Proxy voting in the House of Commons: how could it work in practice?

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In February, the House of Commons passed by acclamation a motion to permit a system of voting by proxy for Members of Parliament who have recently adopted or given birth to a child. Ahead of the Procedure Committee’s report on the matter, former Clerk of Committees Andrew Kennon offers his view on how a system of proxy voting might work, and some of the problems its designers will have to consider.

On 1 February 2018 the House of Commons debated and passed this motion moved by Harriet Harman MP:

That this House believes that it would be to the benefit of the functioning of parliamentary democracy that honourable Members who have had a baby or adopted a child should for a period of time be entitled, but not required, to discharge their responsibilities to vote in this House by proxy (emphasis added).

The Procedure Committee has conducted a short inquiry into this matter and is expected to report in May. 

Close votes

This would be less of an issue if the government had a clear majority. Normally, pairing arrangements between the whips of the main parties accommodate absences due to illness, family responsibilities, or other duties. Such understandings cannot always bear the pressure of really close votes in a hung parliament.

On such occasions, the reputation of the House is not enhanced by mothers of very small babies having to carry them through the division lobbies. Nor was it improved by very sick Members being brought by ambulance onto the precincts so their vote could be counted by being ‘nodding through’ the lobby by a whip. I remember it well from my early days as a clerk in the late 1970s. Continue reading

How online quizzes could improve information during election campaigns: lessons from Germany

m.paleseOngoing Constitution Unit research is exploring how quality of information and public discussion during election and referendum campaigns can be improved. In recent years, voting advice applications have been promoted as a way of providing impartial, good-quality information on salient issues and parties’ positions thereon. Michela Palese outlines the debate on this topic and relates early thoughts from a research trip to Germany, where the state-sponsored Wahl-O-Mat was used 15.7 million times during the 2017 federal election campaign.

Since last May, Dr Alan Renwick and I have been working on a project to understand how the quality of information and public discussion during election and referendum campaigns could be improved. In this context, I have been examining ‘voting advice applications’ (VAAs): online tools that aim to assist users in their voting decision.

In this post, I briefly contextualise the emergence of VAAs and consider the debate on the role of such tools in the UK. I then report initial findings from a research trip to Germany, where the Federal Agency for Civic Education (Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung; hereafter BPB) develops and promotes a voting advice application – the Wahl-O-Mat – for all federal and most state elections.

The origins of voting advice applications

The first VAA, the Stemwijzer, was developed in the Netherlands in 1989. Available on paper or on a diskette, it aimed to increase secondary school students’ knowledge of the differences and similarities among parties, and to aid the formation of party political choices. VAAs became available online in the mid-1990s in Finland and the Netherlands.

VAAs have spread particularly since the early 2000s, and almost all European countries now have at least one. While they take varied forms, all VAAs present users with statements to agree or disagree with and then match these responses to the positions of political parties. Developers generally use party manifestos or prior statements as a starting point, and often engage parties directly in the development process. Continue reading

Exploring Parliament: opening a window onto the world of Westminster

leston.bandeira.thompson.and.mace (1)Cristina.Leston.Bandeira.1.000In February this year, Oxford University Press published Exploring Parliament, which aims to provide an accessible introduction to the workings of the UK parliament. In this post, the book’s editors, Louise Thompson and Cristina Leston-Bandeira, explain why the book is necessary and what it hopes to achieve.

If you travelled to Parliament Square today you’d see hundreds of tourists gathered in and around the Palace of Westminster. Over 1 million people visited parliament in 2017 to take part in organised tours, watch debates in the Lords and Commons chambers, attend committee hearings and visit its unique gift shops. Many more will have watched parliamentary proceedings on television; most likely snapshots of Prime Minister’s Question Time (PMQs). Recognition of the iconic building, with its gothic architecture, distinctive furnishings and vast corridors is high. However, the public’s understanding of what actually goes on within the Palace of Westminster is much lower.

As we write this blog it is another typically busy day in parliament. Among the many other things happening in the Commons today, Labour MP Diana Johnson is asking an Urgent Question on the contaminated blood scandal, there is a backbench debate on autism and an adjournment debate on air quality. Over in the Lords, peers will be scrutinising the Modern Slavery (Victim Support) Bill and debating the humanitarian crisis in Syria. Those of us who teach, research or work in parliament will know what each of these activities is. We’ll know why the Commons chamber will be far quieter during adjournment debates than at question times and we’ll be able to follow with relative ease the discussion in the Lords as peers scrutinise the various clauses, schedules, and amendments being made to government legislation. But to the wider public the institution can seem somewhat opaque. The language may seem impenetrable, the procedures archaic and the customs of debate unfamiliar. One may say there is therefore an important role, and perhaps duty, for those of us who teach and research parliament to inform and educate the wider public about the diverse range of roles being performed each day by the institution and its members. Continue reading

The Good Friday Agreement at 20: what’s next for Northern Ireland?

