Sunday, 7 June 2009

A fine day Part 2 - the democratic deficit

A few days ago I waffled on about how Gordon Brown's authority comes primarily from his party rather than from the last general election and that his position is necessarily weakened by fractures appearing in the party itself. Friday's forced "re-shuffle" was a direct consequence of that weakness, not least because it was not expected to happen until Monday and had to be brought forward to try to stop the snowball effect of ministerial resignations and divert attention away from criticisms of the Prime Minister.

It is important to put current events in context. Criticisms of the Prime Minister and the government are only part of the picture, there is also a massive constitutional issue about the way parliament has been sidelined by an over-powerful executive which whips its backbenchers into voting for all but the very most absurd policy initiatives. The last thing a beleaguered leader should do in the face of such a serious issue is make things worse. Oh dear, step up poor Gordon.

The cabinet traditionally contains one member of the House of Lords, the leader of the government party in that House, and in days of yore it contained a second in the Lord Chancellor. Neither of these had conventional departmental responsibilities and were not front-line policy spokesmen. When Tony Blair decided to abolish the established role of Lord Chancellor he used the incumbent (his old flatmate from student days, Lord Falconer) as a spokesman on any number of issues and received criticism for undermining the elected House by doing so. For a year we have had a member of the House of Lords running the Department for Business, the first time a major spending department was headed by an unelected politician since the mid 1980s.

Friday saw the breathtaking constitutional change of Lord Mandelson being promoted so that he now holds the second most powerful position in government and another Lord is now in charge of transport. But that wasn't the end of it. In addition to the cabinet itself there are now five other ministers who attend cabinet meetings and two of them are unelected, Lord Malloch-Brown and Lord Drayson and the Attorney General, Lady Scotland, attends when the agenda includes matters within her departmental responsibilities. Out of twenty-three cabinet ministers three are unelected and out of the twenty-eight ministers who attend all cabinet meetings five are unelected, that will soon be six when the new Minister for Europe, Mrs Kinnock, takes her seat in the House of Lords. So Gordon's answer to the gap between government and the little people is for almost a quarter of his top table being appointed rather than elected.

And it doesn't stop there. Are ministers going to be responsible for forming policy? One might think that is the way to ensure democratic validity, but no. Gordon announced three new policy quangoes to guide the way forward.

Things have quietened down a little over the weekend. It might be that all those who were inclined to resign have done so. Gordon is enjoying a couple of days of breathing space while everyone reflects on what to make of last week's turmoil. What I see is a widening of the democratic deficit. Not only does Gordon have his own democratic deficit by being a party appointee without endorsement through a general election, but his deficit has widened through his party being fractured. More than that, the gap between the top of government and the House of Commons has widened and the gap between policy formation and our elected representatives has also widened.

Gordon is bleating more and more about constitutional change, his anti-democratic moves last Friday will come back to bite him. If, indeed, he lasts long enough to be able to put forward whatever half-baked plans he has.

1 comment:

J Bonington Jagworth said...

Sorry, can't resist...