Tag Archive | "constitutional reform"

Tags: , , , , , , ,

First thoughts on cancelling the boundary changes

Posted on 06 August 2012 by admin

What does the shelving of the boundary review mean for David Cameron’s chances of forming a majority Conservative government at the 2015 election?

We are told that the Conservatives had pinned great hopes on their proposal to change the way in which parliamentary constituency boundaries are drawn; Cameron is said to have told MPs that it was ‘crucial’ to the prospect of a majority in 2015. Assuming the boundary changes are indeed blocked (it is a somewhat complicated parliamentary and legal procedure), has Clegg now killed off the Conservatives’ chances of winning outright?

In order to answer the question properly, one has to take a step back and ask whether the boundary review would have delivered a majority anyway. That is very questionable. On the best available figures for the impact of the proposed changes, the Tories would have been just short of an outright majority in a House of 600 MPs on the basis of the 2010 results. To win outright would still require doing something no full-term government has managed since 1955 (and indeed never managed before then), i.e. substantially increasing the party’s share of the vote. With Labour likely to poll significantly better than its poor showing in 2010, Cameron – new boundaries or not – would need to do the political equivalent of making water flow uphill anyway. Some Conservative analysts, such as Lord Ashcroft and Tim Montgomerie and colleagues at Conservative Home, have already devoted much thought to the problem.

The cancellation of the boundary changes makes the mountain the Tories have to climb for a majority a bit steeper, but if they are not in any condition to climb any sort of mountain that makes no difference. It will make it easier for Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs with small majorities to see off Conservative challenges and stop them making the 20 net gains they need for an outright win.

But some Conservative MPs in marginal seats will also be breathing a secret sigh of relief. Labour’s class of 1997 nearly all survived the 2001 election because when MPs face their first election as an incumbent they tend to do much better than the national average. Boundary changes, by altering the relationship between MP and constituency, interfere with this pattern. While the Conservatives are less likely to win outright, incumbency makes things far from straightforward to Labour on the old boundaries. Fighting the next election on the same boundaries as last time will increase the probability that the election will result in another hung parliament, probably with Labour as the largest single party.

Comments Off

It’s Not All Over On Electoral Reform

Tags: , , ,

It’s Not All Over On Electoral Reform

Posted on 19 September 2011 by admin

The possibility of another hung parliament means there should be another chance to change our voting system, says Lewis Baston. First, the cause needs to stop being so insular

The May 2011 referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) was a humiliating defeat for electoral reform. By a majority of 68 per cent to 32 per cent, the  electorate voted No. Autumn 2011 may therefore seem an unlikely moment to be optimistic about the future prospects of changing the electoral  system, but I believe the prospects are bright, provided some hard lessons are learned from what happened in 2010-11.

My new book, Don’t Take No For An Answer, is about the future of electoral reform but also a backward look at the referendum when everything  went wrong. It is a blackly comic tale of duck houses, deathbed conversions, megaphones and the rise and fall of Nick Clegg, from zero to hero  and then down to negative territory within one strange British political year. The Yes campaign may have accused No of being dinosaurs, but was itself the campaign that was lumbering towards oblivion.

Winning on AV would have been a tough call even for the best campaign. Although a referendum is usually a demand from people who want  eform, the history of referendums shows that they tend to produce small-c conservative results. AV itself was famously a ‘miserable little  compromise’ that aroused little enthusiasm, and the campaign struggled unsuccessfully to define why the referendum was happening and what problems it would solve. The Liberal Democrats went, between the 2010 and the 2011 referendum, from contributing a quarter of the vote and
general goodwill to a tenth of the vote and huge amounts of scorn. Labour were divided and uncertain, and after some dithering the Conservatives heavily against.

The Yes campaign, disastrously, tried to make the referendum about ‘make your MP work harder’, probably the most misguided and stupid slogan found outside the world of price comparison websites. They were comprehensively beaten by an unsentimental, even ruthless No campaign, which still managed to be more genuinely pluralist than the supposed democracy advocates of Yes.

