of Lords. The line is blunt: the House must be made much smaller, and political appointments to it must stop. While details are sketchy, Reform is on to something here. An unintended consequence of the introduction of life peerages in 1958 and Tony Blair’s all-but-exclusion of hereditary peers has been the foundation of a lethargic club of political has-beens, quangocrats and worthies seen by a comfortable establishment as unlikely to rock the boat. As an organisation, it has seen its function largely as obstructing anything contrary to a broad progressive consensus, for example in matters such as Brexit and immigration. Its replacement with (presumably) an elected body of some sort, while unwelcome to major parties in need of a source of rewards and consolation prizes, can only improve matters.

Secondly, on one matter Reform are, perhaps surprisingly, at one with the Lib Dems. They now support proportional representation for MPs. Admittedly there is self-interest here: both are small parties in a two-party system and suffer a severe squeeze in representation as a result. But the embrace of PR is important. 

This policy won’t attract lifelong Tories who see attacks on the two-party system as a recipe for weak government, or Labourites joyfully eyeing the prospect of using that system to lock in a super-majority. But it may enliven the increasing number who object to the effective disenfranchisement of substantial bodies of opinion and see this as a potential threat to effective democracy.

In any case, the two-party system, at least in its form of two broad-church groupings each with a reliable natural following and a relatively small number of floating voters in the middle up for grabs, is beginning to look moribund. Put bluntly, any Labour landslide in July will be powered not by Labour fans but by those who want a change in government and see a Labour vote, possibly holding their nose, as the only way to get it. In the light of this, any change in the voting system that gives such people some way of effectively voting for what they want, instead of against what they don’t like, can only be a plus.

Perhaps most interesting, however, is a proposal for the Civil Service. Reform advocates the possibility of political appointees at the very top. To many an entirely unacceptable Americanism, this idea is actually worth a closer look. Apart from the fact that we already have elements of it, in the shape of Spads entitled within limits to give orders to civil servants, the uncomfortable truth is that the fabled impartiality of the British civil service has subtly morphed into something rather less attractive. 

Today, senior mandarins not infrequently see their constitutional independence not so much as obliging them to help ministers carry out voters’ wishes, as licensing them to act as an independent power in their own right. They are not averse to obstructing a minister if called on to carry out a policy seen as contrary to some overarching principle such as international human rights or the rule of law. Nor do they have much compunction about discreetly informing a minister that if they appoint to (say) a statutory body someone a civil service appointments panel regards as unappointable, this is probably unlawful and risks a judicial review. In so far as allowing senior appointments by an elected minister can prevent such obstructionist tactics, there is a good deal to be said for it.

It is fair to say that the Reform manifesto overall is a fairly amateurish document: this is perhaps unsurprising for a party that only became a serious contender in the election two or three weeks ago, and clearly had to assemble it in a hurry. Nevertheless, the fairly raw democracy which it promotes has a great deal going for it.

Reform’s critics would do well to watch carefully their instinct to preface the name of the party with the words ‘right-wing’ or ‘far right’. To say this of a party that stands for measures to make Parliament more reflective of voters’ views, to turn the House of Lords into a credible second chamber, and blow a hole in the ability of an obstructionist civil service to stymie measures that go against their own world view is plain wrong. Like it or not, Reform’s manifesto is a radical and it would be a mistake to write-off all of its suggestions

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