Here's my Bucket List for Constitutional Change
1. Abolish the Lords
The parliaments of Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Israel and New Zealand are all unicameral with scrutiny carried out by parliamentary committees. A minority of UK MPs voted for the outright abolition of the upper house in 2003, and it was Labour party policy until the late 1980s. For more than a century UK Governments have attempted to find a way to reform the House of Lords - the Parliament Act 1911 introduced by the then Liberal Government; the Labour Party elected in 1997 with a manifesto including the promise to reform the House of Lords: all three of main parties promising to take action on Lords reform in the 2010 general election, and, following it, the Coalition Agreement including a promise to "bring forward proposals for a wholly or mainly elected upper chamber on the basis of proportional representation" (abandoned after Tory opposition).
The Lords is a very different looking body now from what it was when I was a young. But on this, as on so many other issues, ordinary people are well ahead of the political parties. Many people (especially Labour supporters) tell you on the doorstep that we need to get rid of the Lords once and for all.
Of course, a unicameral system has its weaknesses. It is dependent on powerful scrutiny of the Executive which has been singularly lacking from the supine nationalist members of the Holyrood Committees. On this score Westminster has fared much better with their Select Committees enjoying a surge in public approval over their handling of the banks; the media; public accounts; welfare etc.
We need to abolish the Lords - no ifs or buts - and introduce a robust process of pre-legislative scrutiny involving a wide cross section of public interest, expert opinion and civic society.
2. Cap Referenda
The Government of the UK has held 12 referenda since 1973 but only two of these have been UK wide. Referenda on EU expansion and on the Euro were abandoned. I have been able to vote on 5 in my lifetime - Membership of the EEC, two on Scottish Devolution, the AV voting system for Westminster and Scottish Independence. I voted for the winning side on all of them although we failed in the first Scottish Devolution one on a technicality. Don't tell the nationalists, but referenda are always consultative and Parliament remains sovereign. However in reality no UK government is going to ignore the democratic verdict of the people in a referendum it has sanctioned, either pre-legislative or post-legislative.
I am not a great fan of referenda. They allow Governments to absolve themselves of responsibility for decision making while being far from neutral in the campaign itself; they are only held if the Government feels fairly confident of the outcome; there is usually an imbalance of resources between each side of the argument; complex issues end up being oversimplified; they are merely a snapshot of public opinion but can decide things for future generations. And so my Bucket List would include placing a cap on the number of referenda which could be called - let's say one every ten years. Of course we would have to have a referendum on the Referenda Cap (which could only be consultative!)
3. Legislate for equal representation of women and men
Women represent over 50% of Scotland’s population, but are not proportionately represented in political and public life. At the moment, only 22% of UK MPs are women (and 22% of Scottish MPs); 35% of MSPs; and 24% of Scottish councillors.
Labour has been streets ahead of the other parties in tackling the under-representation of women. Both All Women Shortlists for the UK and the twinning of Scottish Parliament seats to select a man and a woman have been very successful. That's why they have also been controversial. Labour must now move to continue the progress on improving women’s representation.
We should propose legislation for political parties to have quotas for women candidates and put forward a legislative programme and timetable for both UK and devolved parliaments to achieve 50/50 representation. As with all gains for women, representation goes through a cycle of campaigning, achievement and backlash. We only need to look at how our current leading women politicians in the UK and Scotland are judged to see the double standards that are applied.
4. Shift power to local authorities
Local government has developed over time in Scotland as a result of the desire of communities to provide services and buildings, paid for by local communities and determined at the local level. Local government services became both more professional and extensive in scope. The creation of the Scottish Parliament has seen a significant increase in the legislation passed relating to local government - on childcare, education, transport, economic development, housing, environment and justice.
But local government should not just be about service provision but should be a collective expression of the values and priorities of local communities. The impact of the reduction in financial flexibility has seen the focus change from innovative thinking about local priorities (when I first worked in local government) to being mainly about driving efficiency and cost savings (by the time retired).
Think back to 1983 and the re-election of the Thatcher Government. That Government then went ahead with its plans to take control of local authorities' expenditure and income collection, aimed in particular at progressive high spending Labour Councils. Plans were laid to divest local government of services like taking transport away from the GLC and abolishing the English Metropolitan Councils and the GLC itself. Great strategic authorities like Strathclyde stood as the unofficial opposition to the Tory Government. Sadly we have seen the same pattern of centralising, controlling, divesting of local government under the majority SNP administration elected in 2010.
That's why my favourite section of the Scottish Labour Party's 'Powers for a Purpose' document is Chapter 7, 'Empowering local government - enhancing local democracy.' It is time for Local Government again. We need to empower our local authorities to have an impact on the local economy, devolving powers not just from Holyrood but from UK reserved areas too. The Work Programme and the Crown Estates have been headline examples of this, but I would also like to see local communities involved in working with DfID in promoting international development work locally and encouraging partnership working with towns and regions in developing countries.
5. Restore the link of elected member to constituency/ward
Over the years the debate about electoral reform has focused largely on the issue of proportionality. It was assumed that people would reconnect with politics if representation more fairly reflected voting. But this has been pursued at the expense of the importance of the member/constituency link.
In the debate about the list system used for the election of some MSPs, we were told that this would bring about an extension of democracy - more choice for the elector. Tories can choose to go to a Tory MSP; Labour supporters to a Labour MSP; nationalists to a nationalist. This analysis proved as about as robust as the view that the Scottish Parliament would deliver a new politics of consensus. The truth is that we have a Scottish Parliament of entrenched party politics.
I believe that democracy was diminished when we weakened the tradition of the duly elected constituency member as the representative of all the electors of that constituency. There is plenty of scope for pursuing a vigorous party political role, while also ensuring that you act as an elected representative and advocate on behalf of all individual constituents. MPs still have that role but for a reduced range of responsibilities; Constituency MSPs have it but List MSPs don't; and councillors share it with others in large multi member wards. I feel we have abandoned an important and valuable democratic tradition and replaced it with a rather ill thought through 'Balkanisation' of our system of political representation.
I believe we were seduced into embracing these electoral reforms for little gain. More important is the need to address how we achieve political representation at Westminster, in the Scottish Parliament and in Local Government that reflects the whole of Scottish society: women and men; ethnic minorities; youth and experience; all social backgrounds. I don't suppose we are ever going to get 'First Past the Post' back for these roles, so it will have to be AV we aim for!
6. Votes at 16
At the age of 16 a British citizen can get married, join the army, smoke, leave home, claim benefits, and contribute to the public purse through taxes – but vote in a general election? Not yet. There is absolutely no good reason to deny the vote to 16 and 17 year olds. Those who voted in the Scottish Independence Referendum will now find themselves disenfranchised in the UK General Election in May of next year, and, with fixed term UK parliaments, many young people won't get the chance to vote in a UK General Election till they are in their 20s. Votes for all at 16? As comedian Arnold Brown would say, - 'And why not!'.