The government’s proposed Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission: what, why and how?

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgalan.jfif (1)The Conservative Party manifesto promised a ‘Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission’, but as yet little is known about the government’s plans. Meg Russell and Alan Renwick reflect on what such a Commission might look at, and how it might go about its work. They conclude that a long-term perspective is important, so that the Commission is not just ‘fighting the last war’ over Brexit. Given the fundamental nature of the questions that may be asked, citizens should be fully involved.

Page 48 of the Conservative Party manifesto committed the government to establishing a ‘Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission’ within its first year. This could have a far-reaching remit, covering ‘the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts; the functioning of the Royal Prerogative; the role of the House of Lords; and access to justice for ordinary people’, plus the operation of the Human Rights Act. Creation of such a body is clearly an ambitious enterprise, with potentially long-lasting effects – but, as yet, very little is known about the government’s plans for the Commission. This post first explores the ‘what and why’ of the Commission: which issues might it need to address, and what is the motivation behind it? Second, we consider the ‘how’: specifically, in terms of how the public could and should be involved.

What will the Commission review, and why?

The list of topics potentially ascribed to the new Commission is long, and covers some absolute fundamentals of the constitution. While the UK has seen much constitutional change in recent decades – most obviously Labour’s post-1997 programme, which included devolution and Lords reform, and the subsequent Constitutional Reform Act 2005 which established the Supreme Court – these developments involved no formal review of the core relationships between different constitutional branches. Indeed, Labour’s programme was often criticised as piecemeal, and for failing to go back to first principles. In some ways, a review of these fundamentals is therefore refreshing. But questions such as the proper balance of power between government, parliament and courts, and the role of the monarchy are also extremely big, complex and delicate.

So why are such challenging questions being asked now? This is where the Commission’s potential role gets more troubling. The UK has recently witnessed an exceptionally turbulent period in constitutional terms, with the referendum vote for Brexit followed by a significant struggle over its implementation. Particularly during 2019, tensions ran very high between government and parliament, with the Supreme Court becoming involved via the prorogation case. That these tensions helped motivate the proposed Commission seems clear from other words in this section of the manifesto, which suggest that ‘The failure of Parliament to deliver Brexit… has opened up a destabilising and potentially extremely damaging rift between politicians and people’. Leaving aside the question of which parliamentarians exactly were responsible for blocking Brexit, this statement highlights how concerns about the most recent period (including the Supreme Court’s role) have driven some on the Conservative side to seek reform.  Continue reading

The government’s electoral reform agenda: an assessment

alan.jfif (1)The Johnson government is committed to maintaining the core element of the electoral system – First Past the Post. But it has indicated its intention to pursue a range of other reforms. In this post, Alan Renwick assesses its agenda. Most urgent is the need to update campaign rules to reflect the digital age – but the strength of the government’s will to act here remains unclear, and recent steps that could undermine media independence are worrying. Other proposals are mixed, but some have the potential to strengthen the system.

Boris Johnson’s government has indicated plans to reform four aspects of the electoral system: (1) who can vote; (2) the process of voting; (3) how constituency boundaries are set; and (4) the campaign rules. This agenda excludes the core of the system: the principle of First Past the Post. But that is unsurprising: as I examined in a book published in 2011, political parties rarely change the electoral rules that empower them; there is no reason to expect an exception in current circumstances.

This post examines each of the four areas of proposed action. The third and fourth areas deserve most attention: valuable reform of boundary setting is possible; and strengthened rules around digital campaigning are urgently needed. Whether the government will focus on what matters remains to be seen.

Who can vote

The Conservative manifesto said two things about the franchise: the voting age will not be reduced to 16, as has happened for local and devolved elections in Scotland and Wales, and as Labour promised in its manifesto; but voting rights will be extended to all British citizens living abroad, eliminating the current 15-year limit.

I have set out the case for votes at 16 in a previous post, and will not rehearse the arguments here. Enfranchising expats, meanwhile, is unlikely to cause much controversy. Yet it appears to be a relatively low government priority: the December Queen’s Speech said merely that the relevant measures would ‘be brought forward in due course’. Commitments to so-called ‘votes for life’ appeared in the 2015 and 2017 Conservative manifestos too, but no progress followed.

