Deputy PM before the Constitution Committee

As I mentioned in the previous post, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, gave evidence to the Constitution Committee on Wednesday on the Government’s programme of constitutional change.

One of the issues I was keen to pursue with him was the connection between the underlying philosophy and the actual proposals.  The aim of the changes is essentially to restore faith in politics, but I wasn’t clear as to how the Government’s measures would achieve this.  When I asked him about the evidence base for the proposals, he conceded it was a matter of judgment on the part of ministers.  When I pursued the issue of fixed term parliaments, moving from principle to the actual length of the term, he said five years was justifiable for the purpose of good governance.  I did suggest, though, that if the purpose was to restore faith in politics, it may have been appropriate to ask the people what they thought.

The session itself can be viewed at


About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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32 Responses to Deputy PM before the Constitution Committee

  1. ladytizzy says:

    Should parties be blamed for not having a coherent policy when voters pick ‘n’ mix from all the proposals available? Take the following: voters have no consistency, the message is diluted, voters become disillusioned. Which order should those three points be put so as to make the most sense today?

    We are supposed to be voting for a constituency representative but should we admit defeat on this and All Hail The Chief? Or should we look again at whether I should be voting for the best MP for my constituency or the best MP for me?

    • Lord Norton says:

      ladytizzy: Where there are several changes proposed to the constitution, then I think they should be located within a clear view of our constitution and what it is for. I also think that policies should as far as possible be evidence-based rather than deriving from a ‘because I think so’ (or, in Tony Blair’s case ‘because I thought it was the right thing to do’) assertion.

  2. Dave Thawley says:

    “The aim of the changes is essentially to restore faith in politics”

    I think you mean the aim of the changes is to produce a politics that people can trust. A good load of whitewash usually achives the former – for a while at least 🙂

    • Lord Norton says:

      Dave Thawley: As I have argued before, I think the proposals derive from a misconception of the problem. The primary lack of faith is not in politics but in politicians. Politicians try to shift the blame by focusing on institutional change.

      • djb13 says:

        Politicians are reacting to the institutional framework in which they operate. The reason politicians ‘lie’ is because they are incentivised to do so by getting elected, or avoiding scandal. That said, I doubt that an elected House of Lords would change that. In fact, if our sole aim is stopping politicians from ‘lying’, we’d want to see the House of Lords as is (perhaps with a reformed appointments procedure to weed out the worst of the career politicians), as peers are rewarded for intellectual coherency by getting changes in legislation and government policy.

        I don’t believe that any of the proposed changes will increase trust in politicians (although, never say never). However, I think institutional change can improve trust in politicians, we’re just not reforming the right institutions in the right ways.

  3. djb13 says:

    I too found Clegg’s responses to be a bit ‘because I say so’. That’s not illigimate, he’s the duly (s)elected DPM, but I would have hoped he could have done slightly better, especially before a Lord’s committee. Perhaps he’s a bit too used to the cut-and-thrust of the HoC where ‘because I say so’ is all the justification you need.

    • Lord Norton says:

      djb13: He did tend to rely on generalisation, not least – as you say – of the ‘because I say so’ type. I suspect he has little experience of the Lords and the nature of questioning in committee. He did not come armed with much evidence to support his assertions. His reliance on the claim that reform of the second chamber is essentially the ‘democratic’ option, as if that was self-evidently true, suggests he was not well versed in the literature.

      • Croft says:

        I find myself rather exasperated at time and again having to listen to politicians pleading about how vital reform is so the people are better represented while simultaneously dumping their policies like confetti. The policies are supposedly the basis upon which that have/gained any mandate to speak for the people. If manifestos are now to commit the parties for the duration of a snowflake in June I’m not sure the electorate will see much point in the exercise.

      • djb13 says:

        Croft: I assume you refer to PR? If so, I would remind you that AV is not PR, nor even is AV nessercerily more proportional than FPTP.