Alan_Rialto2 (1)Yesterday, in the first of two blogs on the Good Friday Agreement, Alan Whysall discussed where the Agreement had gone wrong and the benefits it has brought Northern Ireland since it was signed in April 1998. In this post, Alan looks at the future of the Agreement, a document he was involved in negotiating and implementing during his time as a civil servant at the Northern Ireland Office.

As conflict with the EU mounted over the Northern Ireland issue, some pro-Brexit voices in Great Britain began to argue that the Good Friday Agreement (‘the Agreement’) had ‘run its course’. They proposed no alternatives, however, for a position that broke a 20 year consensus in mainstream British politics.

Few in Northern Ireland, beyond established ultras, have gone so far. But some, predominantly unionists, argue in the short term for direct rule; some for changes to the mechanisms of the Agreement. There is also increasing talk of a border poll opening the way to a united Ireland.

Direct rule

Some see direct rule from Westminster as a good government safety net that Northern Ireland can fall back on, as in the past. From one perspective, it is remarkable that has not happened. Extraordinarily, no one has been in charge of government for over a year, as though having government is discretionary. The civil service carries out the administration on the basis of established policy, in a legal quagmire.

Nonetheless the British government has resisted the temptation to reinstate full-blown direct rule. This is understandable, as its own role would be seriously contested, given its dependence on the DUP for a Commons majority; so would the role the Agreement foresees for the Irish government. Most damagingly, it might be seen as the end of efforts to revive the institutions, unleash further negativity and probably drive the best people from politics. Direct rule, once turned on, is hard to turn off.

The present situation cannot endure indefinitely. At some point, much more government will have to be done.

Institutional change

Others argue for significant change in the institutions. Some, for example, would move from the d’Hondt mechanism by which larger parties are entitled to participate in the Executive, towards ‘voluntary coalition’, perhaps backed by a requirement for approval in the Assembly by a threshold guaranteeing some cross-community support.

As to substance, this is unlikely to be effective: Sinn Féin will see it as intended to exclude them. Its legitimacy is doubtful: the Agreement was endorsed by cross-community majorities in the negotiations, by parliament, and by referendum. It is not clear the fundamentals, at least, can be unpicked without similar process.

The Agreement structure is clunky, making good government difficult. But it is designed to accommodate voting patterns in which the great majority still vote along tribal lines. It is hard to see what better mechanisms there may be while that continues, but agreed lower level institutional change may be possible and desirable.

Is Irish unity on the horizon?

A fundamental change in the Northern Ireland political landscape may be happening, shown by recent increases in the nationalist vote, and by its age profile; coupled with anecdotal evidence and opinion polling about moderate unionist reaction to Brexit (in the event of Irish unity, Northern Ireland would immediately rejoin the EU). This starts to suggest that a majority for a united Ireland in a border poll, prescribed in the Agreement, may not be as distant as once appeared.

The Secretary of State may call such a poll at any time, and is obligated to do so if there appears likely to be a majority for a united Ireland (with minimum intervals of seven years). Both governments must give effect to a vote for unity.

This has a frightening aspect. A united Ireland achieved by 50% +1 of the voting population would entail the Irish state receiving not far short of a million unwilling citizens – one in seven – portending obvious threats to civil peace. There are enormous financial obstacles, too. It might still be rejected by the Irish population in a vote, indeed. In that case, or if the poll narrowly returned a ‘no’ vote, reinforcing that something like a majority was dissatisfied with living in Northern Ireland, tensions would also rise.

Before that, if minds become focused on a border poll, there are dangers, but also hope. A danger is that it becomes a complete distraction from resumed power-sharing – and from all the real, neglected problems of government. Another is that those inclined to physical force find renewed energy. The hope is that with a poll in prospect, parties on each side of the community would start to focus on how to win the support of the other, rather than simply play to their own side.

Parts of the nationalist spectrum have started to look at this – establishing the parameters of what John Hume called an ‘agreed Ireland’, showing willingness to move well away from traditional ground. Much about the constitution and wider condition of the Irish state would need serious revision in order to appeal to many current unionists. But debate is under way.