The optimism about the future is because there will be another opportunity, hopefully in better circumstances than in 2010-11. The question is  more whether the reform movement can change itself enough to win.

Changes in the geography of elections have meant that ‘hung parliament territory’ covers a large part of the spectrum of plausible election outcomes. To win outright  requires the Conservatives or Labour to win a lead of 90 or more seats over its rival, a target the Conservatives missed even when everything was working in their favour in 2010. While in 1964 Labour or the Tories could have won with a popular vote lead of less than 1 per cent, in 2010 the Tories needed a lead of 11 per cent and Labour a lead of 3 per cent to win outright. The numbers may look a bit different in
2015, mostly because we can anticipate fewer Lib Dems elected and very slightly because of the new boundaries that will come in. But both effects are likely to be less dramatic than many Tory or Labour partisans will be hoping.

Far from being lost for a generation, electoral reform may well be back on the agenda within ten years. Another hung parliament will give the Lib Dems leverage to reopen the issue, and will also provide more evidence that FPTP does not produce single party majorities with any reliability. The basic problems – unrepresentative results, governments lacking sufficient consent, low participation, MPs claiming exclusive rights to speak for constituencies despite a majority voting against them – will still be there. The real risk for electoral reformers is not that the issue will vanish, but that it will come around again and another opportunity will be wasted as humiliatingly as it was in 2010-11.

The electoral reform cause needs to be fought more intelligently and flexibly if another bear trap like the AV referendum is to be avoided. Despite the disappointing experience after the Jenkins Report in 1998, when the promised referendum was never delivered, another inquiry – with a guarantee of a referendum – may be better than a reform option cooked up as a Downing Street wheeze as it was in 2009, or a hasty coalition deal as in 2010. The history of referendums suggests that the case for change is usually only won after a national conversation has taken place and a
consensus position evolved, as with the Scottish referendum in 1997 and the Welsh referendum in 2011. The 2011 referendum campaign happened essentially from a cold start. In future, a citizen-led process to involve people other than the usual worthies in devising an alternative system may be the way forward.

Electoral reformers also have to take account of the genuine reservations that people have about change – part of the problem in 2011 is that there was insufficient understanding by the Yes campaign of why people might be unwilling to take a leap of faith, and why arguments about stable government and ‘tried and tested’ fall on receptive ears in troubled times. Trying to pretend that politics and partisanship are not important does not work, particularly on such an intrinsically political issue as the voting system. It was wrong, as a matter of fact and of political tactics,for Yes to
claim to be about ‘people v politicians’.

Between now and the next opportunity, the electoral reform cause has to reform itself – to stop being such an insular, self-satisfied little world. Burying the term ‘democracy sector’ would be a start. It needs to think more strategically about party and interest group politics. There are conversations to have with business, trade unions, and advocates for women, ethnic minorities and the poor. For the Liberal Democrats this should mean thinking about what to demand and how to play the cards they are dealt in a future hung parliament. The chances of getting a result
may be better with a longer run-up and a better proposition than in 2011. There are other reform demands such as the Single Transferable Vote (STV) for English local government.

The Labour Party should be doing its bit to learn lessons as well, and bear in mind that it has never won a majority in an election immediately following its ejection from power. In 1955, 1974 and 1983 the Labour vote fell in each case, with minority government in 1974 only made possible because the Tory vote fell even further. Labour modernisers should consider what a Labour electoral reform would look like, before any hasty talks in smoke-free rooms have to take place. Labour could also show a bit of reforming goodwill by supporting the government’s House of Lords
plan, which involves the coalition parties spending political capital to accomplish a long-term Labour objective.

The Conservatives got the result they wanted in the referendum, but in the long term they may suffer for it. AV would have enabled a soft electoral  pact with the Lib Dems and possibly several terms of power, albeit shared. FPTP is a chancy shot at a term or two of single party rule.