      • Lord Norton says:

        djb13: I’m not sure Croft was referring to any electoral system. Anyway, best not to mention AV. Dave Thawley is about. 🙂

  4. Dave Thawley says:

    I’ll try not to mention AV here but I will be waiting eagerly for your next post 🙂
    Sorry I didn’t reply to your last comments (about a week ago). I would have liked to but I have just started a new contract which is keeping me busy. If I get chance I will though because I think the conversation could go on a lot further – saying that I think we will have plenty of time to go over it. I hope so anyway.
    My previous comment about a whitewash seems to me to sum up peoples (at least people where I live) opinion. Politics = deception, dishonesty and corruption. People realise not everyone is bad but the social them (MPs etc) are in general bad to the core and only in the job for the pay and the bungs. Of course I am generalising but I think I am offering a fair assessment.
    Firstly the system is intertwined with the politicians. I don’t think you can separate one from the other at all easily. For example some MPs let the side down because they seem complacent and out of touch(I remember the duck-house MP last year digging a very deep hole because he seemed genuinely puzzled at why the serfs should be allowed to criticise him). If the system (and this has got to be an issue with the system, or at least controllable by the system) allows MPs to get so far out of touch then the system needs modifying to bring them back in.
    The big problem which needs to be addressed as far as I can see is that people are disenfranchised and are now totally aware of it. (I’m not sure If they have always realised but they do now). They see politicians doing things they don’t like and they realise they have no real influence. Usually this extends to the (in my opinion) ridiculous situation where most people don’t want the government that is forced upon them by the strongest minority (as promised I’ll leave out comments about AV here :-). This means that usually the majority of the population are having their lives affected (sometimes drastically) in a way they neither wanted, voted for nor agreed with). They see the rich getting richer, the poor staying the same with the middle being squeezed and they feel they did not vote for it and had no say in the process whatsoever. They see politicians seemingly protect the very rich and taking backhanders off them for the privilege. i.e. the whole lot is corrupt from the bottom to the top.
    The two complaints I hear are – “They are all the same so why vote” and “X is going to win so why bother”. Although it is difficult to quantify I firmly believe there is a problem which needs sorting out. The changes proposed by labour and then expanded upon by the lib-dems will shake things up and give the population more power. At the end of the day I firmly believe the problem is caused by the power imbalance between MPs at the rest of us so if this is changed everything else will hopefully move in the right direction. What Clegg is doing (in this respect anyway) does seem vital and people need to support him while debating the best way forward.
    One area which needs looking at which I don’t think is at the moment is the ability for people like Murdoch to influence the political process. I am not sure if we need to sort out the way we elect and deselect MPs first or attack both together. I know this point is prickly but there is again a genuine problem which needs addressing. I am sure no perfect solution can exist but a change is required and should be assessed and introduced very soon.
    With the other measures such as the right of recall, the proposals will make the population feel better about politics because they will be having more of a say. Other aspects need to be addressed of course – for example how to stop people (e.g. Murdoch and the likes) influencing people in order to change the way they vote. My psychology education allows me to understand that this does happen and is a very negative aspect of politics. It’s a shame this is not being assessed at the same time

    • ladytizzy says:

      With your psychology hat on, does it bother you, as it does me, that Mr Cameron is aping Mr Clegg? I really don’t like men who put their hands in their suit pockets.

      • Dave Thawley says:

        It really gets my goat. I think it is really disgusting behaviour and perhaps shows some underling dynamic. Cam was out of order this week in PMQT for taking the p out of AV in front of everyone and I think this is perhaps some of the behaviour MPs show which makes people think they are Muppets. For Cam to behave like this shows his utter disrespect for Clegg. For Clegg to come out and support Cams policies and break he own word to people that voted for him before the election is disgusting (especially after this display of total lack of respect and public trashing of such an important progressive policy). How are people supposed to trust politicians when they blatantly lie to protect policies they promised to vote against? I know most LDs are very unhappy so let’s hope he has some scruples left and listens to the honourable members who actually still honourable
        In general – I’ve heard a lot of people will be looking at bomb fire night differently this year. Instead of condemning Guy, I think a lot of people will be celebrating his selfless effort in trying to put things right lol

      • Lord Norton says:

        ladytizzy: I share your view about hands in pockets. At least Nick Clegg didn’t have his hands in his pockets when he appeared before the Constitution Committee. He kept his hands in full view and regularly gesticulated in order to make a point. Mind you, I see I was rather prone to use my hands to emphasise points. If you watch the session in ‘fast forward’ mode, it looks as if we duelling with our hands.

