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Lib Dem Speech: Electoral Reform Society
Leader of the Liberal Democrats and MP for Montgomeryshire Rebecca Flair spoke to the Electoral Reform Society on the topic of the British Constitution and Modern British Politics.

Quote:Ladies and Gentlemen thank you all for coming.

Our constitution and our politics are broken, and like all broken things they are in dire need of repairs. We have unelected, unrepresentative and unaccountable House of Lords with the power to make or break a Government’s legislative progress, we have a House of Commons where power is concentrated in the hands of two parties at the expense of the plethora of other voters in the UK, and we have a political establishment in desperate need of reform to break up the old boys’ club. Labour and the Tories talk a good game, but as we have become accustomed to finding out the hard way, what they say and what they do are often two completely unrelated things entirely.

Let’s look at the House of Lords issue to start with. Now to their credit the Conservatives have played it straight with the people, they are quite happy to keep the Lords around despite its obvious democratic flaws because it is a great retirement home and it offers them terrific in-grown advantages with 92 Hereditary Peers and 26 Lords Spiritual who are automatically predisposed to voting with the Tory Party on a number of issues such as homosexual rights. On the other hand the Labour Party claim to be pro-Senate, which is a fantastic development in the fight for true democracy in the Upper Chamber, but the celebrations may indeed already prove premature. Writing in the Guardian the then prominent Labour Backbencher and the Chair of the Constitution and Local Government Select Committee (now Minister of State for Local Government the Constitution), Emily Kennedy, has felt the need to give a public kick to her own party with regards to what she is expecting from any Senate Bill they propose. Her proposals are pretty common sense: a Senate that can’t have its wings clipped by the Commons, a Senate that has more power than the existing Lords, and a Senate that represents the nations and regions effectively. These are all fantastic interjections into a debate that has too often been poisoned by interventions speaking out against people rather than in favour of ideas, but the fact that she felt the need to even make this interjection must surely those of us who believe that the House of Lords must be shown the door.

Luckily the Liberal Democrats have a clear and comprehensive plan that will give the people a properly elected and accountable legislature, elected by regional list PR. The current composition of the House of Lords has the number of peers far exceeding the actual space available for them, the Chamber itself has capacity for 400 individuals, so the number of Senators under the Lib Dem plan shall be set at 400 Senators. Under the Lib Dem plan we shall see Senators delivered to the nations on a broadly proportional basis. England would receive 268 Senators, Scotland would get 64 Senators, Wales would get 44 and Northern Ireland would get 24. The Senators from England shall be further divided based on the electoral regions we use for European Parliamentary Elections. This situation will ensure constitutional parity between the nations to a far greater degree than is currently seen. In the House of Lords the English are massively over-represented whilst the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish are massively under-represented; it is our hope that by ensuring that 16% of Senators are from Scotland, 11% are from Wales, and 6% are from Northern Ireland this will allow for more local viewpoints to be extolled from the upper chamber. The elections shall be delivered under a system of Regional List Proportional Representation, if the SNP get 10% of the vote in Scotland they shall very simply get 10% of the seats. It is essential that in seeking to introduce democracy to the upper chamber we do not stop short and offer something that is good but that could have been far far better. A democratically elected Senate under Liberal Democrat plans would have far greater powers than currently enjoyed by the unelected and unaccountable House of Lords. It would retain the Lords’ powers to draft its own legislation but it would gain new powers including the ability to directly question Cabinet Ministers, the ability to defend its powers from the House of Commons, and the 1949 Parliament Act would be repealed in its entirety meaning that a Senate would have far stronger powers of delay and reflection. An elected Senate is all well and good but unless it has far greater powers than currently allowed to the House of Lords then it will be little more than window dressing, I call upon the Labour Party to ensure that a future Senate will have strong democratic powers to defend itself and exert a degree of political will rather than simply being a PR tool.

Something that seems to have fallen off the agenda recently has been the idea of House of Commons reform, to me this cam be split into two separate sections: Electoral Reform and Reform to the Institution itself. The Liberal Democrats have long stood for proper democratic accountability in our electoral system, the system of safe seats we are currently faced with presents us with a situation where hundreds of seats and perhaps millions of people are for the most part ignored by the Westminster elite during elections. Campaign effort and money is focused on handfuls of winnable “swing seats” to the detriment of the rest of the country. Now don’t get me wrong, first past the post employs the constituency system very well in that it ensures a local link between MP and Constituent, but this system of safe seating creates a disconnect between the party top brass and the millions who vote for them in safe seats as well as a system of “wasted votes” where dissent in safe seats is virtually impossible and voting is nearly completely pointless. The Liberal Democrat position is simple, keep the constituencies, reduce the safe seats as much as possible. Therefore we propose a compromise solution, we propose that the electoral system is amended so that instead of First Past the Post it is instead the Alternative Vote system. If an MP gets 50% of the vote then that is completely fine and they have won in their own power in the first round, if not then it is only right that second preferences and the like are brought into effect to ensure that the MP who represents the constituents serves at the will of more than 50% of the population in their seat. The Alternative Vote system would not make it a case of vote for Labour to keep out the Tories, you could vote Green, Liberal Democrat, continuity SDP or any other party as your first choice and as long as you rank Labour above the Tories or vice versa you will still be keeping your least preferred candidate out of office whilst giving your most preferred candidate the best possible chance at being elected.

