Chief Executive of The Electoral Commission Peter Wardle reflects on the practicalities of running a national election, and how this general election differs from 2010.
The huge task of delivering the range of different polls taking place on 7 May – parts of England will see the highest level of combination of polls since 1979 – is well under way and some key milestones have been passed with the publication of the notices of election at the end of March and the close of nominations on 9 April. Returning Officers and electoral administrators came into this year’s election cycle with a solid foundation. Nearly nine in ten voters we talked to said the elections in May last year were well run. This shows that the hard work of elections teams across the country is continuing to inspire public confidence. It’s a great start, but it doesn’t mean any of us is tempted to be complacent.
What can we expect from next month’s elections? UK general elections bring their own unique challenges – and this one is already different from May 2010.
The level of interest is, of course, likely to be greater than at any other UK-wide elections since 2010, so we’re expecting a higher turnout. The Scottish Independence Referendum showed all the challenges that come with high turnout – but also how those challenges can be successfully managed. For example, higher turnout means more voters at polling stations. After the experience of 2010, where long queues at 10pm resulted is some voters being turned away, we worked with the UK Government and Parliament to ensure that the law was changed. This May, voters can be issued with a ballot paper if they are in a queue at their polling station at close of poll.
The Italian Parliament is presently involved in an effort to thoroughly revise the design and powers of the Senate. Carlo Fusaro outlines the background to the ‘perfect bicameralism’ that has existed in Italy until now and the nature of the current reforms. He argues that diversification of the two chambers is long overdue, and addresses concerns raised by those who oppose reform.
On 22 December 1947, minutes before the final vote on the new Italian Constitution, Meuccio Ruini, the Rapporteur, adamantly stated that the design of the bicameral parliament was not satisfactory. Supporters of the unicameral and the bicameral solutions had battled hard. The latter prevailed, but they were divided among those who envisioned a second chamber as the representative body of the new regions, those who wanted social interests to be represented and those who wanted a second chamber to restrict any revolutionary tendency in the other house. As a concession, the champions of unicameralism obtained universal suffrage and the direct election of both Houses. The notion of a Senate as the place where the new regions would be represented was set aside.
As a result, the two chambers that were established varied in (a) number of members; (b) duration (five versus six years); (c) voters’ age (only citizens over 25 elect the Senate); (d) a handful of senators for life. Beyond this, the idea of a strict functional equality (including equal powers over legislation) was reaffirmed and Italy’s uniquely undifferentiated bicameral parliament was born. The bicameral principle was therefore implemented but stripped of its original purpose. An Italian scholar defined it ‘an absurd and cumbersome bicameralism’ (Crisafulli, 1973), an American one, a system ‘looking for trouble’ (Wheare, 1963).
On Friday 26 March 2015 the 2013 Succession to the Crown Act was finally brought into force. Bob Morris offers an overview of the Act and explains why it has taken so long to come into effect.
At practically the last gasp of the now dissolved Parliament, the bringing into force of the Succession to the Crown Act was announced by the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg in his capacity as Lord President, on Friday 26 March 2015 [Hansard, Lords, HLWS483].
Many people may well have concluded that all this had been accomplished when the Act was passed in 2013. Some may even have thought that it had all been settled when the Prime Minister secured agreement to proceed on 28 October 2011 at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) at Perth, Australia. It may be a mark of how little general interest there was in the final consummation that the first publications to greet it were the Hello and Elle magazines.
However, the latest development is not insignificant. What follows seeks to:
- Recapitulate what the Act is about
- Explain why it has taken so long to come into force
- Discuss how the changes are to be understood
On 26 March, its final sitting day, the House of Commons rejected government proposals to reform how the Speaker is elected at the start of the new parliament. Here Meg Russell reflects on what this teaches us about parliament, suggesting it holds two lessons. First, that the 2010 House of Commons was more resistant than its predecessors to government dominance; but second, that further reform is still needed to reduce that dominance.