    • djb13 says:

      I’m rapidly coming to the conclusion that limiting the power of Murdoch and the likes is far more important than measures like PR or right of recall.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Dave Thawley: I can see the case for a regulatory framework within which politicians operatee, but that is separate from the issue of the constititional framework of the UK. I regularly accept that institutions are not neutral in their effect, but the effect is primarily in terms of public policy. Politicians need to act in such a way, and utilise the (existing) means available, to restore trust in politics. Much of this involves being seen to act in such a way. Some people wish to be involved in influencing political outcomes, but many – indeed, according to the survey data in the Audit of Political Engagement, most (55%) – don’t and are content to leave decision-making to politicians. That, to my mind, actually increases the responsibility of political leaders to be seen to be acting in the interests of the country and not in the interests of themselves. The guiding light must be the public interest and not self-interests.

  5. Liam says:

    The Constitution Committee provides both reports on Bills to the Lords and ‘inquiries into wider constitutional issues’ aimed at the government. I assume this is the latter, or is the Committee reporting on a specific Bill?

    When I asked him about the evidence base for the proposals, he conceded it was a matter of judgment on the part of ministers.

    Unfortunately I cannot watch the stream (either because of the tying to Microsoft technologies, because I’m out of the country or both), but did Clegg show any sign of humility or embarrassment, or was he of the opinion that just because he is elected he is automatically right?

    I did suggest, though, that if the purpose was to restore faith in politics, it may have been appropriate to ask the people what they thought.

    Careful, he might think you’re asking for a referendum!

    • Lord Norton says:

      Liam: We are looking at fixed-term parliaments under our remit to keep the constitution under review as well as to report on Bills of constitutional significance. As djb13 observed earlier, there was a tendency to adopt a ‘we have made this judgment and so are acting on it’ approach rather than offering a great deal of empirical support for what is proposed. My suggestion was for considered and structured consultation, enabling people to sumit their considered opinions. Parliamentary committees are the appropriate mechanism.

  6. Dave Thawley says:

    “I did suggest, though, that if the purpose was to restore faith in politics, it may have been appropriate to ask the people what they thought.”
    So I take it you are supporting Caroline’s amendment to get STV onto the ballot paper”. I do totally agree people should be asked what they want. This would give them a better selection so the government be directed by the population better.
    I also think politics needs to be on the national curriculum in schools so people better understand it. People know it’s unfair and broken but I’m not sure people understand the real (well real as in the sense they exist rather than real as in the rulers will allow us to have them) alternatives. In a few years this would allow for a better informed debate to kick out the unfairness properly. My negative side tells me that this is perhaps the reason it isn’t being taught 😦

    • Lord Norton says:

      Dave Thawley: I am a great supporter of citizenship teaching in schools and want to see it extended and not (as appears to be the intention) rolled back. This is something I shall be pursuing. On your first point, if the intention is to restore trust in politics and you are offering a referendum on a change to the voting system, then I agree that it is entirely logical to offer a range of options and not a simple choice between FPTP and AV.

  7. djb13 says:

    Out of curiousity, is there any move (should the HoL reform bill pass) to move Departmental Select Committees to the Lords? It would seems eminently sensible to me that organisations who’s virtue is cross-party conensus to be moved to the chamber where no party has a majority.

    • Lord Norton says:

      djb13: You are assuming a degree of forward planning that does not exist. The proposals for an elected second chamber proceed basically on the assumption that processes, as well as the relationship between the two Houses, will largely remain as at present. It is difficult to get ministers to accept that election will have rather fundamental consequences.

      • djb13 says:

        Can the Constitution Committee do anything about that? Obviously I’m not a member, but could the Committee start drafting proposals for a shuffling of Parliamentary duties. Even if the government rejects them immediately, there’s the delayed drop effect; when it’s obvious that HoL elections have an effect, there’s pre-scrutinised reforms ready to deal with it.

      • Lord Norton says:

        djb13: I think you can safely assume that the Constitution Committee will subject any Bill to rigorous scrutiny. It is also open to the Committee to report on the general issue of reform. As you saw, we touched upon it in our meeting with Nick Clegg and will doubtless be returning to it.

  8. Dave Thawley says:

    @djb13 Thanks for the link. I’m going to go and have a look now 🙂

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