Page last updated at 19:12 GMT, Wednesday, 10 June 2009 20:12 UK

A rallying cry for reform?

Reflection of Big Ben

By Jo Coburn
Political correspondent, BBC News

Talk of far-reaching constitutional reform will not get them going in the Dog and Duck, but the expenses crisis has triggered a genuine call for change.

The electorate, horrified by what they view as gross abuses of the system by some MPs at the taxpayer's expense, has fuelled the feeling of disconnection between voters and politicians at Westminster.

So Gordon Brown's rallying cry for reform may well strike a chord, and is a way for the prime minister to try and recapture the political agenda after a somewhat turbulent time and reject the claim that his government has run out steam.

But with only a year to go before a likely general election, what do his constitutional proposals actually amount to?

On the cards

There will be a stand-alone bill introduced before the summer with a new code of conduct for MPs and an independent regulator to oversee all MPs expenses.

Tougher sanctions will be proposed. Any MP found to be guilty of gross misconduct could be expelled by the House of Commons and, in very serious cases, voters may be able to kick out their MP and force a by-election - that has yet to be agreed.

The Justice Secretary Jack Straw and Deputy leader Harriet Harman are holding cross-party talks on precisely these proposals.

Several senior Labour party figures have told me that now might be the time for change

So what else is on the cards?

It is understood that the government wants to push ahead with legislation to make the House of Lords largely or fully elected in the autumn.

Where have we heard that before? The Labour government has tried and failed again and again to reform the House of Lords - not least because of a lack of support from their own peers.

But several senior Labour party figures have told me that now might be the time for change.

The issue of Lords' expenses is already seeping out - there is an expectation of more revelations to come, particularly about second home allowances.

That may result in growing public pressure for reform similar to MPs expenses.

And although it will not be possible to make changes to the second chamber before an election, it will be seen as opportunity to wrong-foot the Tories on the issue of just how committed they are to reform.

Hardly radical

There is no chance of a referendum on electoral reform until after the next election.

Looking at the issue and coming up with proposals, as Gordon Brown has said, is hardly the same as actively backing the idea.

New Home Secretary Alan Johnson may have raised the idea in a bid to appeal to voters ahead of disastrous local and European election results for Labour, but there is very little evidence of an appetite in government for changing the voting system from first past the post to real proportional representation.

There is probably little point holding your breath for the introduction of PR any time soon.

Jack Straw has said he is not opposed to the idea of the alternative vote system where people can rank their preferences for MPs, but it is a hardly a radical change to the way we elect our politicians and the Tory leader David Cameron has said that at least with first past the post you can kick out a government.

On that basis, there is probably little point holding your breath for the introduction of PR any time soon.

The sudden desire for constitutional reform may be genuine, but it has been borne out of the expenses scandal that has engulfed Parliament.

Only once legislation is brought to the House of Commons for debate will it become clear whether the government and MPs of all parties are serious about changing the way politics is conducted in Britain.



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