Over the past two weeks the political parties have published their manifestos for the snap general election. In this post Chris Caden and Fionnuala Ní Mhuilleoir summarise the constitutional content, covering proposals relating to Brexit, the possibility of a constitutional convention, devolution, House of Lords reform, electoral reform, human rights and freedom of information.
Theresa May’s surprise election announcement left the political parties with the challenge of putting together manifestos in a matter of weeks. The Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and Plaid Cymru all published their manifestos in the week beginning 15 May. UKIP followed on 25 May and the SNP on 30 May. With much of the election debate centring on whom the public trust to lead the country through the biggest constitutional upheaval in recent history, Brexit is unsurprisingly covered by all the parties. Attention on other constitutional issues has wavered somewhat as a result, but Labour and the Liberal Democrats both propose a constitutional convention to review aspects of the UK’s constitutional arrangements. The manifestos also lay out a variety of options in areas such as House of Lords reform, devolution, electoral reform and human rights.
Negotiating Brexit is a major theme for all parties. The Conservative Brexit commitments include ending membership of the single market and customs union so that a greater distinction between ‘domestic and international affairs in matters of migration, national security and the economy’ can be made. This means negotiating a free trade and customs agreement between the UK and EU member states and securing new trade agreements with other countries. Theresa May’s party aims for a ‘deep and special partnership’ with member states. A successful Brexit deal would entail regaining control of borders, reducing and controlling net migration, but maintaining a ‘frictionless’ Common Travel Area for people, goods and services to pass between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The manifesto controversially maintains that ‘no deal’ is better than a bad deal for the UK.
Labour also accepts the referendum result, but rejects ‘no deal’ as a feasible option and envisages something more akin to a ‘soft Brexit’. The party would scrap the Conservatives’ Brexit white paper and replace it with an agreement maintaining the benefits of the single market and customs union; the government’s proposed ‘Great Repeal Bill’ would be replaced with an EU Rights and Protections Bill to ensure no changes to workers’ and consumers’ rights, equality law or environmental protections. The party pledges to immediately guarantee existing rights for all EU nationals in the UK and UK citizens in EU countries, and would also seek to remain part of various research and educational projects such as Horizon 2020, Erasmus and the European Medicines Agency. Additionally, membership of organisations like Eurojust and Europol would be retained. Labour commits to no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Unlike the Conservatives and Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Greens pledge a second referendum after a Brexit agreement is concluded, which in each case would include an option on the ballot paper of staying in the EU. Preventing a hard Brexit is the first priority for the Lib Dems and as a result the party promises to fight for the continuation of UK membership of the single market and customs union. It also pledges to protect the rights of EU citizens living in the UK and UK citizens abroad, to maintain UK participation in the Erasmus+ programme and other EU-funded schemes, and to retain the European Health Insurance Card. The Greens set out a similar agenda.
The SNP wishes to mitigate what they see as the damage of Brexit with the proposal that Scotland should remain in the single market. The party seeks additional powers for the Scottish government including powers that will be repatriated from Brussels to the UK like agriculture, fisheries, environmental protection and employment law. Plaid Cymru, meanwhile, pledges to make sure ‘every penny’ of European funding for Wales is replaced by the UK government and that the Welsh share of the money promised by the Leave campaign (referring to the £350 million for the NHS) is delivered. It also demands that the UK government seeks the endorsement of each UK devolved legislature before any trade deal can be signed.
UKIP supports leaving the single market, the customs union and the European Court of Justice. The manifesto outlines that no ‘divorce’ bill should be paid to the EU and that Brexit negotiations will be complete by the end of 2019.
In recent years, various figures from across the political spectrum have advocated establishing a constitutional convention. This proposal appeared in the Labour and Liberal Democrat 2015 manifestos and has been repeated for this election. The design of Labour’s proposed convention is undefined in the manifesto. Its objectives would be wide-ranging: the manifesto suggests that its purpose would be to extend ‘democracy locally, regionally and nationally, considering the option of a more federalised country.’ In recent months Kezia Dugdale and Gordon Brown have been vocal advocates of federalism. Jeremy Corbyn has previously supported a convention that makes progress on ‘the voting system, House of Lords reform and the voting age.’ The Liberal Democrats favour a convention composed of politicians, academics, civil society representatives and members of the public; its ambitious objective would be to produce proposals for a codified constitution within two years . Despite calling for a ‘Constitutional Convention led by citizens’ in 2015, the Greens make no reference to a convention in their current manifesto.
In Scotland, the SNP state that a second independence referendum should take place after Brexit has been concluded. Along with calling for powers currently exercised at EU level to be devolved to Scotland, they also advocate Holyrood gaining full control over all social security benefits.
A second independence referendum is outright rejected by all three of the main Unionist parties. Of the three, the Liberal Democrats are the only party articulating support for a change to Scotland’s powers. Citing the recommendations of the 2014 Smith Commission, they support greater tax-raising powers for the Scottish Parliament, alongside the creation of a Scottish welfare system with ‘a starting budget of around £3 billion’. Though Scottish Labour now advocates a federal UK, Labour’s manifesto says only that this would be an option for the proposed constitutional convention to consider.