Reform proposals often come back stronger and better after an initial defeat. The devolution Scotland and Wales won in 1997 was much more than the half-baked proposals that lost (or in Scotland’s case won too narrowly) in 1979. Irish Home Rule was more radical, and came closer to victory, each time after the defeat of 1886.

Within six years of Lansbury’s defeat in the women’s suffrage by-election in 1912, women were voting.I look forward to something better than AV being on the agenda before long – and then winning.

Comments Off

Boundary report – unsettling reading for MPs

Tags: , , , , ,

Boundary report – unsettling reading for MPs

Posted on 13 September 2011 by admin

Few English MPs will escape changes to their constituency borders in today’s Boundary Commission’s recommendations, writes political consultant Lewis Baston.

The Boundary Commission for England (BCE) report published today is unsettling reading for nearly all MPs, including those from the government benches who voted it through with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

Few MPs will escape having changes made to their constituency boundaries, and a few will find their seats abolished, or changed so radically that they would have been defeated on the new boundaries in 2010. Some MPs will be pitched into fights against each other.

The proposals implement the coalition government’s new policy on parliamentary boundaries which was enacted in February 2011. The government insisted that the total number of constituencies was reduced from 650 to 600, and that – with four exceptions – every seat had to be within 5 per cent of the average size. Size here is measured by the number of people on the electoral register as of December 2010.

Peculiar boundaries

While the legislation was highly controversial between the parties, the Boundary Commission itself is an impartial body which does not take party political consequences into account. It has to try to create units with the right number of electors that make some sort of sense on the ground, and given the constraints it generally does well.

However, the rules under which the commission has had to operate have created some very peculiar constituency boundaries in some areas, although in general they have tried hard to avoid unnecessary disruption.

Perhaps the strangest new seat is the unfamiliar Mersey Banks constituency, a sort of successor to Wirral South which contains a random piece of Widnes unconnected, even by a bridge, to the rest of the seat.

For Conservatives there is the tantalising possibility of a Tory member for Sedgefield (technically, Sedgefield and Yarm). Tony Blair’s old stronghold is radically altered and grouped with the areas which made the current Stockton South a Conservative gain in 2010.

Gloucester city centre becomes part of the Forest of Dean constituency, an idea that was greeted with dismay when I floated the prospect in a local newspaper.

Political consequences

While the Boundary Commission is neutral, most observers are keenly interested in the party political consequences. In general, the changes seem to help the Conservatives a bit relative to the other parties, but the effect is not dramatic. In some areas, such as West Yorkshire and east London, they will be probably be pleased but in others such as Derby and North Yorkshire there is a lot of disruption for no political gain.

The party that really suffers is the Liberal Democrats, because their seats tend to have smaller majorities and be yellow islands in a blue or red sea. The axe falls on a number of seats the Lib Dems currently hold, including expected losses like Carshalton & Wallington, and Burnley, but also surprises like Westmorland & Lonsdale held by party president Tim Farron and unhelpful alterations to seats including Chris Huhne’s Easleigh and John Leech’s Manchester Withington.

While Nick Clegg personally has little to fear in his redrawn Sheffield seat, the implications for the party are ugly – and we have not even seen what happens to the beleaguered Scottish Lib Dems yet.

More to come

Today is a very important step in the process of redrawing constituency boundaries, but it is far from the end of the road. There are Boundary Commissions for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, which will publish their reports separately between now and January.

The proposals in all these reports, including England, are now open to consultation and there will be a number of local hearings to gather evidence about what people think about the proposed boundaries and the alternatives that will be offered by the main political parties.

The Boundary Commission is keen to hear from civic groups and ordinary people as well as the parties, whether they support or oppose its ideas, and invites responses through its website. It does sometimes revise its ideas and publishes new proposals.