Two weeks ago the House of Commons met for the last time before the general election. A debate had been scheduled by the Backbench Business Committee to allow retiring MPs to make short valedictory speeches. This might have served as the highpoint of the day – a dignified and nonpartisan moment before election hostilities began. But instead the day was hijacked by a completely unexpected and high-profile row, when Commons Leader William Hague brought forward a motion to change the procedure that the new parliament would follow to elect its Speaker. This was widely viewed as an ill-disguised attempt to unseat Speaker Bercow, sprung in a completely underhand manner. In the event, the motion was defeated by 228 votes to 202. This brought an ignominious end to Hague’s own otherwise distinguished Commons career, and saw the Commons break up with an air of bitterness. Nonetheless there was also something to celebrate in terms of the defiant independence shown by Commons backbenchers, which rounded off nicely the independent 2010-15 parliament. Yet these events also pointed towards a reform agenda for its successor parliament.
The 2015 election is one of the most unpredictable in decades. But last Monday’s dissolution of parliament was the most predictable event of the year and still large parts of the media got it wrong. This does not bode well for how the post-election period will be reported, writes Akash Paun.
Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA), passed in 2011 and amended in 2013, Parliament was automatically dissolved last Monday, 25 working days before the first Thursday in May, when the country goes to the polls. Nonetheless, several major news outlets managed to confuse their readers and viewers by reporting that David Cameron had to request a dissolution from the Queen (as was the case before the FTPA was passed).
There are more important parts of our constitution than the precise mechanism used to dissolve parliament. But this is just one of a number of misconceptions likely to confuse voters in the run-up to and days following the election, particularly if there is another hung parliament. Even the Government’s Cabinet Manual, created expressly to clear up confusion about such matters, has not been kept up to date and incorrectly states that the election occurs 17 (rather than 25) days after dissolution (at page 96).
On 16 March 2015, Lord Lisvane, who as Sir Robert Rogers served as Clerk of the House of Commons 2011-14, reflected upon the 2010 Parliament and speculated about potential future changes in Westminster at a Constitution Unit seminar held in the House of Lords. Fathma Khalid reports on the event.
With the May 2015 election fast approaching, Lord Lisvane was invited by the Constitution Unit to reflect on the outgoing parliament. Robert Hazell, Director of the Unit, introduced Lord Lisvane as the unofficial star of Michael Cockerell’s Inside the Commons documentary TV series. Having worked for the House of Commons service since joining in 1972, Lord Lisvane is extremely well placed to present this ‘end-of-term report’ on the 2010 Parliament. He set the scene by pointing out that this parliament formed at a time when the MPs expenses scandal was still raw in the public memory. 227 new members brought a breath of fresh air to the chamber, invigorating the House with enthusiasm and a renewed outlook. The 2010 Parliament was ‘the most rebellious of modern times’, which Lord Lisvane thought was a good sign of a healthy legislature, although he recognised that this may have been due to the nature of coalition. The 2013 defeat of proposed military action in Syria displayed parliamentary confidence and it had repercussions in France and the US.
Lord Lisvane focused on the many changes that have taken place in parliament over the last five years. Deputy speakers and select committee chairs were elected for the first time in 2010. The Backbench Business Committee was created based on the Constitution Unit’s own research (see here and here). Additionally, the Fixed Term Parliament Act was introduced and further changes were made to members’ sitting hours.
On 12 March 2015 Lord Gus O’Donnell and David Cowling spoke at a Unit seminar entitled ‘Forecasting the 2015 Election result, and preparing for a hung Parliament’. Ruxandra Serban reports on the event.
With just 6 weeks left until polling day, the outcome of the May 2015 general election remains highly unpredictable. With few signs that either of the two main parties will secure an overall majority in the House of Commons, current predictions are predominantly based on the assumption of another hung parliament. On 12 March 2015 the Constitution Unit and the UCL School of Public Policy hosted a seminar with David Cowling (BBC Political Editor) and Gus O’Donnell (Cabinet Secretary between 2005 and 2011) to discuss whether any reliable predictions can be made about the election, given the current shifting political landscape, and whether the 2010 election is a useful guide in the preparation for another hung parliament.
David Cowling framed the discussion around the unique features that the 2010 election brought to the usually predictable two-party race for Westminster: the first televised leaders’ debates, changes to parliamentary boundaries, and the surge of the third party (Liberal Democrats) in the opinion polls. Cowling dubbed 2010 ‘the losers’ election’, as the Conservatives failed to win an outright majority for the fourth election in a row, Labour scored their second worst vote share in 80 years, and even the Lib Dems lost seats.