Jun 26 2014

ConstitutionUK Asks Students In Glasgow About The Equality Of Esteem

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The ConstitutionUK team travelled to Glasgow to ask students at the University of Strathclyde about the value of equality of esteem.  They discuss the meaning and implications of everyone in the UK being able to claim the same entitlements. Have your say about the equality of esteem and the other values that underpin ConstitutionUK at our Constitutional Carnival on Thursday 26 June 2014.

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Jun 24 2014

ConstitutionUK Asks Young Mothers About The Guarantee Of Human Security

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The ConstitutionUK team travelled to Derby to ask young mothers about the importance of human security. They discuss what the state must do to guarantee a decent life for the people who live in it. Have your say about the guarantee of human security and the other values that underpin ConstitutionUK at our Constitutional Carnival on Thursday 26 June 2014.

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Jun 16 2014

A Constitution Can Protect Democracy But We Need To Organise To Win Power For The People

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Melanie Strickland

Melanie Strickland

Melanie Strickland explains how a constitution created by the people can best protect democracy. She draws on the experiences of Bolivia and Iceland and how they have attempted to distribute power to citizens. 

A constitution sets out the duties and limits of state power, and the rights of the people. In a democracy, governments rule by the will of the citizens. In the UK today the government is pushing through an unpopular neoliberal agenda including a comprehensive austerity programme, the privatisation of the NHS, a range of corporate-benefit measures including deregulation and economic ‘growth’ laws, corporate tax cuts, tax breaks and other incentives to engage in fracking and other extreme energy projects across the UK, and the stealthy removal of institutions and policies to curb climate change emissions. Such unpopular moves frequently go unchallenged by the corporate and compliant media, who remain silent on issues of public interest, or side with the Establishment by only selecting voices that represent business and Establishment interests. We can see this with the entirely media manufactured popularity of Nigel Farage and UKIP, supposedly a ‘man of the people’.  It cannot be said that we live in a democracy, at least not in any meaningful sense of the term.

(Credit: MrTin.DC, CC by 2.0)

(Credit: MrTin.DC, CC by 2.0)

Before considering what a constitution for the UK could look like, we should first consider who has power in the UK. Today, those who exercise most political power are those who wield greatest economic power.  In the UK, the City of London, as a financial centre, perhaps exercises the greatest political power, by influencing (if not dictating) what laws get passed and what people and policies are promoted. The rewarding of those who helped cause the economic crash and subsequent austerity measures, with taxpayer funded bank bailouts and ongoing support is a stark example of who wields power in the UK. Continue reading

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Jun 10 2014

What To Expect At Our Constitutional Carnival

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Conor Gearty

Conor Gearty

A ‘carnival’ at a university?  On the ‘Constitution’?  What is going on?

For over eight months now we at LSE’s Institute of Public Affairs have been crowd-sourcing a new Constitution for the UK.  Many believe that our current system of government is irretrievably broken down and that it is time for a wholly fresh start.  Our job on the ConstitutionUK project is not to declare our scholarly views on what should be done, but rather to act as a kind of midwife to the views of the public: making suggestions, drawing out ideas, and eventually delivering a constitution that will belong to all, a child of the people.  The final document will be written over next year, in time for the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta in June 2015.

Before that, though, we need another direct hit with the people.  On 8 October last year we had a large public meeting with a series of votes on key issues of principle. Since that exciting evening we have had active discussion on our web site, many essays, suggestions and proposals, and also taken our constitutional road-show out of town, to the regions of England and also Scotland.

The Carnival marks our return to our home base at LSE, and in particular our newly-opened, award-winning Saw Swee Hock Student Centre. We start at 4pm on Thursday 26 June with some introductory remarks and then we send our ‘facilitators’ out to man their various stalls. Our carnival-goers will be able to dip into the sessions they choose, throwing in their opinion, arguing with the facilitators and voting for the kind of Britain they want.  Each stall will run its subject two or three times so there’ll be time to cover more than one.

And what are our subjects?  The exploration on the web since 8 October has guided us to the following topics on which we need decisions from the crowd. Continue reading

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May 30 2014

Why The Time Has Come For Crowdsourcing In Public Policy

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As we draw closer to ConstitutionUK’s Constitutional Carnival, Chris McMillan explores the benefits of crowdsourcing. He explains how crowdsourcing plays an important role in developing public debate. Chris is a board member of ShouldWe.org, a crowd sourced online summary of public policy debates. 

