How should parliament decide who will be the next Prime Minister: by a nomination vote, or the Queen’s Speech?

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Robert Hazell weighs up options for establishing who can command the confidence of the House of Commons, which will be particularly significant in the likely event of another coalition. This is the fourth in a series of posts about government formation after the election.

The Cabinet Manual explains the rules as follows:

‘… the Sovereign will invite the person who appears most likely to be able to command the confidence of the House [of Commons] to serve as Prime Minister and to form a government’ (para 2.8)

In a hung parliament that appears to require the Queen to play a guessing game. But the Cabinet Manual goes on to say:

‘Where a range of different administrations could potentially be formed, political parties may wish to hold discussions to establish who is best able to command the confidence of the House of Commons and should form the next government. The Sovereign would not expect to become involved…’ (para 2.13).

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Farewell to the Commons: Reflections on parliamentary change over 40 years

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On 4 March Jack Straw and Sir George Young spoke at a Constitution Unit valedictory event where they considered how parliament has changed since the 1970s. Sam Sharp offers an overview of the discussion.

Jack Straw and Sir George Young have 77 years of parliamentary experience between them – Straw was first elected in 1979, and Young in 1974. With both set to retire in May, they reflected on how parliament has changed since they joined in the seventies. The event was chaired by Tony Wright, while Meg Russell provided a ‘myth busting’ role. Both speakers described a parliament that has changed for the better, in both its culture and efficiency.

For Jack Straw one of the biggest changes has been in the atmosphere of the House of Commons. He remembered previously having to ‘swim through thick clouds of smoke’, with the chamber itself being the only complete escape. Alcohol abuse was also prevalent and Tony Wright recalled actually once carrying a passed out member through the division lobby. In general, parliament was very white and male with a Gentleman’s Club culture and the few women present were very much made to feel like outsiders. Straw argued that the change in the gender balance, although ‘not far enough’, has ‘actually changed how the House feels’.

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Codification of the UK Constitution is not essential

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The Constitution Unit is pleased to announce the launch of a new report To Codify or Not to Codify: Lessons from Consolidating the United Kingdom’s Constitutional Statutes. James Melton, the report’s lead author, offers an overview of the report, which reflects on some lessons learned about the UK Constitution while consolidating the texts of 18 constitutionally relevant statutes. The main conclusion is that further codification is not essential.

I have devoted much of my academic career to studying national constitutional texts. As one of the principle investigators on the Comparative Constitutions Project, a project dedicated to cataloguing the contents of national constitutional texts, I have often found myself defending the power and importance of formal constitutional entrenchment against critics who view constitutional texts as ‘mere parchment barriers’. In doing so, I am, at least implicitly, arguing that codification of a country’s constitutional order is beneficial

However, if codification is so beneficial then the UK is a real puzzle. It is a country whose constitution is famously ‘unwritten’ but that has evolved into a constitutional monarchy that performs well on cross-national measures of democratic performance, economic performance, governance and the rule of law. So, when I moved to the United Kingdom, nearly three years ago, I thought it would be an excellent opportunity to study the UK’s constitution and to understand the problems created by its lack of codification. After all, there must be some benefit from adopting a codified constitution; otherwise, almost every other country in the world would not have adopted one. So the UK, and the handful of other countries without a codified constitution, must be missing out on something.

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Implementing the recommendations of the Digital Democracy Commission: Where to now?

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Last week saw a Westminster Hall debate to discuss the report of the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy. Andy Williamson argues that while concrete steps are being taken to implement some of the recommendations, greater drive will be needed to create a coherent long-term programme for the digital modernisation of Parliament.

The Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy has concluded leaving a rather important question hanging in the air: what happens next? The Commission had no powers, no formal authority to do anything and what remains is a question of its half-life, its ongoing influence and the ability of the former Commissioners and others to advocate for change based on their work. I felt that the Commission report had ‘the potential to set the pace for digital democratic practices for the next few years’, not least because it echoes the findings in my own research on the future of citizen engagement with parliaments, but it’s far from certain that this will happen. I’ve discussed the recommendations here but, to briefly recap, the final report gives us five key targets and 34 mostly pragmatic rather than radical recommendations:

  1. By 2020, everyone should understand what Parliament does.
  2. By 2020, Parliament should be fully interactive and digital.
  3. The newly elected House of Commons (in May 2015) should immediately create a new forum for public participation in debates.
  4. In the 2020 general election, secure online voting should be an option for all voters.
  5. By 2016, all published information and broadcast footage produced by Parliament should be freely available online in open format.

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May 2015: Who forms the UK government in the event of a hung parliament?

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The polls continue to predict a hung parliament after the May 2015 election in which more than one potential government could be viable. In this context, Petra Schleiter and Valerie Belu ask how government formation negotiations will proceed and which actors will have a privileged role in the bargaining process?

When several alternative governments are viable, negotiations are in practice guided by constitutional principles that determine which actors are asked to form the government and in what order. These principles are referred to as recognition rules in the field of comparative politics and they are often central in narrowing a range of potential government formation options decisively.

In the UK, the prime minister designate is appointed by the sovereign and asked to form a government. The monarch is expected to discharge this role in government formation without becoming involved in any negotiations. This is not difficult when a single party commands an outright legislative majority so that the prime minister designate is directly identified by the election result. However, in hung parliaments, the task of naming an appropriate government formateur often involves political choices. Moreover, who is selected as the formateur can have important consequences for the nature of the government that forms. In the past, the UK has applied a range of different principles to select formateurs. The problem is that these principles are potentially contradictory. The need to resolve the contradictions is becoming increasingly pressing in the context of long-term changes in electoral behaviour, which make it unlikely that the hung parliament of 2010 will remain an isolated outcome.

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Constitutional reform in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan

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Ghaith Al Amaireh reviews the debates around recent amendments to Jordan’s Constitution. He argues that they point towards a wider plan for political reform, although the significant role of the King means Jordanian democracy will continue be distinct from Western models.

Last summer, the Jordanian Parliament promulgated two constitutional amendments. Both were approved by an overwhelming majority. The first amendment expanded the jurisdiction of the Independent Election Commission (IEC) to administer municipal elections and any other elections assigned by the government, in addition to parliamentary elections. The second gave the King the power to appoint, dismiss and accept the resignation of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of the General Intelligence Department (GID).

The vast majority of the public welcomed the expansion of the IEC’s mandate. The general feeling was that increasing the scope of the IEC’s power would increase its credibility and reduce the possibility of electoral manipulation or fraud. There is also hope that the expansion of the IEC’s power to local-level (Municipal) elections will facilitate wider decentralisation as the government has promised to improve the delivery of government services and community development by gradually transferring these responsibilities with the regional and local councils. Giving the IEC oversight over elections held at municipal level will ensure the utmost levels of transparency, integrity and fairness of the selection of these increasingly important public officials.

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The Cabinet Manual and the caretaker convention

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In the second of a short series of posts about government formation after the election, Robert Hazell discusses the weaknesses of the Cabinet Manual in terms of offering guidance on role of the incumbent PM and the caretaker convention.

On 23 February I gave evidence to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee for their inquiry into government formation after the election. We discussed the inadequacy of the guidance in the Cabinet Manual about two things:

  • Whether there is a duty on the incumbent Prime Minister to remain in office until it is clear who can command confidence in the new Parliament
  • The caretaker convention, which requires a caretaker government to avoid actions or decisions which would bind the hands of a future government.

Duty on incumbent Prime Minister to remain in office

The draft Cabinet Manual published in December 2010 stated:

‘The incumbent Prime Minister is not expected to resign until it is clear that there is someone else who should be asked to form a government because they are better placed to command the confidence of the House of Commons and that information has been communicated to the Sovereign.’

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