With just two weeks until polling day, the major parties have all published their manifestos: we now know their stated plans for the constitution. Stephen Mitchell, Elspeth Nicholson, Harrison Shaylor and Alex Walker examine what each party has to say about constitutional reform of the UK’s institutions, altering the devolution settlement and developing a written constitution.
This election sees a series of radical proposals for constitutional reform from all the political parties. You would not glean this from the introduction to most of the manifestos, or the table of contents; the parties are keenly aware that most voters are not interested in constitutional reform. So we have had to dig deep to extract the key constitutional pledges from the manifestos. We start with their high level plans for a constitutional convention and a written constitution, before discussing devolution and the Union, electoral reform and parliamentary reform. We have not included their plans for Brexit, because these are well known; but Brexit will obviously be a significant – if not the biggest – constitutional change, with major knock-on effects elsewhere. Nor have we included the parties from Northern Ireland, in the interests of space: this analysis is confined to the parties standing for election in Great Britain.
A number of political parties have promised citizen-led democratic initiatives in their manifestos, particularly on constitutional questions. Several parties want to develop a written constitution via this participatory route, and some have also promised citizen involvement on other questions, such as climate change.
Labour have set out their plan for a ‘UK-wide Constitutional Convention, led by a citizens’ assembly’. The scope of the proposed convention is broad – considering the renewal of parliament, how power is distributed and the relationship between the nations and regions of the UK. The convention will also consider the Welsh Government’s 20-point devolution plan, published in October.
The Conservatives agree that ‘proposals to restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates’ are needed. However, they stop short of a citizens’ convention, opting instead for a ‘Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission’ to be set up in their first year. One of the Commission’s key stated tasks will be to ‘update the Human Rights Act and administrative law to ensure there is a proper balance between the rights of individuals, our vital national security and effective government’; and ‘ensure that judicial review… is not abused to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays’.
The Liberal Democrats and the Brexit Party both mention a written constitution and set out measures for greater citizen involvement. The Liberal Democrats promise a written federal constitution that enshrines home rule and makes permanent the Scottish Parliament and National Assembly for Wales. They also plan to introduce a range of citizens’ assemblies at both local and national level on ‘the greatest challenges we face’, including climate change and the state’s use of artificial intelligence.
The Brexit Party state that it is ‘now time for a debate on a written constitution’, but do not set out a framework for this discussion. However, they do propose ‘Citizens’ Initiatives’, which would allow the public to call referendums on topics that receive 5 million voter signatures.
The Green Party have made a similar promise to Labour for a ‘Citizens’ Convention and citizens’ assemblies’ to strengthen democracy. However, unlike Labour, they explicitly want these deliberative exercises to produce ‘a written People’s Constitution and Bill of Rights’, which would then be put before parliament.
Plaid Cymru want to produce a written constitution – but for an independent Wales. This will be one of the tasks of the ‘Independence Commission’ they intend to establish.
The SNP manifesto is notable for the absence of these kinds of proposals. This is perhaps because the Scottish Government has already established the ‘Citizens’ Assembly of Scotland’ – with deliberations ongoing, and is planning to seek a second referendum on independence before the next UK general election (see below).
The Constitution Unit published a report on the possibility of a UK constitutional convention in 2017, drawing on the experience of such exercises in other countries. The report concluded that to be effective a convention should have a focused agenda, which is narrower than most of those proposed above. It also suggested that the government should set out in advance how it will respond to the proposals that emerge from such a convention – whether it be with legislation or some other course of action, such as a referendum.
Devolution, independence and the future of the Union
The SNP manifesto states that securing a majority of Scottish seats will give them a mandate to demand a second independence referendum. Their position is that it should then be up to the Scottish Parliament to decide if and when to call a referendum on the issue, and not Westminster. Plaid Cymru believe Wales should be an ‘independent member of the European Union’ and aim for this before 2030; although its manifesto does not include the phrase ‘independent state’, leaving open the possibility of some kind of federal arrangement. Both the Conservative and Labour manifestos state their opposition to a second Scottish independence referendum, although Labour only rules one out ‘in the early years of a Labour government’.