There is not much sign of unionists conducting any such exercise, or preparing opinion for changes that might be necessary to reconcile northern nationalists to remaining in the UK. Were there to be a poll, or even if it started to appear likely, unionism would need to find both arguments and interlocutors with nationalists that it lacks at present.

Unionists may assume, plausibly, that the Secretary of State would not readily use her discretionary authority to call a poll, and that the duty to call one is some way away. But opinion may be on the move, especially if there is no return to power-sharing. In that case, resisting a border poll may become more difficult.

Reviving the Agreement institutions

The chances of returning the focus to resuming devolved institutions would then recede. At some point we completely lose the essentially positive dynamic we have seen over the last three decades, where political parties gain public approval by seeking to work together; in favour of a far riskier one. With that, much progress of recent years may unwind, marking the effective collapse of four decades’ work by successive British governments – among others – to find a modus vivendi in Northern Ireland.

There may not be, therefore, much time to make the institutions work. There is nothing to suggest they cannot of their nature function. They did so for ten years – at times stably, at times less so. Though their record is mixed, when set against what had passed in the hundred years before, it was strongly positive. They had achievements of their own, and their functioning imparted a wider stabilising influence on society and the economy.

There was nothing inevitable in their collapse. It was not planned, but came from a succession of political miscalculations. Different personalities, different tactics, or a different approach in London, might have kept it going.

Getting the institutions back, though, is only stage one of the necessary process. After that, there need to be steps towards inculcating healthier politics that will put them on a sounder footing.

Brexit and devolution

Conditioning all political progress now is Brexit. An approach to Brexit leading to the prospect of a hardened border on the island is likely to make a further deterioration of political conditions inevitable.

If there is something nearer to a consensus outcome on Brexit, that may create a better atmosphere for the institutions to resume. However, the government’s current red lines, if rigidly adhered to, make that very difficult. And the main political parties for the present seem reluctant to engage.

Elements of a way forward

In renewed negotiations, there could be substantial work to do. Setting the institutions on course and overcoming the hostilities of the last year needs another big shift in attitudes in Northern Ireland politics, and to some degree in society. But developments of this magnitude, and greater, have been induced before.

Most obviously the ‘respect’ or ‘commitment’ questions need to be tackled on all sides. That might include unionists endorsing the ‘parity of esteem’ principle in terms; and recognising that in formal contexts the Irish language should be recognised alongside English (perhaps along Scottish lines). On the nationalist side, the obvious gesture is Sinn Féin MPs reversing their century-old doctrine and taking their Westminster seats – which might have intriguing results in present circumstances. Acknowledging the legitimacy of Northern Ireland’s position gives them stronger standing with unionists in arguing to change it.

On the other immediate issues, there are already steps in hand to tackle the issue of continuing paramilitary activity, and its links with politics; more is needed. Much negotiation has gone on about the past: a plan is largely there, but requires further efforts to conclude.

The participants in a negotiation might find it tempting to leave matters there, resolving the immediate issues and leaving the deeper weaknesses that the operation of power-sharing has exhibited to resolve themselves. This has been the pattern of recent political negotiations, and is a mistake, as the results have made clear. The governments and civil society should be looking further.

So there might be a push for significant institutional change; machinery to address the questions of standards in public life, which could ultimately raise the standing of Northern Irish politics; a renewed effort to tackle sectarianism, and a clear plan for a ‘shared future’. To loosen the grip of the traditional binary identity split, there might be some recognition institutionally that many people feel both British and Irish.

And there might be an attempt to address the neglected issues of good government. A debate that focused on what we should be seeking to achieve in economic and social terms, and the management of public services, could help ground politics, and give purpose and ultimately success to power-sharing government.

But how to bring it all together?

These are all kinds of change that might in the past have come about following an extensive process of negotiation and conditioning of public attitudes; led by the British and Irish governments; perhaps with US involvement; and perhaps third-party brokers; traditionally culminating in a conference at a country house.

The governments working together is crucial as ever to advance. The problem is that as a result of Brexit they are more clearly at odds than at any other time. Yet they will very definitely need each other in the future. The Irish government well understands the importance of the connection: both as regards Northern Ireland, and East-West relations and trade. The British government perhaps needs to be reminded. If the political situation deteriorates in Northern Ireland, it will need the Irish government’s cooperation. And it may shortly want allies in Europe, where Ireland can clearly wield real influence.