Now the other issue with the House of Commons is that nobody trusts their MPs, we’ve had scandal after scandal paraded through the newspapers with cabinet officials sacked in disgrace, Cash for Questions, and the back to basics scandals of the last Conservative Government, the people want action to restore faith in politics and it is time that we give it to them. For all his faults Harold Saxon had his finger on the pulse when he called for cross-party talks on the sorting out of this issue, weeding out politics to create a generally better atmosphere and restore trust will take action from all political parties. Recall elections, if managed properly, are a fine idea that will enable the British people to pass judgement on their MPs if they are found guilty of criminal misconduct. However I believe that this course action is merely one of many that we must take to restore the public’s faith in politics and politicians. I have been pleased to see the Conservative Party pushing a commission for reforming the way political parties are financed, allow me to be the first to offer up a couple of suggestions: Spending limits for political parties, donation reform so that political parties have to make public their large donors, and have political parties publish their accounts so we can see where their money is coming from and where it is going. These simple acts of transparency will send an incredibly strong message to the people that we have nothing to hide and to politicians that there is nowhere to hide. Further to this we need to be stronger in holding our Government to account. When the Trevitt scandal rocked the nation the opposition could do little but speculate in a manner that led to a gross misrepresentation of the truth leaving all with egg on their face and potentially damaging the careers of the Government Whips who were falsely accused of wrongdoing. We need to strengthen the House of Commons Select Committee system so that it can hold individual Government Ministers to account far more effectively, a new Standards Committee should be established to look solely upon MPs and Ministers and whether their actions and alleged actions do represent a breach of the standards we expect from our MPs. These standards should be codified into a single document that should represent the basic terms and conditions for MPs and Ministers if they wish to continue to serve in public life. Breaching these terms should carry severe penalties for the individuals in question and such a matter could be added to the Recall of MPs powers proposed by the Conservative Party. These individual reforms may seem like little fixes, but taken together they represent a revolution in allowing backbenchers to hold Government to account and allowing the people to hold MPs to account. These proposals form the main proposals that the Liberal Democrats shall continue to push for as part of our drive to clean up British politics.

So in conclusion my friends, the Liberal Democrats recognise that the UK’s democracy is broken. We alone recognise the need for an elected, representative, and more powerful upper chamber, a more representative House of Commons, and restoring the people’s trust in their politicians and elected representatives. This road will not be an easy one to walk down, there will no doubt be opposition from the two main parties on the Commons electoral system reforms, there will no doubt be opposition from the Tories and some in Labour over our plans for a truly democratic Senate with more powers to look after itself and the British people and we all know that the Lib Dem plan for cleaning up politics are incredibly strong and will surely rile up MPs who believe that they are above proper scrutiny of their actions. But the fact of the matter is these are fights we must be prepared to have and simply must win if we are to make our democracy more accessible to the people that matter, the voters. Our Lords are unelected and unaccountable but that has made them unrepresentative as well, they are Bishops, Hereditary Peers and men and women who have given great service to political parties for the most part. How many Life Peers are former Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet Ministers? The House of Commons may be elected, but when half of the country’s opinion hardly matters because they can’t win then is that really all that much better? Our MPs may be fine and upstanding individuals nine times out of ten but if we allow one of our MPs to do as Solomon Trevitt did then they will drag down the rest of us with a bad reputation, damaging the people’s trust in politicians even further. My friends the Lib Dems are committed to fighting for these reforms and we are committed to implementing them as soon as we are able to. Thank you.

'Emergencies' have always been the pretext on which the safeguards of individual liberty have been eroded. - Friedrich Hayek
Underlying most arguments against the free market is a lack of belief in freedom itself. - Milton Friedman
Nothing is so permanent as a temporary government program. - Milton Friedman

Mac the Great and Powerful
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Ok. Lord Ashdown made his views on certain parts of this speech clear so take that the feeling of your party membership when it comes to the AV section of your speech.

On the other hand, a Liberal Democrat speaking to the Electoral Reform Society should have been like preaching to the choir. For almost a century the Liberal Democrats have been *the* party of electoral and democratic reform in the United Kingdom and unfortunately Flair's speech did not knock it out of the park like she could have done. Throughout the speech it feels as if she was holding back from giving her true opinion on the issue. Yes, you explained what you wanted and that was noted but there needed to be more flair (pun intended) in how you delivered it. Reforming politics is to the Lib Dems as Law and Order is to the Tories. It is a part of their DNA and they expect Lib Dem leaders to perform well on this issue (because no one else really cares about it). So, you missed out on that aspect of the speech.

On the content, it was good. The explanation of how you want the Senate to look is good and sets out a clear path and the stronger Commons committees are welcome news to many who call for greater scrutiny not just on standards but on the potential for greater political discourse. One note for you on AV though, it is 50% +1 vote not just 50% but I will look over that error.

Overall, this had the potential to be a really good speech, but fell at a couple of hurdles.

Lib Dem +6
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