The process of voting

The government wants to reform the voting process for two reasons: to improve accessibility for people with disabilities; and to tackle electoral fraud.

The first of these is uncontroversial. Though it was not mentioned in the Conservative manifesto, the December Queen’s Speech (repeating commitments in the Queen’s Speech in October) set out proposals that reflect recommendations made by the Electoral Commission last May. Continue reading

The Secretary of State’s power to call a border poll in Northern Ireland: why British-Irish institutional cooperation is essential

Should there be a referendum on the issue of Irish unification, the Irish government would be expected to play a central role. Etain Tannam argues that Brexit created new tensions in British–Irish relations and has highlighted the need to have firm institutional cooperation between both governments before any referendum is called. As Irish unification would alter greatly the Irish state and the Irish electorate would have to approve of unification by referendum vote, the Irish government’s role is highly significant, even though it has no formal powers in this area in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. Moreover, the sensitivity of the unification issue and the need to avoid increasing the sectarian divide imply that longer term management by both governments and joint framing of the issue is required.

The Brexit referendum in 2016 almost immediately reignited the issue of Irish unification, given that a majority of the population in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU, including the vast majority of cultural Catholics. The unification issue has surfaced periodically since 2016, though with the exception of Sinn Féin, Irish political parties do not wish to place it on their agendas given its sensitivity. It is clear however that combined with demographic changes in Northern Ireland and the impact of Brexit on support for Scottish independence, there is far more informal discussion of Irish unification than in previous decades. Only the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has the statutory power to call a referendum on Irish unification, if they perceive there to be evidence of majority support in Northern Ireland for unification. However, in practice, given the fundamental implications for the Irish state and given Irish governments’ role in the peace process and in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, the Irish government would be expected to play a central role.

There are many reasons why the Irish government’s role would be crucial. Unification would have complex and wide-ranging impacts on Ireland, necessitating an Irish input into the timing of a referendum on unification. Many referendums could be required to amend the Constitution, dealing with a range of issues, including federalisation of the state and of protection for unionist identity in a new state.  Continue reading

Why a central role for party members in leadership elections is bad for parliamentary democracy

meg_russell_2000x2500.jpgThe Labour Party is currently engaged in picking a new leader. In recent years greater and greater powers have been given to party members in such elections, at the cost of parliamentarians. Meg Russell argues that these changes have destabilised the dynamics of parliamentary democracy, weakening essential lines of accountability. She suggests that there is a need to properly review these effects. In the meantime she proposes some short-term solutions for Labour.

Labour’s leadership election is underway, with a final decision due after a ballot of party members and affiliated supporters on 4 April. Currently, four candidates are pursuing nominations from constituency parties and affiliated organisations, following an initial round of nominations by Labour MPs (and MEPs). Under Labour’s present system, the party’s MPs have relatively little control over the outcome – serving solely as ‘gatekeepers’ to the ballot. As occurred in 2015, a leader could hence emerge who has little Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) support. This arrangement departs significantly from the original basis for choosing UK party leaders, and is unusual internationally. It has potentially destabilising effects on the whole political system, given parliament’s centrality. This post argues that, in the short-term, pledges from Labour candidates could avoid the worst potential effects on the party.

The history of leadership election rules

Traditionally, MPs chose the UK’s party leaders. Labour was the first party to diverge from this, under pressure from left-wing activists in the 1970s. Believing that MPs were prone to pick overly-centrist leaders, the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy pressed for local party and trade union involvement. This led to adoption of the so-called ‘electoral college’ in 1981, giving equal weight in the final outcome to 3 groups – MPs, constituency parties and affiliated organisations – though MPs controlled the initial nominations. That system survived largely intact for decades without upset. Crucially, the final ballot outcome was consistent with MPs’ own preferences for the elections of Neil Kinnock in 1983, John Smith in 1992 and Tony Blair in 1994 (while Gordon Brown’s 2007 succession was uncontested). Cracks began showing in 2010, when Ed Miliband was elected despite his brother David having greater support from both MPs and party members. To avoid future splits in the electoral college Ed Miliband abolished it – giving the final say to members, ‘registered supporters’ and affiliated members who all participate on an equal basis. This system elected Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 – despite his limited backing in the PLP – and is being repeated (with minor modifications) now.

