Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Why Mehdi Hasan is wrong.

I read an interesting article by Mehdi Hasan today, who seems to have become the blinkered anti-Government Labour attack-dog of the moment. You can read it here;

In the article Hasan felt it necessary to shoot down any possibility of significant political reform being undertaken over the course of this Parliament, or at least the possibility of that reform being on the same scale as that achieved under Labour's previous years in office. This is a very eager bit of forecasting by Hasan, given that this administration has only been in place for around a week. But that's not the point, and he's obviously not the only observer (or indeed politician - Clegg's comparison with the 1832 Reform Act and all subsequent political reforms is also a bit cheeky) to fire out spurious comparisons today. However, Hasan makes a much more galling error (or is he being deliberately misleading?) by arguing that the reforms outlined by Clegg are not going to be noteworthy in comparison with the Labour's constitutional reforms.

Silly Hasan;

Mistake no. 1)

In the first few paragraphs of the article, Hasan summarises the main planks of Clegg's reform plans by lazily nabbing a few bits from the BBC website. Naughty Hasan. He obviously read the rest of Clegg's speech so can't have failed to see it laced with tasty morsels of reform committments, but decided to focus on a few dribs and drabs also lazily summarised by the BBC. Here's the BBC post's bullet points;

* Elected House of Lords (note - Hasan 'conveniently' decides here to misquote the BBC as saying a "partially elected house of Lords" - NO HASAN! Partial is Labour's favourite method... the Con-Dem coalition is planning a fully elected OR partially elected House of Lords using a proper proportional system - A) we don't know if it will end up being wholly elected but we can hope, B) even if partially elected that's much more than Labour ever did, despite their promises. ps. I think teacher would deduct points for editing a pasted element from another source without highlighting the edit, even if you feel it is in the sake of your version of 'accuracy'.)
* Scrapping the ID card scheme and the national identity register
* Libel to be reviewed to protect freedom of speech
* Limits on the rights to peaceful protest to be removed
* Scrapping the ContactPoint database of 11 million under-18s"

Reading Clegg's speech, there's much more to it than that, which I can summarise as follows, but I recommend you read Clegg's speech in full;

* A referendum on electoral reform
* Elected House of Lords
* Scrapping the ID card scheme and the national identity register
* Libel to be reviewed to protect freedom of speech
* Limits on the rights to peaceful protest to be removed
* Scrapping the ContactPoint database of 11 million under-18s
* Increased regulation of CCTV
* Prevention of unecessary DNA storage
* Enshrining the right to trial by jury
* Preventing the unecessary fingerprinting of children
* A system to consult on the removal of unecessary laws
* A mechanism to prevent the introduction of unecessary laws
* Safeguards to prevent the misuse of anti-terror legislation
* The introduction of fixed term Parliaments
* Moving the power to dissolve Parliament from the Executive to Parliament
* Giving MPs more control over Commons business through the implementaion of the Wright Committee recommendations (yet another of those committees Labour initiated then ignored).
* Giving communities the power of recall of MPs found guilty of serious wrongdoing.
* Regulation of lobbying through the introduction of a statutory register of lobbyists.
* Reforming party funding and limiting donations
* Reducing the number of MPs
* Equalizing constituency boundaries (not actually in favour of this reform but hey-ho - it's reform isn't it?!)
* Referendum on further devolution in Wales
* Implementation of the Calman recommendations in Scotland for further powers in Holyrood
* Addressing the West Lothian question

Phew.... now that is an ambitious programme of reforms, whether you agree with those reforms wholesale or not.

Do those reforms "pale into insignificance compared with what was achieved, constitutionally, in the early years of New Labour in power." Well, even if we just stick to the ones which deal with constitutional reforms (i.e. political reforms) I don't think they do.

2. So, having corrected Hasan's mistake no. 1, we can take a look at his mistake no. 2 in earnest.

Hasan reckons the reforms proposed by Clegg don't match up with the Clegg proposals, but is that really true?

Hasan speaks about the following reforms by Labour during the early years.