The problem: Our media does not act as an effective forum for independent, accurate public policy debate.

British citizens are failed by their news media. Rolling news and ever-increasing pressure on business models mean journalists are under more pressure than ever before. Today’s print, TV, radio and online journalists – and news organisations – have neither the resources nor the incentives to make sense of an ever more complex world.  The short-cuts they are forced to take skew public debate in invidious ways, privilege established power networks and large organisations and result in shoddy, inaccurate and unchecked journalism.

The issues have been well documented by various studies:

  • Lack of independence: Cardiff University research revealed only “one in five press articles (19%) appear to be based mainly on information that does not come from pre-packaged sources.”  Often these pre-packaged sources are the PR representatives of companies, political parties or lobby groups.
  • Insufficient accuracy: David Walker, the journalist and first Director of the Royal Statistical Society’s ‘getstats’ campaign, claimed in an interview in 2012 that “journalists, who are supposed to be professionally sceptical, often become gullible when numbers are involved and fail to interrogate them or their provenance.
  • (Credit: Ged Dackys, CC by 2.0)

    (Credit: Ged Dackys, CC by 2.0)

    Limited Pluralism: Erik Albaek, a professor at the Centre for Journalism at the University of South Denmark, studied the relationships between journalists and ‘experts’ (which he defined for the purpose of the study as scientists, including social scientists, at independent institutions) and discovered what “When journalists contact researchers… researchers who have been used extensively in the past are simply used further.” Continue reading

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May 13 2014

The Role Of The Monarchy And Britain’s Head Of State

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Graham Smith

Graham Smith

The role of the monarchy in the UK is a controversial constitutional subject. Graham Smith, chief executive officer of Republic, believes that the monarchy should be replaced by a non-partisan, elected head of state. He explains the current role of our monarch and goes on to discuss how an elected head of state could better represent the voice of the people.

Every country has a head of state, whether it is a president or a monarch.  In many countries the head of state is a different person to the head of government, who is often referred to as Prime Minister.  This is true of monarchies like Britain, Sweden and Denmark as well as republics like Ireland, Germany and Poland.

What is a head of state for?

The phrase “ceremonial head of state” can be misleading. It suggests that the role is purely for decoration, when it is actually a crucial part of the political system.

Unlike our monarch, an elected head of state’s neutrality is prescribed by law, so they can be genuinely independent of government, acting as an impartial referee of the political system and an extra check on the power of government.  If there’s a risk that a new law may breach fundamental rights or principles, for example, a head of state may refer it to the Supreme Court. Or if there is widespread public opposition to a bill, the president may consult the people in a referendum. These powers are rarely used, but vitally important in a democracy.

Aside from these formal functions, a president represents their country on the world stage and takes a leading role at times of national celebration, uncertainty or tragedy. In carrying out these parts of the job, an elected head of state knows they will be held to account for their words and actions, providing a strong incentive to be unifying and inclusive. Continue reading

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Apr 24 2014

A New Magna Carta?

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Graham Allen MP

Graham Allen MP

Graham Allen MP discusses the importance of codifying a UK constitution. With the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta approaching in June 2015, he asks whether we need a contemporary Magna Carta. 

We need to look forward as well as back as the nation celebrates the Magna Carta. What would a written constitution look like today or tomorrow?

For the last four years the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee has been preparing a major report on the need for a written constitution entitled ‘Mapping the path to codifying – or not codifying – the UK’s Constitution’. When finalised, the report will set out three possible options for future codification of the UK constitution. I hope that this report will make a major contribution to the necessary and important debate about the future of the UK’s constitution.

For many, the UK’s uncodified constitution is an acceptable, even desirable means of regulating state power. They point to the long-term stability of our democracy, and highlight the flexibility that has allowed our constitution to evolve gradually and to avoid the political ruptures experienced in many other countries around the world.

But political crises – perhaps arising from the European election results or the Scottish independence referendum – have a way of shaking complacency. While political activism through campaigning organisations and protest movements is thriving in the UK, membership of political parties is in serious decline. And this trend is most pronounced among younger people: according to figures published by the Hansard Society in 2013, only 41% of those interviewed said they would definitely vote in the event of an immediate general election, but this figure dropped to a mere 12% among 18-24 year olds. Continue reading

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Apr 16 2014

Abolish The Lords, Elect The Senate

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Peter Tatchell

Peter Tatchell

Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell argues that the House of Lords should be replaced by an elected Senate, as part of a new UK constitution. He outlines three radical, innovative election systems for the second chamber.