The Conservative Party changed its rules more slowly, and retained more safeguards. Famously, Conservatives used to pick their leader through a system of informal ‘soundings’ in the parliamentary party, with formal elections not introduced until 1965. Thereafter, the leader continued being chosen by Conservative MPs, until William Hague’s reforms following the party’s 1997 defeat. The new system echoed Labour’s, by including the wider membership, but retained stronger parliamentary party control. Candidates are whittled down to two (if necessary) through successive MP ballots, with the choice between them being put to the wider membership. This system remains unchanged, and was most recently deployed in 2019 when Boris Johnson beat Jeremy Hunt. Notably, in both 2003 and 2016 the parliamentary party chose a leader (Michael Howard and Theresa May, respectively) without a member ballot, after other potential candidates withdrew.

Member ballots and parliamentary accountability

Inclusion of the wider party membership inclusion in selecting leaders has weakened traditional lines of accountability, as illustrated most starkly by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Although MPs (very narrowly) put Corbyn on the ballot in 2015 it was always clear that he had only minority support within the PLP. A vote of no-confidence in June 2016 made this explicit, when 172 Labour MPs (81%) voted against him, and only 40 in favour. This sparked a fresh leadership contest, which Corbyn comfortably won – leaving the PLP to coexist with a leader that it plainly did not support. Continue reading

Can Boris Johnson simply repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act?

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The Conservative manifesto pledged to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, but was silent about what, if anything, would replace it. Robert Hazell argues that it is not enough to simply repeal the Act; new legislation will have to be drafted, parliamentary scrutiny will have to take place, and the options for reform should be properly considered.

Can the Fixed-term Parliaments Act simply be repealed? The short answer is: no. As always, it is more complicated than that. But the commitment in the Conservative manifesto was unambiguous: ‘We will get rid of the Fixed Term Parliaments Act [sic] – it has led to paralysis at a time the country needed decisive action’ (page 48). And decisive action is what the government hopes to display through early repeal of the FTPA. It does not seem to be one of the issues to be referred to the new Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission, since they were mentioned separately in the Queen’s Speech. So — unless the government has second thoughts — we can expect early legislation to be introduced to repeal the FTPA.

The government may feel that it can press ahead with little opposition, since the Labour manifesto contained an equally unambiguous commitment to repeal: ‘A Labour government will repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, which has stifled democracy and propped up weak governments’ (page 81). But there is no need for urgent legislation: this is not a pressing issue, and with a government majority of 87, we are not going to see motions for early dissolution or ‘no confidence’ any time soon. And there are good reasons for taking it more slowly: not least, that there is provision for a statutory review of the FTPA in section 7 of the Act, due to be initiated in 2020. In anticipation of that review, the Lords Constitution Committee is already conducting an inquiry into the operation of the Act, due to conclude in around March.

The evidence submitted last year to the Constitution Committee (in 14 written submissions, and four sessions of oral evidence) has brought out many of the difficulties involved. These are both political and technical. The main political difficulty is that repeal of the Act would return us to the situation where the incumbent Prime Minister can choose the date of the next election. No one disputes the potential advantage that confers: in Roy Jenkins’s famous phrase, uttered during a Lords debate on 11 March 1992, it is equivalent to deciding ‘to give the pistol in a race to one of the competitors and encourage him to fire it whenever he thinks that the others are least ready’. It also enables the government to time the election when they are doing well in the opinion polls, and to stoke up their support through good news announcements and giveaway budgets. Petra Schleiter’s research shows that this confers a significant electoral advantage: in the UK since 1945, the average vote share bonus realised on calling an early election was around 6%, and it doubled the likelihood that the incumbent PM survived in office.

