Sunday, September 18, 2011

Back to the backbenches

Now, my local political opponents shouldn’t get too excited as I’m not talking about the City of Edinburgh Council ;-)

No, I’m referring to the Electoral Reform Society (ERS) ... as regular readers will know, the ERS AGM was held a couple of weeks ago and I didn’t report on events then as the election of Officers (of the ERS Council) was postponed for a couple of weeks due to a few absences from the meeting in London on the 3rd.

So, this Saturday’s Council Meeting had the task of electing the Officers for the next 12-months.

And yesterday, I stood to remain Chair and lost the vote by the narrowest of margins – 1.

And I should start these reflections by congratulating the new Chair – John Ault – and wishing him all the best in the role for the coming 12-months. He’ll have my 100% support.

I’d taken the decision before the meeting, not to contest any other Officer post if I didn’t get the Chair’s position – as the title of this blogpost indicates, I’d concluded it was either Chair or ‘back to the backbenches’.

And that’s where I’ll now be for the next while on the ERS Council. Less trips to London, a lot less e-mails and possibly a bit more time to spend on that allotment ;-)

Inevitably the events of Saturday have led me to reflect on the state of the democratic reform movement as we move on from last May’s referendum defeat and into a new phase of campaigning. I’ve not engaged in the endless post-mortems about last May and that deeply disappointing result ... and I don’t intend to dwell on it here, given the acres of print already expended on the subject. Suffice to say, all of us involved in that campaign have to accept a degree of responsibility for what went wrong.

But I do want to reflect on wider issues and put May’s defeat into some sort of context.

If I had a pound for every time (since May) I’d heard someone argue that the democratic reform movement was dysfunctional and had achieved nothing, I’d be a rich man :-(

Of course, the ERS – and all the other non-Party Groups – have their problems ... as do all the major and minor political Parties in this country. Stick a bunch of disparate activists together in a campaign (non-Party or Party) and an element of dysfunctionality is beyond certain ;-)

Democracy, properly practiced, with real people, is messy, difficult and bloody frustrating.

And thank goodness for it.

But it’s the claims of ‘just what has the democratic reform movement ever achieved’ that have become just a tad annoying for my liking. I want to explain just why I think that.

I guess I first became involved in the wider movement back in late-1990 when I joined Charter88 (as it was then) when I lived and worked in Stoke-on-Trent, and shortly thereafter attended the Charter88 Manchester Convention in November 1991. It was a complete turning-point in my political awareness and a period of a few months for which I will be forever grateful. If anyone involved in organising that Convention is listening – you changed my political life.

Shortly after, during late 1991/early 1992 I think it was, I joined the Electoral Reform Society (ERS), and in 1993 I moved back to Scotland (Edinburgh to be precise) and went completely native within the devolution-movement and the imminent 1997 referendum campaign, first being elected to the ERS Council in the mid-1990s and eventually being elected as a Local Government Councillor in Edinburgh for the first time in 1999.

Back then, in the early 1990’s, many of the newly elected Members of this year’s ERS Council would still have been at Primary School and here’s what didn’t exist:
  • A Scottish Parliament
  • The use of proportional representation (AMS) to elect that Scottish Parliament
  • A Welsh Assembly
  • The use of proportional representation (AMS) to elect that Welsh Assembly
  • A Northern Ireland Assembly
  • The use of proportional representation (STV) to elect that Northern Ireland Assembly
  • A Greater London Authority (GLA)
  • The use of proportional representation (MMP) to elect that Greater London Authority
  • The use of proportional representation (Regional List System) to elect the European Parliament
  • A House of Lords free from hereditary peers
  • The Freedom of Information Act (England and Wales)
  • The Freedom of Information Act (Scotland)
  • The incorporation of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR) into British Law
  • The use of the Single Transferable Vote (STV) to elect Scottish Local Government
  • I’m one of 1,222 Councillors in Scotland now elected by STV :-)
It’s not a bad list of achievements within a 20-year timeframe ... and we all too readily forget it.

If you never experienced it, I can understand it’s probably hard to imagine what the UK looked and felt like prior to these reforms – what can I say ... politically, it was a pretty dispiriting state of affairs for any genuine democrat.

But these hard won reforms are not enough for me, and come 2031, I’d like to see the list above added to by the following:
  • The implementation of fixed term Parliaments at Westminster
  • The use of proportional representation to elect English Local Government
  • The use of the Single Transferable Vote (STV) to elect the House of Lords
  • and yes, the use of proportional representation to elect the House of Commons
  • Votes for those of 16-years of age, for all levels of Government
  • The formation of Regional Assemblies in England
  • All as part of a federal-settlement for the United Kingdom
  • All contained within a Written Constitution
Do I really think these things can be achieved in the next 20-years?

Yes I do. The evidence of the previous two decades proves that these seismic constitutional changes can be won, with hard work, determination, and a willingness to learn lessons and keep going in the hardest of moments.

Just ask those involved in that first 1979 Scottish Referendum how they felt in the months after defeat?

But, many of those very same people were still involved in the later-1997 Referendum Campaign that led directly to the formal establishment of the Scottish Parliament.

Regular readers will know that I'm not really one for heroes - but looking back, if I do have any 'political heroes' it’s those people – some of whom I was lucky enough to work with in that 1997 campaign – the ones who kept the flame of constitutional reform alive after the darkest of days. And, eventually they did indeed achieve what they aspired for.

And I’ve no doubt whatsoever that the new Members of the ERS Council – and the many others who are working tirelessly for meaningful democratic reform – will see further achievements in the next two decades.

It may not seem likely right at this minute, but history tells me it will indeed happen.

But not if we spend any more time feeling sorry for ourselves or asking ‘just what has the democratic reform movement ever achieved’.

It’s achieved an enormous amount - literally having transformed this country’s politics.

But there’s some unfinished business and, for me, we simply now need to get on and complete the job.

Just like those 'political heroes' of 1979 did.

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