Austerity, inequality and the Scottish approach to economic growth

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On 11 February 2015, Nicola Sturgeon spoke at an event co-hosted by the Constitution Unit and the UCL Department of Political Science. Sam Sharp reports on the event.

Recent predictions suggest the Scottish National Party (SNP) could win as many as 54 seats in May. A poll surge of this kind is not what most would have expected to follow a lost referendum on the party’s cornerstone issue. It is in this context, however, that an emboldened Nicola Sturgeon addressed UCL and the Constitution Unit in her first London speech since becoming First Minister of Scotland. She delivered a robust rejection of austerity, setting out a vision of an alternative Scottish economic approach and an enhanced role for the (potentially many) SNP MPs.

It was evident from the off that speaking in London would not tone down Sturgeon’s anti-Westminster message. On austerity she was at pains to make her point especially clear: these are ‘Westminster proposals’ made by the ‘Westminster parties’ in a stale ‘Westminster debate’. The SNP, she argued, are not tainted by this brush. A contrast was drawn between the ‘wide-ranging, passionate and fundamental’ referendum debate and the ‘bizarrely and depressingly narrow’ Westminster discourse (although this supposed contrast in debate quality should probably be taken with some scepticism given the criticisms of scaremongering and intimidation that surrounded the referendum).

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Governing in an ever looser union

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Governing is becoming increasingly difficult as devolution accelerates but a new Institute for Government report has identified ways to make it easier. Here, Akash Paun summarises the report’s key findings.

Even when severe political disagreements come between the UK’s four governments – as during the Scottish independence referendum campaign – civil servants can and do communicate and co-operate in good faith. But our new report finds evidence of weaknesses in the systems by which these governments co-operate, negotiate and compete. There have been disputes over legislation, money, welfare and energy policy, and failures to consult or share information. And constitutional thinking remains fragmented – Westminster and Whitehall deal separately with each part of the UK, insufficiently reflecting on how the different settlements relate to one another.

This is the final report of a major, 10-month study of devolution in the UK, carried out in partnership with the Centre for Constitutional Change in Edinburgh, and focusing on how to provide effective government in the context of an increasingly complex and fluid constitutional settlement. Our conclusion is that systems for managing relations between the different parts of the country are coming under strain as a result of political divergence between the governments, financial pressures in the context of austerity, and the growing complexity of the country’s ‘territorial constitution’.

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Reflections on the Speaker’s Digital Democracy Commission report

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Cristina Leston-Bandeira looks back at a year spent considering the options for the use of digital in UK government. She highlights key lessons that emerged from the process and introduces the report published on 26 January 2015.

Last month’s launch of the report of the Speaker’s Digital Democracy Commission (DDC) marks the end of an extraordinarily interesting year for us Commissioners. The DDC was established by the Speaker of the House of Commons to explore the potential of digital technology to support a modern and inclusive parliamentary democracy. Throughout the year we have collated evidence, listened to people and organised workshops across the whole of the country from all walks of life, as well as internationally. The report reflects this. It shows the diversity of views we have received on many issues from the making of legislation to the language of parliament.

As an academic used to interacting mainly with students, other academics and parliaments (I know, a very secluded world…), it has been a truly fascinating year. To hear what people think (or more likely do not think) of parliament in so many contexts has been a true privilege. From this the main thing I retain is that for most of us parliament is indistinguishable from government; most people assume parliament is government. Although theoretically I already knew this, this past year has made this all the more patent and visible to me.

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Preparing for another hung parliament: 9 key questions answered

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Recent polls have suggested that the 2015 general election will result in another hung parliament, with no single party gaining an overall majority. The media and voters may assume that 2015 will then see a replay of 2010, with the swift formation of another coalition government. Not necessarily so, as Robert Hazell, along with Peter Riddell of the Institute for Government, has been explaining in pre-election briefings for the broadcasters. 

1. Will the leader of the largest party become Prime Minister?

Not necessarily. The constitutional rule is that the politician who can command the confidence of the House of Commons becomes PM. This could be the leader of the second largest party, if he can secure sufficient support from third and minor parties.

2. Does the Queen play a formative role?

No. The political parties must establish between themselves who can command confidence in the new House of Commons. The Queen will be kept informed, and will appoint that person as Prime Minister when the result of the negotiations becomes clear.

