In the event of a Leave vote Brexit would dominate Westminster for years

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The Constitution Unit, together with the UCL European Institute, is holding a special series of seminars on the implications and consequences of Brexit. The first, on 21 April, focused on the consequences for Westminster and Whitehall. In this post, adapted from his comments on the night, former Clerk of the House of Commons Lord Lisvane discusses the impact that a vote to leave the EU would have on Westminster in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, during Brexit negotiations and once Brexit has actually taken place.

The immediate aftermath

After a vote to leave there will be immediate pressure for debates in the House of Commons and the House of Lords, probably over two days, to be held as soon as possible. There may even be calls for a rare weekend recall, though this is in the Prime Minister’s hands and I think it very unlikely that he would grant one.

David Cameron’s future will, of course, be high on the agenda. He has said that he would stay on as Prime Minister to oversee the consequences of a vote to leave, but there are Conservative MPs who have suggested that he won’t have the opportunity to do that. Might he throw the dice and have a vote of confidence among members of his own party, or would that be too high risk?

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The Electoral Commission and the EU referendum

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The Electoral Commission is entrusted with delivering and regulating the EU referendum. Andrew Scallan CBE, the Commission’s Director of Electoral Administration and Deputy Chief Counting Officer for the referendum, discusses this role, lessons learned from previous referendums and new challenges which may arise this time.

On 20 February 2016 the Prime Minister announced his proposal for the referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union to be held on 23 June this year. It was the date that everyone was waiting for, not least the Electoral Commission, which is entrusted with delivering and regulating the EU referendum. When the European Union Referendum Act received royal assent in December 2015, we reported to the UK parliament that our arrangements for the delivery of a well-run referendum were progressing well, and by the time of the Prime Minister’s announcement we were in a position to report that arrangements were well-advanced.

The Electoral Commission’s role

The Electoral Commission has specific responsibilities and functions in relation to the delivery and regulation of referendums held under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 (PPERA). One of our responsibilities under PPERA is to advise parliament on the intelligibility of the proposed referendum question. We were pleased when our recommendation to revise the original question in line with the findings from our research with voters was quickly accepted by the government and parliament. Our other responsibilities include:

  • The Chair of the Electoral Commission, Jenny Watson, as Chief Counting Officer, being responsible for certifying the outcome of the referendum
  • Registering organisations or individuals who want to campaign in the referendum
  • Considering and approving applications for designation as the lead campaign group for each referendum outcome
  • Making grant payments to the approved designated organisations
  • Monitoring spending on referendum campaigning, in line with the referendum spending limits
  • Providing advice and guidance on the rules to campaigners
  • Monitoring and securing compliance with campaign donation, loan and spending controls
  • Monitoring spending by Counting Officers
  • Reporting on the administration of the referendum and referendum campaign regulation

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Reforming party funding by stealth and compromise may have longer-term consequences

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Since the 2015 general election the government has introduced two measures –proposals relating to trade union political funds and cuts to Short money – that have the potential to affect the funding of at least some political parties. Justin Fisher argues that reforms such as these that have an asymmetric impact on parties could have longer-term consequences by causing a future government to exact ‘revenge’. That would do little for the prospects of reaching consensus on the vexed question of party finance reform.

The phrase ‘stop-go’ has become a useful means by which one can characterise Britain’s approach to party finance reform since 2000, when the wide ranging Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act  (PPERA) was passed. Despite PPERA, the ‘problem’ of British party finance has refused to go away and, in the relatively short period since its introduction in 2001, there have been two subsequent government sponsored inquiries, both of which have recommended significant further reform but have failed to see their proposals implemented. The result is that Britain has developed a stop-go approach to reform, whereby reviews are entered into with reforming zeal, only for the ensuing proposals to be shelved by a failure of the main political parties to reach agreement. However, since the 2015 election two measures have been introduced which have the potential to affect the funding of at least some parties. In both cases the final proposals are likely to be somewhat less radical than was originally envisaged but could nonetheless have significant short- and longer-term consequences.

The Trade Union Bill

The election of the Conservative majority government in May 2015 very quickly signalled that reforms related to party funding would be attempted, not as a comprehensive attempt at reform, but with possibly far reaching consequences for some parties. In July 2015, a Trade Union Bill was presented, which included a clause requiring trade unions with a political fund to operate a ‘contracting-in’ system rather than a ‘contracting-out’ system. This had been a Conservative Party manifesto commitment, but went to the heart of the Labour Party’s relationship with the trade unions, following the Trade Union Act 1913. This established that for trade unions to engage in political activity, they must create a separate political fund. This covered all political activity – not just that with the Labour Party – and trade union members were required to actively ‘contract-out’ if they wanted to avoid paying this modest additional fee. The 1913 Act laid the ground rules for an important aspect of Labour funding for much of the next 100 years. Political activity through the Labour Party would be expressed collectively through a union’s decision to affiliate to the party.