The need for new players

But leadership by the governments may still fall well short of what it was and what is needed, given other preoccupations and their reduced influence.

A new negotiation process, though necessarily led by the two governments, would therefore strongly benefit from the involvement of an outside mediator, or more than one. The right figure could, perhaps more effectively than the governments, broker a compromise – as did Senator Mitchell in 1998. But finding people of stature, willingness and acceptability is not easy.

Even more fundamentally, new leadership needs to come from within Northern Ireland – from wider society outside politics. This is not a criticism of politicians, but a reflection of the fact that they work in the political culture they are given, which at present favours division.

If the silent centre exists, it needs now to find ways of making itself known, and organise and work to move the culture on. In the past, there have been private initiatives from civil society, like the Peace People, the Opsahl report of the 1990s, the campaign around the Agreement itself in 1998, the Make It Work initiative a couple of years ago. In particular there is a need to engage young people.

Conclusion

But will it happen? It is hard to be optimistic, given the state of debate in Belfast and London. Brexit at worst may go on delivering bad news for some years. One day the focus may be less on the Agreement’s provisions for power-sharing government, and more on those for Irish unity.

If the UK government wishes to avoid this it must seriously address Northern Ireland’s current problems, and in particular deal with the realities of Brexit. Indeed, all the players might reflect on how they might face up to challenges that a volatile political context might deliver. And civil society must coalesce and provide ideas and leadership beyond the traditional partisan frame of reference.

This is part two of a two-blog series on the Good Friday Agreement. Part one considers how the Agreement has worked in practice and can be read here. 

About the author

Alan Whysall is a former senior civil servant who has worked on Northern Ireland for most of the last 35 years. He was present as a member of the British government team throughout the Good Friday Agreement negotiations before heading the team responsible for putting it into legislation in the Northern Ireland Act 1998. In his retirement he has become an Honorary Senior Research Associate at The Constitution Unit.

 

The Good Friday Agreement at 20: what went wrong?

Alan_Rialto2 (1)The Good Friday Agreement (also known as the Belfast Agreement) is 20 years old today, but recent events in Northern Ireland have shown that power-sharing has proven a difficult exercise. Alan Whysall, who was involved in the negotiations that led to the Agreement as well as its implementation, examines what has gone wrong since the Agreement was signed. A second blog, to be published tomorrow, will discuss what can be done to get the Agreement back on track.

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, (‘the Agreement’),  but the system of power-sharing government it established in Northern Ireland has not functioned for over a year. It was widely seen in Britain, as elsewhere, as a significant act of statesmanship, supported by both main parties. But it now appears at risk, as the Irish border becomes a critical issue in the Brexit negotiations.

What has gone wrong?

The Agreement was a political construct to underwrite the ending of a conflict and address the divided politics of a divided society. Progress in those three areas – conflict, politics and society – is interlinked. There was a hope that the division would reduce. In society it has, to some degree, though the progress is now in danger; in politics, less so.

The Agreement covered a wide range of matters besides devolved power-sharing government, but the main focus has been on that issue. The institutions were troubled from the start. Power-sharing government was not established until late 1999. Dogged by unionist reluctance to be in government with Sinn Féin while the IRA continued in being, it collapsed in late 2002. Five years’ direct rule followed, during which the IRA declared its war over and decommissioned weapons, and political negotiations culminated in the St Andrews Agreement of 2006 (with minor changes to the Agreement institutions). Re-established in 2007, the institutions functioned for 10 years.

Sinn Féin pulled out of the Executive in January 2017 citing lack of ‘respect’ from the DUP, essentially around Irish identity. Its key demand became an Irish Language Act, much debated though little defined by either proposers or opponents. Political negotiations appeared to be leading to agreement in February this year, when the DUP abruptly pulled out, its base apparently unhappy at the prospect of the (rather modest) language legislation proposed in the draft text.

DUP figures now speak of restored devolution being impossible this year; no further negotiations are in prospect. The new Secretary of State, Karen Bradley, has brought forward legislation at Westminster on the Northern Ireland budget.

Since last January, opinion in Northern Ireland is much polarised; the rhetoric of the parties, and to some degree the print media, has plunged into a partisan downward spiral. The spirit of partnership that was once to the fore in politics, and at times won votes, is withering, with few vocal proponents in the political realm. Continue reading

Voter ID at British polling stations: learning the right lessons from Northern Ireland

7sdwzdrq.1368719121Asking voters to produce a form of identification before voting will be piloted in five English council areas this May. The move represents part of the government’s response to a series of recent recommendations for measures to safeguard the electoral process from fraud. While the pilots will provide important opportunities for policy-learning, Stuart Wilks-Heeg argues that much can already be gleaned from the experience of Northern Ireland, where voter ID requirements were first introduced in 1985.