Original Link

Comments Off

Whatever the result, Thursday’s referendum will not mean the end of the road for electoral reform in the UK

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Whatever the result, Thursday’s referendum will not mean the end of the road for electoral reform in the UK

Posted on 04 May 2011 by admin

AV is seen by many as a ‘stop-gap’ measure on the road to true Proportional Representation, but is this really likely to be the case if the Yes campaign is successful? Writing in a personal capacity, Lewis Baston looks at the recent history of electoral reform movements in the UK, and the prospects for further reforms depending on the result of Thursday’s referendum.

The Alternative Vote (AV) referendum on 5 May is, on the face of it, a choice between two slightly different single-member constituency majoritarian electoral systems. Some people can make a choice on that basis. Peter Kellner and Peter Hain, for instance, have always favoured AV, over the options of either First Past The Post (FPTP) or Proportional Representation (PR). Similarly, some others simply do not see the appeal of preferential voting and sincerely favour FPTP. However, no decision is made in a vacuum, and for most of the rest of us the context is relevant when considering how one might vote. There are partisan and strategic calculations at work in the referendum, and one should not be too high-minded about this fact. I have discussed the partisan consequences of AV in another piece.

The outcome, in terms of a simple Yes or No, will have unknown effects on the further progress of electoral reform. The case can be argued either way, despite some efforts on the part of each of the campaigns to suggest that the referendum will close the issue. Arguments about future consequences are all conjecture, but the ‘finality’ argument seems a poor one either way (as it was when it was used to support the 1832 Reform Act). Alan Renwick, for instance argues quite persuasively that it is likely that a Yes on AV will lead to further change because it makes change itself thinkable and because it may well lead to more inter-party agreement and hung parliaments.

But there is an alternative argument. The history of constitutional reform is littered with cases where things that were supposed to be stopgaps lasted for decades – such as FPTP itself in 1918, or the House of Lords after 1911. If AV wins, small-c conservatism will work in its favour – it will be argued that the issue has been decided, and that the new system should be ‘given a fair chance’ or ‘allowed to bed in’. Clegg himself seems to have abandoned his party’s long term goal of PR, saying on 21 April that:

We aren’t going to enter into a Maoist, perpetual revolution… This is a once in a blue moon opportunity to change the electoral system. It’s completely wrong to somehow suggest this is a stepping stone for something else.

This gravely weakens the strategic pro-PR case for voting Yes in the referendum, which depends on the Liberal Democrats’ ability to use an increased incidence of hung parliaments under AV to demand further reforms in future. Someone who is in favour of PR can reconcile themselves to a No vote. FPTP may well be swept away in the 2020s even if it survives 2011, while AV might prove more resilient because it is a more robust majoritarian system. Jack Straw, for instance, favours the Alternative Vote for this reason. It produces a higher measurable level of consent both for single-member constituency representatives and, usually, for a national government. It enables the logic of majoritarianism to be renewed and interpreted for a multi-party system. Straw’s hope is the flipside of David Owen’s fear, that AV will be a roadblock to PR.

From the reformer’s point of view, AV does not have the renewing potential of proper PR, which can unlock fluid political competition. In New Zealand, PR has enabled political positions like neoliberalism and the old left to fight openly for their ideas rather than operate behind the scenes in party caucuses and elite influence. It may not look this way on Friday, but opposing AV could end up being one of the biggest blunders the British right has ever made. AV is a small-c conservative reform: as Lampedusa wrote, sometimes ‘if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change’.

In any case, John Curtice and others have demonstrated that FPTP is increasingly unlikely to achieve what its supporters claim, namely a decisive outcome to a general election (not that it has much of a track record of doing so anyway). Hung parliaments are likely to be the norm, rather than the exception, in the future, and there will be another reforming moment which hopefully will not be sold out, as those in 1997 and 2010 were, by politicians adapting rapidly to the culture of Whitehall.  There will most likely be another hung parliament in the next 20 years (probably the election of 2020 will produce one) and therefore the possibility of another go at electoral reform. When politicians talk about ‘a generation’ they actually mean only about 20 years, but they wish to make it sound longer.

