Each party has a very different approach to questions of constitutional reform. For the Lib Dems, the geeks of a geeky world, it’s a raison d’etre – never get one talking about Single Transferable Vote or you are quite likely to vanish for quite some time. For the Conservatives, it’s part of a bubbling pot of mysterious organic matter – rarely stirred, from time to time an idea will bubble up in acknowledgement of a change in the nation. For Ed Miliband’s Labour Party, it’s something Stephen Twigg was put in charge of after he stuffed up the Shadow Education brief, which tells you most of what you need to know.
Let’s be honest, constitutional reform is about as sexy as Ed Balls is cool, calm and collected. It tends to excite obsessives and bore the pants of most other voters. It is, though, a way for an Opposition leader to make a media splash without having to spend any money or confront other, more awkward, matters, so it comes in handy from time to time.
As a result, while poor Mr Twigg apparently lies gagged and bound in the basement of Labour HQ until he’s learned his lesson, we’ve seen Ed Miliband make some forays into the field. Each has been characterised by the hunt for easy headlines and the avoidance of topics that really matter in practice.
In the Alternative Vote referendum, he declared that the electoral system must change, “ensuring the voice of the public is heard louder than it has been in the past”. The watery quality of his endorsement was remarkable, though – he supported the Yes2AV campaign while saying a) that Clegg was running it badly, b) that there were more important things to be getting on with and c) that he was really focused on the local elections. As we know, AV was defeated – and Labour made only limited headway in the local elections, too.
Since then, we haven’t heard much more about the supposedly pressing need for a new electoral system. AV has been dumped even by those who initially proposed it, and Miliband has signally failed to suggest a replacement for First Past the Post. It looked like a half-hearted gimmick at the time, and so it has proved.
He repeated the trick a year later, over Lords reform. True to Labour’s manifesto pledge, he announced his MPs would vote in favour of the Coalition’s proposals – while at the same time a) expressing reservations about the plan and b) arguing that there were more important things that needed addressing. When Miliband rides out in support of something, he makes El Cid look lively and dynamic.
Shortly after came the battle over boundary reform. With Labour MPs agitating against the prospect of losing seats, their leader duly ventured forth to valiantly oppose the idea of redrawing constituency lines to make elections fairer. The party which once supported “political reform, ensuring the voice of the public is heard louder than it has been in the past” was dead set against a measure to do exactly that – no conspiracy theory was too low if it helped discredit the idea. For a while it looked like Ed’s performance on AV and Lords reform might be repeated, but his seats were saved, ironically, by Nick Clegg at the last moment.
It’s not a glittering record, and Labour’s current constitutional reform platform doesn’t look much better.
Perhaps mindful that his involvement in an earlier referendum hadn’t worked out that well, Miliband has stayed relatively distant from the Scottish independence referendum. Alistair Darling is of course in charge of the Better Together campaign, and Gordon Brown has now joined the fray, so Labour are prominently represented, but it isn’t exactly a resounding success so far. Given Labour’s endless claims to represent Scotland, it’s worth asking why, if that is the case, they have so far simply frittered away a strong No lead in the referendum campaign.
Labour’s most recent proposal for constitutional reform was the extension of the vote to 16- and 17-year-olds – a classic example of a fringe concern. By contrast, the Opposition offers precisely nothing to answer the rising demand for greater representation for England in a devolved UK, and Miliband’s recent speech on the important matter of whether Westminster or Brussels makes our laws was, at best, a fudge.
There’s a great irony here. When he was running to be Labour leader, Ed Miliband presented himself as a radical with a coherent position of large-scale reform to increase representation, underpinned by a written constitution. Ever since winning the race, though, his approach has been an ineffective mixture of opportunism, evasion and, most of all, failure.