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Enough is enough: Time to regulate prime ministerial appointments to the Lords

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This week the Constitution Unit publishes a new report arguing that the time has come to regulate prime ministerial appointments to the House of Lords – to prevent the chamber’s size escalating further, and prevent government manipulating its membership. The report argues that, despite large-scale Lords reform being awaited, this step is urgent ahead of the general election in May 2015. Here Meg Russell, the report’s lead author, sets out the key points.

Click here to access a printer-friendly PDF of this post.

Recent years have seen endless stories about the growing size of the House of Lords (e.g. here and here). Since 1999, when the Lords was reformed to remove most hereditary peers, its membership has grown by one third – from 666 members to nearly 850 (see graph). This has caused not only media embarrassment, but concerns among the chamber’s members about its ability to function effectively. In 2013 the Lord Speaker suggested that ‘if we don’t reform and shrink our numbers, the Lords will collapse under its own weight'; last year she pointed out that debates are ‘coming under increasing time pressure as more members wish to speak, all to the detriment of our ability to hold the government to account’ (pay wall). In a full day debate on the size of the chamber last month, a former Conservative Chief Whip noted that ‘we all agree that the House cannot go on growing as it has been doing’. Yet just last weekend the Sunday Times (pay wall) claimed that a new list of up to 60 peers was likely to be announced following the general election in May 2015.

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All women shortlists remain a controversial but effective way to improve women’s representation in politics

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Rosie Campbell reviews the debates around the use of gender quotas by the Labour Party. She writes that although they are unpopular with many voters (and some sections of the party itself) the evidence continues to suggest that they are an effective way to boost female participation in politics in the short term.

The Labour Party’s continued use of all women shortlists (AWS) remains controversial but the international research shows that the use of gender quotas (such as AWS) is the only reliable way to improve the representation of women in the short to medium term. All women shortlists are unpopular with voters; a YouGov poll conducted for the Times in August 2014 found that 56% of the British public are opposed to AWS. Men were more anti-AWS than women, with 63% of men opposed compared to 51%. Nonetheless there is no denying that as a concept gender quotas are unpopular with the British public. And yet research conducted by David Cutts and Paul Widdop shows that voters don’t seem to punish women selected by AWS at the ballot box. It is perhaps for this reason that the Labour party was and continues to be willing to employ AWS, even in the face of some times pretty vehement opposition from some of its members; although AWS are unpopular, women candidates are not and parties may fear an electoral penalty if they are perceived as male, pale and stale.

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The Rajapaksa Regime and the constitutionalisation of populist authoritarianism in Sri Lanka

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Asanga Welikala reviews the constitutional changes introduced by Sri Lanka’s former president Rajapaksa to remove key limitations on presidential power. He argues that Rajapaksa’s surprise defeat last month suggests the basic ideals of democratic government have deeper roots in the Sri Lankan polity than have been visible in the recent past.

In a dramatic reversal of electoral fortunes, Mahinda Rajapaksa was ousted from power in Sri Lanka’s presidential election on 8 January 2015. This was not an outcome that was contemplated as a possibility by even the most optimistic of Rajapaksa’s critics barely three months ago, when his regime appeared to enjoy what seemed like the impregnable support of the Sinhala-Buddhist majority. Part of the reason for Rajapaksa’s appearance of invincibility had been the constitutional changes he had introduced to consolidate his regime, after his victory in May 2009, in the war against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). Instead of offering a political settlement to address Tamil and other minority aspirations after the war, the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution in September 2010 abolished the two-term limit on presidential tenure and removed key limitations on presidential power.

Term limits are a key feature of presidential systems, given that an independently elected president is not responsible to the legislature in the same way as a parliamentary executive. And Sri Lanka’s two-term limit had been one of the only limitations on an executive presidency that was otherwise constitutionally omnipotent. The removal of the limit was exacerbated by the fact that in Sri Lanka, the presidential term is not fixed, i.e. a sitting President can choose the best timing for his re-election after the lapse of four years of the six year term. The abolition was directly related to Rajapaksa’s dynastic ambitions and would have allowed him (had he won re-election) to continue in office until such time as his son and heir – both affectionately and derisively known as ‘Namal Baby’ – was ready to assume the mantle for which he was being groomed. Continuous re-election would not have seemed difficult, given Rajapaksa’s willingness to crush any significant form of dissent with legal and extra-legal methods, and to use the power and resources of the state as his personal property.

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