Win or lose, the result of this referendum will not alter the disconnection between the electorate and the political system. Problems of low turnout and election results not reflecting the way people have voted will still be with us either way. Reform propositions sometimes emerge better and stronger from initial defeat in this sort of timescale, as Scottish devolution did between 1979 and 1997. This referendum is no more the end of the struggle for real electoral reform than the 1979 referendum was for Scottish self-government (or Welsh nationhood).

Hopefully lessons will be learned this time, just as lessons should have been learned from the Jenkins process. The reform option should not be the product of a ‘wheeze’ cooked up in Downing Street (as it was in 2009) or a compromise that emerges from hasty coalition talks that nobody supported on the way in to the discussions (as in 2010). There should be up-front legislation ensuring that it cannot be allowed to drop down the agenda; reformers would be justified in insisting on this given what happened after Jenkins. Whether a referendum is the best mechanism for public involvement in the process, after this unedifying campaign, is also a suitable point for consideration.

The reform proposition should be the product of due deliberation, but times have moved on since 1998 and there should be some real public involvement in the process of designing the alternative. This might take the form of a ‘preferendum’ on different reform options as in New Zealand, or more likely a Canadian-style Citizens’ Assembly. There is no need for the latter method in particular to be tainted if AV has failed in 2011. It is also more likely to lead to a genuinely different system being offered rather than the imposed choice being between two systems as similar as FPTP and AV.

However, referendum day approaches rapidly. The polls seem to agree that No has a strong lead in voting intention, and a crushing win for No probably would cause the political class to shy away from the subject of reform for longer than a narrow margin would. A narrow win for either side would keep the pot boiling. Even if it were ‘No’, one could argue that it would be winnable if there were a better reform proposition than AV, a better campaign, or a vote at a time when relations between the parties containing substantial numbers of electoral reformers (Lib Dem and Labour) were less poisonous. A Yes vote – with one’s fingers crossed – seems indicated. And that is – probably – what I shall do.

Link to piece on original site

Comments Off

We need a better choice than AV (29 September 2009)

Tags: , , , , ,

We need a better choice than AV (29 September 2009)

Posted on 29 September 2009 by admin

Gordon Brown’s manifesto commitment to a referendum on the Alternative Vote is too little, too late for electoral reformers

Labour retains some shreds of its constitutional reform programme that was part of its appeal in 1997, and Gordon Brown’s speech at conference on Tuesday featured three significant promises on reform. We have the most detail on the longstanding policy of ending the absurdity of hereditary peers and introducing an elected second chamber. Another, the ability of electors to “recall” erring MPs by forcing an election, has also been trailed but is a minor and possibly dangerous concession to populism.

The other announcement is a genuine surprise. The 2010 Labour manifesto will contain a promise to have a referendum early in the next parliament on one form of electoral reform, the Alternative Vote (AV). This is welcome, but can only be greeted by constitutional reformers with the very thinnest of smiles. AV is a weak reform, and the promise at this stage of something in the Labour manifesto reminds one of Hunter Thompson’s cruel simile of a candidate making promises “like a farmer with terminal cancer bargaining for a loan on next year’s crop”. Even if Labour’s malaise enters spontaneous remission and Brown is still Prime Minister a year from now, this is pretty mild fare.

The Alternative Vote (AV), which Gordon Brown has come to support, is a simple reform. The current system asks voters to mark an X by a single candidate (implicitly saying that the voter opposes the other candidates in equal measure). Under AV, voters choose their favourite candidate with a 1, next favourite with 2 and so on. If no candidate gets a majority of 1 votes, the 2 votes for the lowest-placed candidate are taken into account, and so on until someone gets to 50%. Nothing else changes – constituencies will be exactly the same.