* Devolution to Scotland and Wales and the introduction of proportionally elected assemblies.
* The Human Rights Act
* The Freedom of Information Act
* Removing most hereditary peers from the House of Lords

So, first devolution to Scotland and Wales? hmmm... pretty big, and important stuff. But Hasan is taking an interesting line on what he feels is more important to the politics of this nation.

The population of the UK is around 60 million give or take. Five sixths of that is in England.

Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland account for just under 10 million people.

Scottish and Welsh devolution meant a lot to those 10 million people, and no doubt some of the other 50 million of us not living in Scotland and Wales were a vaguely interested too. But it didn't affect us much, did it? Furthermore, one must remember that the unification of Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland or the opposite thereof, is a constitutionally significant thing, but that's not what happened here - certain very proscribed powers were devolved, and a lot weren't. Those powers still rest at Westminster, or indeed in Europe.

Taking just a couple of the Con-Dem proposals, in the form of a proportionally elected upper house in Parliament, and the introduction (if successful in the referendum) of the Alternative Vote, these would actually over time lead to very significant changes in the way this country - all of it, including Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland - is governed.

Mistake no. 3.

The other things Hasan summarises from the early Labour years in power following 1997, in my view don't compare to the programme of reform Clegg has outlined. For each and every one of Labour's achievements, Clegg's proposals can trump them;

A) Devolution to Scotland and Wales - not as significant as AV which has more impact on more people. Moreover, the coalition plans to devolve yet more powers to Holyrood and the Welsh Assembly.

B) Directly elected mayors. Hardly groundbreaking stuff, is it? (I suggest Hasan pays a visit to Doncaster Town Hall for a lesson in the positive impacts of this policy). The coalition doesn't really have a like-for-like comparable here in terms of local gov reform, although they do have an extensive programme of reform planned for local government. I'd suggest the planned primaries for the safest Parliamentary seats will have a bigger impact on local democracy. How's about fixed term Parliaments and the power of recall for good measure? bigger constitutionally? you'd have to be churlish to argue otherwise.

C) The Human Rights Act? - incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights you mean? well, that wasn't really Blair's big idea was it? he just incorporated something into British law. Whilst introducing the Human Rights Act in one breath the Labour administration introduced internment, removed the right to trial by jury, and has in short done more than any other British government in living memory to impede civil liberties. I don't think Labour's record on are something to laud, Hasan is mad to suggest otherwise.

Henry Porter and many others have spoken with relief at the massive programme of reform on this subject planned by the coalition; Again, trumps what Labour did with the Human Rights Act, moreover remedies the huge injustices done to our rights under that Party's administration.

D) The Freedom of Information Act. People shouldn't downplay the significance of the FoI act, but regulating lobbyists and reforming party funding, along with addressing the West Lothian question and reducing the number of MPs are together a bigger change to our democratic system.

E) Removal of the rights of hereditary peers to sit and vote in the Lords. A big change indeed, but what long-lasting change to our democracy did it make by having a primarily appointed upper House as opposed to a primarily hereditary House of Lords? I didn't feel the empowerment personally. The plans for an elected upper chamber using PR are far more significant than this.

So, I say NO HASAN! go back to school! Criticise the proposed reforms by all means, but do not underestimate the programme of reform outlined, for it is huge, as he you well know. Comments about the Conservatives opposition to Labour's past measures is completely irrelevant. The article was about comparing the achievements of Labour with the proposals. Sticking to that, the proposals go much further than what Labour achieved. Let's hope they can put most of the good ones into action. And try to resist churlishness, which appears to be the symptom of some of the New Statesman's commentators.

Hasan's pop at Clegg et al for the 55% rule is disgraceful. He accuses Clegg of being disingenuous. Will Hasan deny that this is a NEW power being given to Parliament? not a change to an existing one? Beware articles attacking the 55% rule, they are being written by people with an agenda who hope the readers are less familiar with Parliamentary practice than they arer.

Oh, and one final thing. In view of Hasan's closing comments about costs, even if the coalition adds many hundreds of Lords to the upper chamber, each Lord costs around £100,000 a year to fund, whereas an MP costs around £600,000. So if you reduce the number of MPs, you'd have to then introduce six times as many people to the Lords to negate the cost-saving.

Clegg, disingenuous? Hasan ought to look at that kettle and check the colour.

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