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All power to the PM

After a positive start with devolution Pete Smith sees Blair's reforms as grist to the mill of prime ministerial power.

Labour's election victory of 1997 seemed likely to set in motion a series of changes to the United Kingdom's system of government of an unprecedented nature.

Some of the changes, such as devolution of power to Scotland and Wales, were very much products of the Neil Kinnock and John Smith periods as party leaders and, whatever Tony Blair's private doubts or misgivings about the innovations, there was no politically credible or plausible way of avoiding them. The creation of a power sharing assembly and executive in Northern Ireland can be credited as much to Bill Clinton and John Major as to Tony Blair. Blair was steering the ship of governmental change with a chart largely provided by others.

The decision to establish a mayor and assembly for London was a consequence of Labour's campaign in the mid-1980s against the abolition of the Greater London Council and the metropolitan counties. To have a city like London with no coherent system of government was manifestly absurd. However the creation of a mayor for London (with the model being encouraged elsewhere) also owed a great deal to Blair's infatuation with things American. It also reflected Blair's distaste for traditional party politics in general and Labour party politics in particular. He fantasised that mayors would be drawn from outside regular politics, perhaps from business or the worlds of sport and entertainment.

This is, of course, possible in America where parties are weaker and less centralised. The present mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, is not a career politician but a financial and media entrepreneur who was able to spend millions of dollars of his own money to win the Republican nomination and the election itself. He is not really a Republican but could not win the Democratic nomination against the opposition of the party machine. His predecessor Rudy Giuliani had a similar semi-detached relationship with his party.

The dream of mayors outside or above politics could not be realised. British politics does not work that way. Oddly enough Blair managed to achieve something like it by fixing the selection of the Labour candidate for mayor so that Ken Livingstone fought and won as an independent without a traditional party organisation. It could be that in May Ray Mallon, the former Detective Superintendent of Cleveland police and locally dubbed "Robocop", will be elected mayor of Middlesborough as an independent, against the Labour candidate.

The fact that Blair lacks a genuine belief in devolution seems to be shown by his behaviour not just in London but also in Scotland and Wales, where candidate selection was ruthlessly controlled by the Labour leadership and the party's Millbank machine. The people of Northern Ireland are lucky that the Labour Party does not organise or contest elections in the province, so they were spared further Number 10 inspired meddling.

Reform of the House of Lords is another example of Blair's anti-democratic instincts. Having set up a commission under Tory establishment figure, Lord Wakeham, a classic elite insider, he obviously did not like the recommendation that there should be some elected members of the upper chamber along with its appointed majority. Blair's favoured option is clearly an all appointed chamber since even a few elected members would open the door to their expansion in the future.

It is astonishing how many people in the Labour Party have accepted the government line on Lords reform. The argument goes like this: an upper chamber with a substantially or wholly elected element would start to challenge the power of the really 'democratic' chamber the House of Commons. This ignores the fact that the House of Commons is unrepresentative because it is elected under the first-past-the-post electoral system which gives governments massive majorities in terms of seats on far below 50% of the popular vote. It also forgets that MPs are so tightly controlled by their whips that most of them become automatons simply voting as their leaders tell them. When governments have large majorities, as the present one has had since 1997 and as the Conservatives did in the 1980s, this turns the legislature into a passive tool or even a rubber stamp for executive power.

One aspect of America that Blair wants to avoid like the plague is any system of checks and balances between the executive and the legislature. Bill Clinton had to contend with a hostile Congress for most of his presidency and George W Bush faces a situation where his party does not control the Senate. Blair wants and has an iron grip on the legislature achieved through threats and promises of potential ministerial office coming from the whips.

If an appointed second chamber is established it will contain a mixture of the great and the good and washed up party hacks looking forward to a restful retirement. Neither set of people is likely to trouble the government much. Of course any upper house which lacks the only basis of legitimacy which modern democracies know, popular election, will be a joke as far as the public and the media are concerned. Blair does not like parliament much, which is one of the reasons he has reduced prime minister's questions to a brief appearance once a week. Like Mrs Thatcher at the height of her imperial prime ministerial rule he prefers to be somewhere else.

Blair has no interest in reforming the way that the House of Commons is elected. It has given him two landslide majorities so why should he? The system has become massively biased against the Conservatives. One estimate is that they would need a 7% lead over Labour in terms of the popular vote to get an overall majority of one seat in the Commons. This means that just as in the 1979 to 1997 period we look set fair for an extended period of single party rule with a marginalised and impotent opposition.

Where proportional representation has been used at sub-national level and in elections to the European Parliament the methods chosen have given party leaders even more power to rig candidate selection and ensure that favoured candidates win and awkward voices are excluded. The only problem for 'New' Labour has been that voters have shown some resentment about being told who will represent them expressing that resentment by voting for other parties or, more importantly, simple staying away from the polling stations in large numbers.

Under 'New' Labour the reality of prime ministerial power has become as self-evident as it was in the Thatcher years. The Cabinet meets briefly on Thursday mornings where members are, in effect, given their orders. Many important decisions are made without the Cabinet being consulted or even individual ministers concerned being informed. Real power and influence lies with those who are close to Blair and, on the whole, these are not cabinet members but the magic circle of senior advisors who inhabit his private office. Blair's information and publicity supremo, Alastair Campbell, attends Cabinet meetings as does Charles Clark, the Blair appointed 'Chair' of the party. This confirms that the Cabinet is not a genuine decision making body. This is a very American process of decision making. Everyone knows that National Security Adviser, Condolezza Rice, has more influence on American foreign policy than Secretary of State, Colin Powell, because she has Bush's ear.

The recent rows and media coverage of political advisers and their doings has focused attention on the increasing political colonisation of the senior ranks of the civil service. One of the key features of a democracy is that there is a distinction between, the government, the group of politicians who hold power at any particular time and are essentially temporary, and the state, the permanent institutions of power such as the judiciary, the armed forces, the police and the civil service. Once a government starts to blur that distinction there is trouble ahead. Thatcher tried to do this and her famous question "Is he one of us?" was used by her before appointing senior civil servants. Blair has adopted the same approach. Those civil servants who have tried to be non-partisan have been sidelined or persuaded to go. This is a recipe for the misuse of power and even corruption.

There has been little interest in the protection and codification of the rights of citizenship. Despite the energetic campaigning of groups such as Charter 88 interest in rights has been almost non-existent in senior Labour circles. These are often people who campaigned against the abuse of rights during the Thatcher years. That was then now is now. That was when Labour was in opposition now the party is in power it is much more tempting to treat citizens as subjects. It suits ministers to have few, if any, constraints on what they can do.

What is to be done? Well the potential solutions to the problem of a highly personalised elective dictatorship are not very complicated.

A move to a more representative system of election would make an extended period of one party rule virtually impossible unless a party could get a majority of the popular vote. It would also shake up the party system and give people more real choice. It might even increase turnout at elections if people actually thought their votes counted. Though it would have to be a system which gave people more choice of candidates as well as parties.

Some form of written constitution or at least a series of acts of parliament could regularise the relationship between Westminster and the various devolved authorities. The authority and responsibilities of prime minister and cabinet should be embodied in law not simply in conventions which can and are bent, distorted and twisted to the advantage of those in power. We also need our rights in writing. We need an up-to-date bill of rights since the last stab at one was in 1688. We need legislation which constrains and limits government. Otherwise democracy simply becomes a procedure by which, periodically, we might get the chance to choose our dictators.


March/April 2002