AV is simply an accommodation of the present system to circumstances where two thirds of MPs are there despite a majority of their local voters having voted against them. The electorate clearly no longer believes that a choice of two parties is adequate. AV broadens political choice a bit, makes tactical voting much less significant, and encourages a more honest and pluralistic relationship between large and small parties. To win marginal seats under AV, a party will need to build bridges with supporters of local minority parties and not pretend to have all the answers.

Additionally, AV is probably the most extremist-proof electoral system ever devised, as – other than people who support the party – most voters will make sure the BNP is ranked last on their ballot.

AV is not perfect by any means. By the same token, it is still poor at including minority points of view (Australia has AV and a very rigid two-party system) and means almost as many safe seats as first past the post (FPTP). But overall, as I have argued elsewhere, the Alternative Vote is better than FPTP, and introducing it would be a big step forward.

A promise to legislate for AV would have been solid progress. A referendum on AV is a different, and much worse, proposition.

In principle, a referendum should offer a choice between two fundamentally different options. AV is another, rather better, species of majoritarian system that preserves safe seats and the monopoly on local representation enjoyed by each MP. It is only worth going to the people with a real choice – between a majoritarian system and one based on the idea of proportional representation and extending electoral choice.

This is, after all, what Labour offered in 1997 and what the Jenkins Commission came up with in 1998. In itself, the change from voting with an X to voting by ranking candidates 1, 2, 3 is a very small shift; and voters could be forgiven for asking why it’s necessary bother with a referendum.

Perhaps worse, the practical difficulties of winning an AV referendum look prohibitive. It is an arithmetical fact that to win a referendum needs 50% plus one vote. Under our current ridiculous system, a party only needs around 35% of the vote to form a majority government. Even in 1997, Labour did not have anything approaching 50%.

The party, in good pluralist fashion, realised that compromise was necessary to build referendum-winning alliances for devolution in Scotland and Wales. Where might the Labour party – or that part of it which likes the policy – find allies to win a referendum for AV in the face of predictable vitriol from the Conservatives and most of the media?

The Liberal Democrats will probably end up recommending a “Yes” vote, but will tick the “no publicity” box and avoid appearing on platforms with Labour ministers; the Greens and electoral reform campaigners will be dismissive, and civil society groups will not help. It could be made to seem like a Labour fix without actually helping the party much – a perverse outcome if ever there was one.

UKIP might be on-side, but they may be the only allies out there. “Vote yes, because Gordon Brown and Nigel Farage want you to” is not a compelling slogan. The risk is that, even if Labour scrape back in again, an AV referendum will fail, and take down with it any alternative to Tory hegemony that might be based on the support of only one potential elector in five.

There is still an opportunity to get something better. A referendum bill will need to go through parliament. The Liberal Democrats, if there were to be a hung parliament, would be in a position to press for a better outcome than AV – either adopting a proportional system, or handing the job of design of the system to a democratic Citizens’ Assembly rather than keeping it in Whitehall.

By calling for an AV referendum, Brown has at last gestured in the direction of a new politics and that is welcome, both for Labour and for reformers. It is more than the Conservatives will ever do and does establish a clear difference between the two big parties on democratising Westminster. But Brown would have better to offer a radical reform straight away and gain the credit for bold leadership and pluralism, rather than a messy compromise or a half-measure. The more radical option is also more likely to mobilise broad support and win the referendum. An AV referendum may smell like a win for constitutional reformers, but victory itself is still a long way further on from here.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/sep/29/gordon-brown-electoral-reform

Comments Off

Whistling in the wind (30 September 2008)

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Whistling in the wind (30 September 2008)

Posted on 30 September 2008 by admin

Labour’s plan to rewrite the Act of Succession is very small beer, but few Conservatives dare to entertain radical constitutional reform either

Electoral reform is a difficult sell at the Conservative party conference; promoting it sometimes seems like trying to sell Chelsea tractors at the Greens’ annual gathering. But there are some stirrings, and some new arguments about the constitution and elections are being heard at Birmingham. Tories who support proportional representation have in the past tended to be liberal in their general approach, but reform is finding some adherents among hard-edged right wingers such as Douglas Carswell, MP for Harwich since 2005 and one of the more interesting thinkers within the Tory party – one of the few MPs who can refer to Weber and Gramsci and sound as if he knows what he is talking about.