On 3 May 2018, voters at polling stations in five English council districts (Bromley, Gosport, Slough, Watford, and Woking) will be asked for proof of identity. These voter ID pilots are central to the current UK government’s commitment to follow through on recommendations made in electoral fraud reviews carried out by both the UK Electoral Commission and by Eric Pickles in his role as Anti-Corruption Champion.

A solution in search of a problem?

Official concern about the security of the ballot has been driven by a small number of high-profile cases of fraud, most recently in Tower Hamlets in 2014. There is no evidence of widespread voter impersonation at polling stations. In fact, cases of ‘personation’, as the offence is termed in UK electoral law, are exceptionally rare. A total of 146 allegations of personation at polling stations were reported to UK police forces from 2010–16, a period that included two general elections and the EU referendum, each of which saw some 30 million votes cast. All but a handful of these 146 allegations resulted in no further action, generally because there was no evidence that an offence had been committed. Over the same time period, only seven people were convicted as a result of investigations of personation at polling stations, five of whom were involved in a single case in Derby.

Given such evidence, academics have expressed concern that voter ID is a solution in search of a problem. Some opposition politicians and political campaigners have gone further, seeing it as a consciously partisan measure. Critics argue that lower-income voters are less likely to have valid ID and will be turned away from polling stations in large numbers, or simply deterred from going to vote at all. In this view, the real purpose of voter ID at polling stations is not to restore public confidence in the electoral process, but to emulate the ‘voter suppression’ methods long practised by Republican states against likely Democrat supporters in the USA. Continue reading

Intimidation of candidates and others during political campaigns: the report and recommendations of the Committee on Standards in Public Life

Photo.001Following December’s publication of the Committee on Standards in Public Life report on Intimidation in Public Life, the Constitution Unit hosted a panel on 21 March to discuss the Committee’s findings and recommendations. The seminar was chaired by Dr Jennifer Hudson, Associate Professor in Political Behaviour at UCL and leader of Parliamentary Candidates UK (PCUK). The list of panellists included Lord Bew, who serves as Chair of the Committee. Overall, the seminar aimed to reflect on the Committee’s report and its wider implications for the nature of British public life. In this post, Lotte Hargrave summarises what was said.

Following the 2017 general election, the Prime Minister asked the Committee on Standards in Public Life to conduct an independent, non-partisan inquiry into the issue of intimidation and harassment during elections. The report undertakes a review of the intimidation of parliamentary candidates, a third of whom experienced harassment and intimidation during the campaign. The forms of abuse were, in the words of the report, ‘persistent, vile and shocking’; threatening violence – sexual or otherwise – and property damage. Intimidation and abuse were often found to be clearly targeted at certain groups, including women and ethnic minorities.

Lord Bew, Chair of the Committee on Standards in Public Life

The Committee’s Chair, Lord Bew, spoke broadly about the intentions behind the report and the purposes of the inquiry itself. He began by explaining that the inquiry took an independent, non-partisan look at all aspects of intimidation and set about explaining how the Committee understood ‘intimidation’, emphasising this to be behaviour which would make it less likely for individuals to participate in public life. Lord Bew stressed the Committee recognised that vibrant and robust debate is an intrinsic part of British political life, and that they recognised this to be one of its great qualities. However, they stressed something new was happening to ‘debase our public life’. Without intervention, the Committee were concerned that individuals – particularly those in marginalised groups such as women or ethnic minorities – would be discouraged from participating in politics. Overall, it was stressed that the Committee did not necessarily understand there had been a growth in this type of abuse but that the velocity at which it was being delivered had increased. Lord Bew stated that the Committee believed that the 2014 Scottish independence referendum was a turning point, and that the problem has been exacerbated and abuse has proliferated due to the rise of social media.

Lord Bew reflected on the Committee’s meetings with social media companies (Twitter, Facebook, and Google) during the inquiry, and the companies’ ‘half-hearted’ attitude towards tackling online abuse. This was mentioned with particular reference to the slow speed at which they removed abusive online content, despite their extensive resources, profits and data collection activities. Throughout the inquiry, the Committee felt that social media companies were not doing enough, and did not display sufficient seriousness in their discussions with an inquiry that had been called for by the Prime Minister herself. Continue reading