The main focus of media coverage of the Conservative manifesto has been on the party’s controversial social care policy, but it also includes some surprising and significant proposed changes to do with the conduct of elections – the abolition of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, first past the post to replace the supplementary vote and requiring proof of ID to vote. Andrew Cook discusses these proposals and their implications.
The polls still suggest that the Conservatives are heading for victory in next month’s election. Nothing is certain. Nevertheless, the Conservative manifesto – Forward Together – is worth examining in detail. The media focus has been on the party’s controversial social care policy, but a section of the manifesto called ‘The Home of Democracy and the Rule of Law’ also includes some surprising and significant proposed changes to do with the conduct of elections. This post concentrates on these, while a larger comparison of the constitutional pledges of all the parties will follow on this blog later in the week.
Abolishing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act
The first issue is the fundamental question of when elections can be held. The manifesto commits to repealing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which was enacted into law by the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition government in 2011.
This Act was supposed to constrain a Prime Minister from calling an early election at a time of her or his convenience. But it certainly did not do that this time round: as Alan Renwick argued here earlier this month the ‘Act really has changed only the choreography, not the underlying pattern of power.’ May easily cleared the bar of two thirds of all MPs voting for the snap election and if the Act is repealed it will be remarked that it served little purpose. On the other hand, there may be more to the story. Under different circumstances, different political incentives could have seen the Act constrain the choices of a future Prime Minister. If the Conservatives form a government and fulfil their commitment, that will no longer be the case.
The question remains as to what will replace the Act (a replacement is needed, as simple repeal would abolish any limit on the length of a parliament). There is some disagreement as to whether you can ‘revive’ a prerogative power through legislation, allowing a reversion to the status quo ante, or whether an entirely new system for calling an election will need to be created.
First past the post for mayoral and police and crime commissioner elections
Turning to methods of election, the manifesto states:
‘We will retain the first past the post system of voting for parliamentary elections and extend this system to police and crime commissioner and mayoral elections.’
Conservative support for keeping first past the post for Westminster elections is, of course, nothing new. But the proposed change for mayoral and police and crime commissioner (PCC) elections is more surprising. After all, it was Theresa May who, as Home Secretary, was responsible for the introduction of PCC elections under the current system in 2012.
As it currently stands, a supplementary vote system is used for these elections. Located somewhere between the alternative vote (AV) and first past the post, the supplementary vote allows the voter to rank their first and second preferences. In the case that no candidate gets 50 per cent of the vote on first preferences, the top two candidates go to a runoff and votes for any other candidate outside the top two are redistributed by second preference.
As the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush has demonstrated, the effects of this change are relatively minor. Out of 82 elections held under supplementary vote since 2000, only 13 would have had a different result under first past the post. In those, Labour candidates would have benefited slightly more than Conservatives.
Although few argue that supplementary vote is an ideal system, most advocating for change would push for the alternative vote (allowing voters to express more than two preferences) rather than a return to first past the post. The motivation for the change is unclear. If in the future the vote on the left is more evenly distributed amongst Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Greens, and UKIP dissipates as a local electoral force, then it may prove advantageous to the Conservatives – but current polling does not suggest that is happening. Another possibility is that the proposal is simply an affirmation of belief in principle in the traditional British system of first past the post.
Requiring proof of identity to vote
In what may turn out to be the most significant of the proposed changes, the manifesto pledges to:
‘legislate to ensure that a form of identification must be presented before voting, to reform postal voting and to improve other aspects of the elections process to ensure that our elections are the most secure in the world. We will retain the traditional method of voting by pencil and paper, and tackle every aspect of electoral fraud.’
The proposed change is in response to a perceived lack of confidence in the democratic process. It builds on a report published last year by former cabinet minister Sir Eric Pickles into ways of tackling electoral fraud. Pickles suggested that different methods for providing identification might first be piloted, but there is no mention of this in the manifesto.
Questions have been raised as to whether there is a need for such a law. As Katie Ghose of the Electoral Reform Society notes there were 123 alleged cases of voter fraud in 2015, ‘and of those, only 26 of those were about “personation” (pretending to be someone else) at a polling station – what voter ID is meant to prevent.’ On the other hand, there is a concern that cases revealed may be only the tip of an iceberg. The UK is unusual in not requiring voters to show identification, and international observers have repeatedly recommended that this anomaly be removed. The Electoral Commission has made similar recommendations in response to widespread public concern that voter fraud could take place.
The risk presented by such a change is that it raises the barriers to participation, making it harder to vote and therefore driving down participation rates. Acknowledging this, Pickles said, ‘There is no need to be over elaborate; measures should enhance public confidence and be proportional’. Identification is already a requirement to vote in Northern Ireland, where acceptable documents such as a driver’s license and passport are supported by government-issued free electoral ID cards. The details will go a long way in determining how requiring voter identification will affect voting behaviour.
An important non-change: the boundary review and reduction in the number of MPs
Meanwhile, amidst these various changes, the manifesto makes clear that, on one point, the government will not seek further change where change might have been expected. The coalition government legislated in 2011 for a tightening of boundary review rules – greatly reducing the Boundary Commissions’ room for manoeuvre in deciding the size of each constituency – and a reduction in the number of MPs from 650 to 600. The first review under these new rules was cancelled in 2013 after the Liberal Democrats decided to punish the Conservatives for failing to deliver Lords reform. There has been speculation that the current review – due to be completed next year – might also be scuppered by parliamentary opposition and that the government might prefer to back down, at least in respect of MP numbers. But the manifesto commits a Conservative government to implementing both elements. Theresa May could be calculating that an increased majority will allow her to override the concerns of MPs on her own backbenches whose seats are threatened.
On the other hand, retaining the 2011 review system entirely unchanged is not without difficulty. That system sets out a fixed five-year cycle for reviews. The current review began in 2016, based on December 2015 electoral registers, and will conclude in 2018. The next review is scheduled to begin in 2021 using 2020 registers and report in 2023. Thus, if the timetable is not altered, the next election, assuming it takes place in 2022, will use boundaries based on seven-year-old data after the next review has already begun. Particularly if fixed-term parliaments are abolished, a new approach to scheduling may be needed.
The changes laid out in the Conservative manifesto will, if implemented, affect when, how and under what rules the UK votes. Although the effects of the changes won’t be known until further details are released, Theresa May clearly saw a need to reassure Britons that appears to hope they can strengthen trust in the democratic processes. Whether that is true remains to be seen.
About the author
Andrew Cook is a Research Associate at the Constitution Unit.