Representation in parliament is one of the last monopoly public services left. Carswell asked at an Electoral Reform Society fringe meeting in Birmingham why it was that in a world where people are used to shopping around, telephones and electricity had been made competitive, there was still a single supplier of representative services that you had to like or lump. In an environment where consumer choice is the dominant force, and people increasingly look at politics as consumers, why not have multi-member constituencies? Competition and choice improve standards. Lazy MPs, or those who did not represent the views of their constituents properly, would face internal competition, and there would be fewer barriers to new talent and new ideas coming forward. While Carswell is vague on which electoral system he favours with his multi-member seats, his vision is perfectly compatible with the long-term electoral reform goal of the Single Transferable Vote (STV). It is also part of Conservative history – after all, Disraeli introduced the three-member boroughs and the “limited vote” in 1867.

Carswell is very much a maverick Conservative, and he was joined on the ERS panel by more familiar Tory voices. Eleanor Laing represented the pleasant, moderate face of Tory partisanship and constitutional immobilism, and Bruce Anderson adopted his familiar role as the voice of candid reaction who frankly acknowledged the benefits of elective dictatorship – as long as it was the Conservative party doing the dictating.

I doubt that many opponents of the Conservatives would be unduly worried by the arguments of Laing or Anderson, but Carswell’s case would be unsettling. He uses reforming language to argue for quite radical Conservative projects – a more securely founded Conservative government would have the hegemony necessary to deal with the alleged progressive bias of the broadcast media, the civil service and the education system. Carswell also favours direct democracy and the right of recall. His embrace of change is based on more intellectual self-confidence than the old fashioned belief in grabbing the controls of the machinery of the centralised, elitist British state and making it serve Tory ends. New Conservative constitutional reformers can talk confidently about trusting the people, because they believe that the people ultimately agree with them. And left of centre constitutional reformers feel some anxiety that Carswell may be right about this. The interesting debate may end up being between radical Conservative direct democracy, and progressive reformers trying to define the acceptable limits of popular control.

Unfortunately, neither front bench seems interested. Labour’s increasing timidity about constitutional reform is sad indeed. From the radical change promised (and largely implemented) in 1997, the party now trumpets reforms such as changing the Act of Succession to make the first-born, rather than the first-born son, heir to the throne, as radical. This reform affects one, theoretical, person in perhaps 70 years’ time. The Conservatives are vaguely aware that the current electoral system is biased against them, but grumble in an entirely ill-informed fashion about constituency boundaries. Their main solution is to try to game the current system better than Labour by swamping marginal constituencies with Ashcroft money. It may work in the short term, but it is a cynical exercise in gaining and maintaining power on a minimum of public support that will ultimately do politics no good. It is a sign of how seductive the embrace of the Westminster establishment is that neither main party really intends to do much to shake up the power structure.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2008/sep/30/electoralreform.toryconference

Comments Off

Fixed terms? No thanks (10 October 2007)

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Fixed terms? No thanks (10 October 2007)

Posted on 10 October 2007 by admin

They are not the answer – we need to start from proportional representation in order to move towards constitutional reform.

I don’t believe in fixed-term parliaments. I don’t believe in Father Christmas either. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that I think they are intrinsically bad ideas – either of them – but that I don’t believe they exist.