In the twenty-first century, it is time that British democracy ditched the unelected, aristocratic past. The House of Lords is a remnant of feudalism, still based on patronage and peopled by the supposedly great and good.

We need, and deserve, a fully elected second chamber – a Senate – to scrutinise and revise legislation from the House of Commons and to hold the government to account. This Senate should, in my view, be made up of members elected by, accountable to, and removable by, the public.

It would, however, be a big mistake to elect the Senate on the same or similar basis to the House of Commons. This would make it little more than a Commons Mark 2.

We need a system of Senatorial election that is radically different, to ensure that its composition does not merely replicate the make-up of the lower house.

This could involve a new election model based on party lists in large regional constituencies corresponding to the existing constituencies that we use for European elections. These big regional constituencies would help to more accurately reflect the regional strengths and weaknesses of the various political parties and give representation to smaller parties that are currently unrepresented or under-represented at Westminster.

Under this system, it could also be a legal requirement that party candidates and their order on the party list should be decided by a secret ballot of all party members in the region, conducted by an independent Election Commission or by the Electoral Reform Society. This would prevent the abuse of the democratic process by party managers putting loyalists and favourites at the top of the party list. Continue reading

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Mar 31 2014

A Right To Public Space?

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Antonia Layard

Antonia Layard

Public spaces are often overlooked when discussing constitutional issues in the UK. Professor Antonia Layard considers the current problems concerning access to public space in both rural and urban areas across the UK . She suggests changing this by reclaiming the remaining areas for public space.

“Get off my land”. The expression is one of the defining leitmotifs of property law, conjuring up visions of rural landowners in wellies, monitoring use of their estate. The assumption is that the site is “private property” with which the landowner can do as he or she wishes.

In rural locations, there are public footpaths and voluntary agreements with farmers giving access. Since the Countryside and Rights of Way Act 2000, we have also had the “right to roam” on mapped open access land, which includes mountains, moor, heath and down as well as registered commons. Since the Marine and Coastal Access Act 2009, there are also plans for access to the entire English coastline. Once walking, we can take a dog (on a lead) and have a picnic (though not bathe in non-tidal water nor use a metal detector).

The schemes are not perfect; footpaths may be unavailable or too intrusive, while appropriate conduct is legally prescribed. Yet even Kinder Scout is now managed by the National Trust and Andrew Robert Buxton Cavendish, the 11th Duke of Devonshire, apologised on the 80th anniversary for the “great wrong” done by his grandfather to those taking part in the mass trespass in 1932. There are now some shared assumptions about a right to rural space.

So, what of cities, towns or suburbs? Here we have access to the highway, following an important decision in DPP v Jones in 1999. Both the road and the pavement, though, are congested with traffic of all kinds and both prioritise “flow” over using the space in more stationary ways. Where then is public space? Where can citizens come together and engage in a shared associational life, or even walk a dog, hand out a leaflet, play a guitar or a game? Continue reading

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Mar 28 2014

Select Committee Has Exposed The Values Of Our Unwritten Constitution

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Jack Simson Caird

Jack Simson Caird

Jack Simson Caird writes on a recent report by the Constitution Unit at UCL on ‘The Constitutional Standards of the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution’. He mentions how the Committee’s work has explored the key values of our current constitution in the UK.

The United Kingdom’s unwritten constitution is complex and inaccessible. This, as other contributors to this blog have said, is problematic for the citizens of the United Kingdom. However, it is also problematic for parliamentarians, MPs and peers, who are supposed to scrutinise legislative proposals in Parliament. There is no formal constitutional amendment procedure and this can make it difficult to tell how a legislative proposal will impact upon the constitution.

To remedy this difficulty, there is a parliamentary committee that is dedicated to explaining how legislative proposals affect the unwritten constitution: the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution. This Committee is made up of expert members of the House of Lords, and is served by two legal advisers. This expertise enables the Committee to overcome the complexity and inaccessibility of the unwritten constitution, and their main role is to produce reports that inform the House of Lords, by explaining how a particular proposal could change the unwritten constitution, to help peers to scrutinise the change in question.

A recent report by the Constitution Unit, a think tank based at University College London, extracts all of the constitutional standards the Committee has identified since it was established in 2001. Each standard is a rule derived from the unwritten constitution. The code in the report contains 125 standards organised into 5 sections: the rule of law, delegated powers, the separation of powers, individual rights and parliamentary procedure. Continue reading

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