Elections, referendums, political parties and the Constitution Unit

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In the third of our series of posts adapted from presentations at the Unit’s 20th anniversary conference, Alan Renwick documents on how the UK’s electoral framework has evolved since 1995 and illustrates how the Unit has shaped the implementation of changes. Looking forward, he identifies the franchise and the current gulf between citizens and politicians as key areas for future research.

Respondent Ben Seyd adds that the TV leader debates during the election would also benefit from clear guidelines and Jenny Watson reflects on how the Electoral Commission is building on the foundations that the Unit helped to establish.

Electoral law in the UK is sometimes described as unchanging. Speaking in 2011, for example, David Cameron declared that, ‘Throughout history, it [the electoral system] has risen to the demands of the time’. But this is inaccurate. In fact, if we contrast the electoral framework in place today with that in place in 1995, we find many changes.

Transformation of elections and referendums in 1995

Regarding the core of the electoral system, in 1995, all elections in Great Britain used First Past the Post (FPTP); other systems were used only in Northern Ireland. Today, by contrast, voters in Northern Ireland are unique in having to deal with only one system other than FPTP. Three different forms of proportional representation are used: for European Parliament elections in Great Britain; for elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh and London Assemblies; and for Scottish local elections and most elections in Northern Ireland. The supplementary vote is used for mayors and/or Police and Crime Commissioners throughout England and Wales. Even the Alternative Vote system – rejected by voters for Westminster elections in the 2011 referendum – is used for local council by-elections in Scotland.

In 1995, only 9.2 per cent of MPs were women, whereas today 29.4 per cent are women. This change has happened for a variety of reasons, one of which is change in the formal electoral rules. Labour started using all-women shortlists before the 1997 election. These were ruled unlawful in 1996, but their legal foundations were restored through the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Act of 2002.

In 1995, the running of elections and regulation of campaign finance were entirely local matters, there was no legal recognition for political parties and no regulation of donations to parties. Today, by contrast, while much electoral administration remains local, the Electoral Commission provides oversight and guidance. Parties are now recognized in law, spending on national as well as constituency campaigns is limited, and donations to parties are regulated.

In 1995, there was no standing legislation on referendums and there had been only one UK-wide referendum. Today, standing legislation regulates matters such as referendum question development and campaign spending. There has been only one more UK-wide referendum, but another is in the pipeline and there have been many local referendums and referendums in the nations. Various legislation and conventions also now require referendums in various situations.

Change continues to take place. Recent developments include the introduction of individual electoral registration (IER) and provision allowing voters to recall their MP early.

The role of the Constitution Unit

Some of these changes would have taken place even if the Constitution Unit had not existed. Much of the debate on core electoral reforms, for example, happened before the Unit was established in 1995, and the creation of an Electoral Commission was already Labour policy following the 1993 Plant Report.

Even in these areas, however, the Constitution Unit did played a role in shaping detailed implementation or at least debates about implementation. Early reports, for example, questioned the use of closed lists for elections to the European Parliament and examined the precise roles that an Electoral Commission might play. The Independent Commission on Proportional Representation, which reported in 2004, did much useful work analysing the effects of the various new systems that had been created.

The Unit’s most direct role, however, has been in securing all-women shortlists. Meg Russell wrote two key reports on Women’s Representation in UK Politics, and these had an important impact. Baroness Jay described the fresh approach proposed by the first report as a ‘big breakthrough’, while Lord Lester, though not a supporter, acknowledged the report was ‘an important document’. Labour have continued to use all-women shortlists in the three elections since the legislation was passed.

The Constitution Unit also played an important role in respect of the regulation of referendums. The Commission on the Conduct of Referendums, which reported in 1996, made many recommendations that government subsequently followed, relating, for example, to procedures for deciding referendum questions, the regulation of campaign spending, and the designation of campaign organisations.

Issues for future research

As for the future, there are several reform issues relating to elections and referendums that remain on the agenda. Ardent electoral reformers remain hopeful that FPTP might be abolished for elections to the House of Commons. As I have argued elsewhere, however, that looks unlikely.

Rather, there are two key issues that are high on the agenda. One is the franchise – a matter that we might have thought had been resolved long ago. Many aspects of the franchise – votes for 16- and 17-year-olds, for (some) prisoners, for UK nationals living outside the UK, and for Commonwealth and EU nationals living in the UK – are now being contested. These debates are creating pressures for opportunistic tinkering. But such pressures should be resisted in favour of serious thinking about the principles that should underlie the franchise and the standing legislative framework that should be built upon them.

The second area is the question of whether institutional reforms could help overcome the gulf between citizens and politicians. Some possible reforms – such as the introduction of e-voting – have advocates but risk merely papering over the cracks while creating their own problems. Measures designed to open up candidacy and reduce the costs – including non-financial costs – of running a serious campaign deserve attention.

Ultimately, we should also consider whether moving beyond the use of elections as the sole means of selecting our representatives would improve the functioning of the system. Greater use of selection by lot – in ways similar to jury service – are gaining increasing prominence. They deserve to be examined with care, and the Constitution Unit can hope to be at the heart of those debates.

Respondent comments

Ben Seyd, Senior Research Fellow at the Constitution Unit 1997-2005, applauded the amount of work that the Unit has done on elections over the last twenty years. He outlined three key contributions that the Unit has made to elections in the last twenty years: firstly, by arguing for the Electoral Commission, and advising on its design in collaboration with David Butler; secondly by conducting research into the institutional response to multi-party politics, i.e. coalition government; and thirdly through Meg Russell’s work on candidate selection.

Dr Seyd did however note the Unit’s has had less impact in this area than others, and most likely due to the fact its focus is primarily institutional and many of the main discussions centre on political behaviours. Although this isn’t in itself a problem, he suggested that it meant the Unit was sometimes working against the grain of the political dynamic. The reality politicians is that prefer the ‘muddling through’ approach – institutional rules might be good, they might well make for better governance, but if they cut across political dynamics they will have a limited lifespan. The one area in addition to those suggested by Dr Renwick that he saw as crying out for formal rules was the TV debates during the elections.

Jenny Watson, Chair of the Electoral Commission, opened her response by celebrating Robert’s foresight in establishing the Unit when he did. She commented that the Commission strives for consistency and that each year she feels rewarded by the high levels of public confidence in UK elections. But she also acknowledged such success cannot be taken for granted and therefore that efforts to improve access to, and the security of, the electoral system continue to be central to the work of the Commission. Turning to the next 20 years, she spoke of improvements to the current system – such as the introduction of ID at polling stations – and of future developments such as the likely integration of technology beyond online registration. She also spoke of preparations for the EU referendum and looked forward to hearing the Unit’s analysis on the challenges ahead.

For more posts in this series based on the Constitution Unit’s 20th Anniversary event, click here.

About the Panel

Dr Alan Renwick is Reader in Comparative Politics at the University of Reading and will join the Constitution Unit in September as Deputy Director (details here). 

Dr Ben Seyd is Lecturer in British and Comparative Politics at the University of Kent. He was previously a Senior Research Fellow at the Constitution Unit.

Jenny Watson is Chair of the Electoral Commission.

The panel was chaired by Dr Jennifer Hudson of the Constitution Unit.

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