Saturday, January 31, 2009

House Points: Nick Clegg on 20 years of Charter 88

My House Points column from yesterday's Liberal Democrat News.

Lest we forget

Is concern about accountability and democracy a luxury at a time of economic crisis? That was the question Nick Clegg asked the audience at Portcullis House, Westminster, on Tuesday night.

He was speaking at an event marking 20 years of the campaign group Charter 88. Now part of Unlock Democracy, Charter 88 was set up to campaign for constitutional and electoral reform. A book – Unlocking Democracy: 20 Years of Charter 88 – has also been produced for the anniversary.

Nick’s answer was clear: “An economic crisis is a political crisis as well.” He argued that this government’s mismanagement of the economy is directly related to our unreformed constitution. A winner-takes-all electoral system encourages a cycle of boom and bust and makes it too easy for the policy agenda to be captured by vested interests such as the City.

A more pluralist system would have forced the government to listen to a wider range of voices. Better still, it would have forced it to listen to Vince Cable.

Nick finished by emphasising the danger that our economic difficulties will encourage the rise of extremism. To prevent this we must reform our democracy. And to achieve that reform, he said, “politicians of different parties will need to come together at some point”.

There were two other speakers: Helena Kennedy from Labour and Ferdinand Mount from the Conservatives.

Kennedy spoke of the current scandal in the House of Lords – or “Erminegate” – and insisted that whether a reformed upper house is elected or appointed, its members must not owe their places to political patronage.

Mount was billed as offering a response to Nick Clegg, but had to apologise: he was unable to find anything to disagree with in the Lib Dem leader’s speech.

But then Mount is one of the most thoughtful Conservatives around. His book Mind the Gap, published in 2004, offers a better analysis of class in modern Britain, and a more indignant defence of the working class, than anything Labour has produced for years.

If there were more Tories like him, Liberal Democrats would feel far happier about the prospect of working with the Conservative Party. But we should not forget that its founders saw the need for Charter 88 when Margaret Thatcher was prime minister.

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