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Politicians from seven parties endorse citizens’ assemblies to combat democratic inequality and improve the quality of decision-making

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The Democracy Matters project, which ran two pilot citizens’ assemblies late last year, launched its report at Westminster on 13 April. The launch was celebrated with a panel discussion featuring representatives of seven political parties. John-Paul Saleh reports on the event which saw all of the politicians present voice their support for the citizens’ assembly model.

Politicians, members of the public, academics and journalists gathered in the Palace of Westminster on 13 April for the launch of the report of Democracy Matters, a project that ran two pilot citizens’ assemblies late last year. The report charts the project from its inception through to its completion and includes discussion of its findings and potential implications for constitutional reform. It is a must-read for anyone who is interested in democracy in the United Kingdom, and participatory politics in general.

The pilot citizens’ assemblies took place last autumn in two locations: Assembly North in Sheffield and Assembly South in Southampton. The project sought to encourage public participation in a time of increasing democratic inequality, using current developments in devolution as a test case for discussion. It posited that, in order to combat democratic inequality and improve the quality of decision-making, any new constitutional settlements or devolution proposals should build on deliberative discussions among citizens and between citizens and politicians based on information provided by devolution experts and advocates of different viewpoints.

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How EU membership has transformed the constitution

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A timely new book examines the implications and consequences of a British exit from the European Union. In this post Patrick J. Birkinshaw and Mike Varney summarise the first chapter, which discusses how our EU experience has changed our notion of sovereignty. They argue that, even if the UK leaves the EU, the effects of decades of European influence would not be reversed and there would be no return to a pre-1972 prototype.

Will Brexit restore sovereignty? This is the question at the heart of our chapter that introduces the recently published Britain Alone! The Implications and Consequences of United Kingdom Exit from the EU. Voters will no doubt be motivated by the widest variety of factors in how they vote. Sober judgement and mature reflection have not been assisted by an absence of informed debate on the major principles and values at issue. The Prime Minister’s frantic negotiations leading to the Best of Both Worlds paper in February 2016, as required under the European Union Referendum Act 2015, which sets out the advantages of remaining in the EU with a ‘special status’ ensuring that the UK will not be a part of a ‘European super-state’, probably represents the best outcome for a member state that has long been semi-detached to the European project. Whether it will sway many voters is another matter.

Restoration of sovereignty may well feature in a large number of voters’ thinking – it is a commonplace among Brexit supporting politicians: not being bossed about, controlling our own laws and borders, controlling the public purse, not being a part of an alienating globalisation process. But it seemed to us that sovereignty as a constitutional legal concept needed to be unpacked. Our focus is on the sovereignty of the Crown in Parliament as a legislator.

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The length of modern legislation means that the effectiveness of parliamentary scrutiny is often compromised

In a new report published by the Centre for Policy Studies Daniel Greenberg identifies a number of trends that he argues are reducing the effectiveness of parliamentary scrutiny of legislation. In particular, he suggests that the length of modern legislation is becoming so great that significant parts of bills often receive no detailed scrutiny at all. Here, he summarises his report and suggests action that might be taken to help remedy the situation.

Recent parliamentary practice discloses a number of dangerous legislative trends that threaten the effective protection of the rule of law, by diluting parliament’s power and influence, and concentrating power in the hands of the executive in general and the civil service in particular.

The length of new bills and the number of clauses that they include has become ever greater over recent decades, and the result of portmanteau bills in particular is that even if parliament wanted to scrutinise them effectively it would be unable to do so.  Over the past 50 years, the number of acts passed by governments has stayed approximately the same. However, the average number of clauses included within them has doubled.

It is still common to describe the committee stage of the examination of bills in both Houses as a ‘line-by-line’ scrutiny process; and parliamentarians on all sides of each House commonly refer to it in that way, and often congratulate themselves on scrutinising and refining bills at great length.  The reality, however, is that the committee stage in particular has become diluted to such a degree that it can no longer be described as taking place in a consistent way.

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Second forecast for the EU referendum

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Stephen Fisher and Alan Renwick have developed a method for forecasting the outcome of the EU referendum based on current vote intention polling and analysis of opinion polling from previous referendums in the UK and around the world. Last month, in their initial forecast, they suggested that Remain had an 87 per cent chance of winning. In this second forecast this has now dropped to 73 per cent. 

A month ago we issued our first forecast for the EU membership referendum on 23 June . Based on an analysis of referendums in the UK and on the EU outside the UK, and on vote intention opinion polls we forecast that Remain had an 87 per cent chance of winning, and that Remain would get 58 per cent of the vote, plus or minus 14. This was in part based on our polling average (excluding don’t knows) of 55 per cent for Remain on 11 March.

Our current forecast suggests that the contest is a fair bit closer. Our polling average now puts Remain on 52 per cent. We now give Remain a 73 per cent chance of winning and estimate that the Remain share of the vote will be 54 per cent, plus or minus 13 points.

The key change here is the drop from 55 per cent to 52 per cent for Remain in the polling average. The main reasons for this are as much or more methodological than substantive.

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