For Wales, Plaid Cymru, Labour and the Liberal Democrats are in favour of transferring control over policing to the Welsh Assembly, whilst Plaid and the Liberal Democrats go further in advocating the recommendations of the Silk Commission to devolve limited financial powers and transport. Both also support relabeling the National Assembly for Wales as a parliament.
Maintaining political stability and peace is the primary focus for the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems when it comes Northern Ireland. The Conservatives commit to the continued devolution of corporation tax powers in Northern Ireland, ‘subject to the executive demonstrating fiscal stability’. The three main parties all address the issue of the UK’s only land border with the European Union between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats advocate maintaining the common travel area, although they differ in positioning with the Liberal Democrats advocating the continuation of free movement whilst the Conservatives seek an outcome that results in ‘as frictionless a border as possible.’
In England, the three main parties are committed to devolving power to combined authorities. However, the Conservative manifesto suggests that new devolution deals would not be as much of a priority as they have been previously. Possibly due to the growing discussion within the party about the need to recognise English identity and speak for patriotic English voters, the Labour manifesto includes a new pledge to create a Minister for England serving under the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. UKIP, however, has the most radical plans for England. It would establish a 375-member English Parliament, elected under the additional member system and sitting in the chamber vacated by the House of Lords, which would be abolished. There would be an English government and First Minister, and the English Parliament would have similar powers to the existing devolved legislatures. As a consequence of this reform the UK-wide House of Commons would be slimmed down to 235 seats.
House of Lords reform
The manifestos reveal a degree of agreement between the Conservatives and Labour on an incremental approach to House of Lords reform. The Conservative manifesto is clear that ‘comprehensive reform’ of the House of Lords is ‘not a priority’. However, amid growing concern that the size of the House of Lords is ballooning at an unsustainable rate they indicate that they would address ‘issues such as its size’. This suggests that a Conservative government could respond positively to the recommendations of the Lords committee that is currently investigating how to go about achieving a reduction in numbers. Whilst Labour’s manifesto does state that the party’s ‘fundamental belief is that the Second Chamber should be democratically elected’, it also prioritises more modest reforms: as well as reducing the size of the House it states a desire to ‘end the hereditary principle’. The plan in the 2015 Labour manifesto for a Senate of the Nations and Regions is not included. The Lib Dems and the Greens both propose an elected second chamber, whilst UKIP and the SNP favour abolition.
The Conservatives include three reforms to the electoral process in their manifesto (as discussed in more detail in a previous blog post). First, they propose to scrap the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, the effectiveness of which has been called into question since this election was announced. Second, voters will be required to present ID at polling stations, a proposal suggested in a report by former cabinet minister Sir Eric Pickles. Finally, there is an unexpected proposal to replace the supplementary vote (SV) system used for mayoral and police and crime commissioners with first-past-the-post. This is a surprising inclusion for several reasons: it was Theresa May herself who, as Home Secretary, introduced PCC elections using SV in 2012; the announcement received no prior discussion or debate before the manifesto; the change would not have altered any of the results from the mayoral elections in May.
Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, the Greens and Plaid Cymru all maintain support for votes at 16, but this debate has shifted little since 2015. With polling from that election indicating that 43% of 18-25 year olds voted for Labour compared with only 26% for the Conservatives, the latter have perhaps predictably remained resistant to the idea of lowering the voting age. Commitment to a more proportional voting system is pledged by the Greens and the Liberal Democrats, but no mention is made in the Labour manifesto despite support for reform among some within the party.
In their 2015 manifesto the Conservatives pledged to ‘scrap the Human Rights Act, and introduce a British Bill of Rights’. This is not repeated in the 2017 manifesto, which merely promises to ‘consider our human rights legal framework when the process of leaving the EU concludes’. There is a commitment not to bring the European Union’s Charter of Fundamental Rights into UK law, but to remain signatories of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) throughout the next parliament.
Labour, the SNP, the Lib Dems and the Greens all promise to retain the Human Rights Act. Jeremy Corbyn’s party proposes to secure employment and equality rights for workers and to build human rights into trade policy. The Lib Dem manifesto promises include a Digital Bill of Rights and a Victims’ Bill of Rights. The SNP affirms its commitment to the Council of Europe and the ECHR, citing the fact that they are enshrined in the Scotland Act 1998. Plaid Cymru pledges a Welsh human rights charter to defend Welsh people and guarantee equal treatment.
Freedom of information
The Freedom of Information (FoI) Act is only mentioned in the Labour and Lib Dem manifestos. Labour would extend FoI to private companies that run public services, while the Lib Dems wish to end the ministerial veto on the release of information under FoI. They also seek to reduce the proportion of FoI requests where information is withheld by government departments.
All in all, therefore, although constitutional issues beyond Brexit are getting little attention during this general election campaign, there is a wide range of pledges for reform from the various parties – including the Conservatives, who are widely tipped to win. Whatever the outcome, it seems that plentiful opportunities exist for debate on constitutional and political reform in the years ahead.
About the authors
Chris Caden and Fionnuala Ní Mhuilleoir are Research Volunteers at the Constitution Unit.