In reality there is a spectrum of possibilities between the present system that is in effect at the personal discretion of the prime minister, and the fully fixed terms that govern the electoral cycles for the US president and Congress. In the United States, the mandate for the executive is personal to the president and there are constitutionally defined rules of succession that govern those very rare mid-term changes in president. Congress is separately elected and cannot – short of impeachment – overthrow the executive.

The problem in Britain is that in a parliamentary system the executive is formed from the legislature and depends on its confidence for the continuance of government. It would be difficult, and not conducive to good government, if a parliament such as the one elected in February 1974 (in which even a combination of the Liberals with either Conservative or Labour would not have produced a majority) had been required to stay in office for four years at the mercy of Ulster unionists and Scottish nationalists. Sometimes things change during a parliament, with byelections, defections and radically different issues emerging mid-parliament that throw up new political alignments. While perhaps not a huge issue, a rigid timetable such as the one proposed by Sir Menzies Campbell would sometimes require elections to be held in inappropriate circumstances. I can well remember 2001, when a May election (after precisely four years) was planned but postponed for one month because of the foot and mouth outbreak – this would be impossible under the Liberal Democrat proposition.

Therefore there has to be some sort of escape clause to dissolve parliaments before the full term is up. Once one has conceded the principle of an escape clause, the difference between fixed-term parliaments and the current position is then merely a matter of degree and technique. It is very doubtful to what extent fixed terms can really be entrenched in UK law – short of writing a constitution it would be open to any future parliament to reverse a law or resolution for fixed terms or abolish any external structures set up to try to entrench a fixed-term rule.

As we have seen in the last few weeks, being ready to fight an early election is a matter of political machismo, and for an opposition to try to deny the government the ability to call an early poll would invite allegations of being, in Margaret Thatcher’s fine Lincolnshire word, “frit” – a much better way of putting it than the current vulgarity that is “bottled“. The demand for fixed terms is part of a wider tendency to try to take the politics out of politics, and steadily reduce the scope of decisions that can be taken by democratically accountable politicians and out-source it to rules and supposed non-political managers and experts. Some of the most preposterous, such as Conor Burns’s fit of the vapours at Conservative Home imagine that, shock horror, party politics wasn’t the main factor in election timing before that horrid Mr Brown did then didn’t want an election this year. The truth is that election timing is inherently political, determined by a range of political factors, and it is desirable – and actually inescapable – that the decision will be taken politically.

Germany has fixed term parliaments, but it is obviously possible to engineer an early election as in 1972, 1983 and 2005 even under the eyes of a constitutional court with powers distinct from legislature and executive. What we are actually missing is a head of state, with real political powers, who would be in a position to accept or deny a dissolution request, but the preservation of the monarchy requires that it be kept away from such highly political matters. An elected president would be more capable of withholding consent for dissolution than the monarch.

There is something to be said for giving the control over calling an election to the House of Commons itself, to reduce the remaining areas of royal prerogative a bit further and put parliament in charge, but one should be under no illusions as to what that would accomplish by way of regulating the timing of elections.

To come up with a workable solution seems to require radical constitutional change, such as separation of powers, a written constitution or the abolition of the monarchy. As part of a written constitutional settlement, a fixed term may not be a bad idea, but as a stand-alone reform it does not work and it should certainly not be first on the shopping list of desirable reforms. A better way of progressing would be to have a parliament elected by a more proportional electoral system. In a system in which coalition was the norm, election timing could be an aspect of the partnership agreement. First past the post is a major reason why governments will try to manipulate election timing (or, as in the 1950s and 1980s, manipulate the economy around a four-year electoral cycle) because the rewards for getting the timing right are so disproportionate. There would be less incentive to play games if parties got more or less the proportion of seats that their proportion of votes can justify.

Political discretion over when elections are called is a non-problem. I have great respect for some of the people arguing for it, but I must part company with them on this one. It is the last, not the first, constitutional reform to consider.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2007/oct/10/fixedtermnothanks

Comments Off