Electoral fairness is the main argument for fixed terms, but not the only one. Other reasons include better planning in Whitehall because of greater certainty, less risk of losing legislation to a snap election, more clarity for the Electoral Commission and electoral administrators, and for the political parties. It is true that electoral certainty has not been much in evidence in recent years, with two early elections in 2017 and 2019. But it would be wrong to judge the FTPA solely on the basis of the extraordinary Brexit parliaments of 2015 and 2017. It is too early to rush to judgement, and it is too insular: most of the Westminster world, and almost all European parliaments have fixed terms, so there is plenty of wider experience to draw upon. A more balanced approach would ask – as the Lords Constitution Committee has done – whether the FTPA needs fine tuning, and if so what amendments are required, rather than rushing straight to repeal. Continue reading

Has parliament just got boring? Five conclusions from the passage of the EU Withdrawal Agreement Act

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The 2019 parliament has passed its first statute: the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020. Unusually for a major constitutional bill it was approved unamended. Does this demonstrate the shape of things to come, with an enfeebled parliament under Johnson’s majority government? Lisa James and Meg Russell argue that the WAB was not a typical bill, and the circumstances were far from normal. Even under majority government parliament is far from powerless, and the full dynamics of the new situation may take some time to play out.

1. The Act passed easily – but the circumstances were unusual

The EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020 (the WAA or – before it gained Royal Assent – the WAB) passed with remarkable ease and speed. A 100-page bill implementing the Withdrawal Agreement, it was packed with detailed provisions on everything from citizens’ rights to the operation of the Joint Committee. Nonetheless, following just 11 days’ scrutiny, it passed wholly unamended: five government defeats in the Lords were swiftly overturned when the Bill returned to the Commons.

Comparison with a key previous piece of Brexit legislation – illustrated in the table below – shows how uneventful the WAB’s passage was in relative terms. The EU (Withdrawal) Act 2018 was similar in scope and complexity, but had a far rockier passage. During 36 days’ scrutiny the government was defeated 16 times, including a rare defeat in the Commons. By the time it passed, it had been so heavily amended – by backbenchers, opposition parliamentarians and ministers themselves – that it was 63% longer than when first introduced.

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Continue reading

Northern Ireland: politics on the move, destination uncertain

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Three years on from the collapse of the Northern Ireland Executive m prompted by the RHI scandal, a power sharing government has returned to Stormont on the back of a deal that promises a ‘new approach’. Alan Whysall analyses the new deal, how it might work in practice and what pitfalls might await the new ministerial team.

We have devolved government in Northern Ireland once more, with a new political deal, New Decade, New Approach. This is a cause for real hope, responding to the public mood, and the politics dictate it must operate for the moment. Many of the underpinnings are, however, fragile. Government and politics need to operate differently if they are to succeed in the longer term.

The last thousand days

Government in Northern Ireland has been in abeyance for three years. In early 2017, one of the two main parties, Sinn Féin, withdrew over the involvement of the other, the DUP, in a mismanaged sustainable energy scheme, the Renewable Heat Incentive. Beneath the surface were other tensions, notably around respect for Irish identity – crystallised latterly in demands from Sinn Féin and others for an Irish Language Act. Division between the parties was sharpened by Brexit, which the DUP favoured but others did not; and later by its Westminster alliance with the May government. 

While devolution operated, parties in government had moderated their language. Once it collapsed, rhetoric, and feeling in parts of the community, became hardened and polarised, reminiscent of the atmosphere before the Good Friday Agreement. The British government, under uninspiring Secretaries of State and writhing in its Brexit agonies, incurred universal mistrust. Relations between London and Dublin became tense. The prospect of Irish unity through a border poll – which the Agreement makes in principle a matter for simple majorities in both parts of Ireland – featured increasingly in Sinn Féin’s approach, and appeared from opinion polling to be growing closer. Paramilitaries on both sides saw opportunities in the political vacuum; last spring dissident Republicans, seeking to kill police officers, murdered a journalist, Lyra McKee.

There was at first remarkable equanimity over the extraordinary situation of Northern Ireland being left without government, beyond civil servants minding the shop. The British government hesitated to impose direct rule, as in the past; its dependence on the DUP would have made such a step destabilising. 

A report late last year by the new Northern Ireland think tank Pivotal shows how seriously Northern Ireland has suffered from inattention to its grave economic and social problems, under devolution and since. Continue reading