Labour may be opposed to independence, but they do pledge to ‘safeguard the future of a devolved UK’. Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru all guarantee to devolve more powers to the Scottish and Welsh parliaments including on borrowing powers, employment law and justice issues (in Wales). The Liberal Democrats, Greens, Labour and the Conservatives all include promises to devolve further powers to English regions. The Greens and the Liberal Democrats plan to legislate for the creation of a Cornish Assembly (see the Constitution Unit report on the Cornish Question). Labour’s manifesto outlines the party’s ambitious plan to decentralise political power from Westminster and ‘re-establish regional Government Offices’ in order to ensure politics is ‘more attuned to our English regions’. Meanwhile the Conservatives promise to publish a White Paper on English devolution in 2020, but offer little detail about what this would contain. Whilst these manifestos don’t explicitly argue for an English-only parliament, some leave the door open to such a body. The Liberal Democrats, for example, state their desire for an ‘English-only stage in legislation affecting England’ and argue throughout for a ‘written, federal constitution’. Unit Director Meg Russell has explored the options available for an English Parliament in a Constitution Unit report.
The various proposals for reform of the electoral system generally include replacing First-Past-The-Post (FPTP) with a more proportional method of election, and expanding the franchise to 16 and 17-year olds.
The Labour manifesto calls for a ‘democratic revolution’: a reduction of the voting age to 16 and ‘giving full voting rights to all UK residents’. The SNP – potential supporters of a minority Corbyn government – are also pledging to enfranchise 16–17 year olds and ‘EU citizens and all those with a right to remain in the UK’ for Westminster elections, having already done so for elections to the Scottish Parliament. Other parties — including the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party of England and Wales, and Plaid Cymru — propose similar reforms.
All the above parties, with the exception of Labour and the Conservatives, explicitly refer to replacing FPTP with a more proportional electoral system. The SNP, Liberal Democrats, and Plaid all propose the Single Transferable Vote as the best method to achieve proportionality at elections. The Greens merely want a ‘fair and proportional’ system without naming a particular method. Labour’s democratic revolution shies away from making such a pledge, however.
The Brexit Party’s ‘Contract with the People’ proposes a ‘reform of the voting system to make it more representative’, but does not say what this would actually look like. The ‘contract’ does not directly mention proportionality, but Nigel Farage has previously voiced support for the idea. The Brexit Party also support recall petitions for MPs who switch parties during the course of a parliament. This comes on the back of dozens of MPs switching affiliation, resigning, or losing their party whip during the last parliament.
The Conservative Party does not support any significant change to the electoral system, pledging to maintain FPTP and keep the voting age at 18.
Notable is the thinness of proposals for election campaign reform. As the latest edition of the Constitution Unit’s Monitor sets out, the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators (AEA) and the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) have warned that the UK’s electoral laws and administration are out of date and under pressure. The Liberal Democrat manifesto attaches the most importance to these issues. It pledges to work towards ‘radical real-time transparency for political advertising, donations and spending’. The measures they suggest to this effect are an online public database of all online political adverts, making algorithms used by data companies available for close inspection by regulators; and reviewing ‘the need for any election safeguarding legislation that is needed to respond to emerging challenges of the internet age, such as foreign interference in elections’. In a similar vein, the Greens pledge to introduce a ‘Digital Bill of Rights’ which will ‘safeguard elections by responding to the challenges of foreign interference, social media and declining confidence in democracy.’ Whilst the Conservatives also pledge to prevent foreign interference, they do not display the same commitment to transparency of political advertising; they instead focus on introducing a requirement to show voter identification at polling stations and, like the Brexit Party, evaluating the postal vote system. In contrast, Labour pledge to abandon such plans for voter ID. Their commitment to election campaign reform, as with the Greens, is limited to increasing the financial penalties available to the Electoral Commission.
Proposals for reform of the House of Lords are more prominent than proposals to alter the Commons. On the whole these proposals are rather vague, and bound up with wider issues such as electoral reform, integration within the Union, and accountability.
The Brexit Party, the SNP and Labour all pledge to ‘abolish’ the House of Lords. The Brexit Party and the SNP do so on the basis that it is ‘unelected’ and ‘undemocratic’ respectively, but neither sets out what (if anything) should replace it. The Labour manifesto states:
‘We will act immediately to end the hereditary principle in the House of Lords, and work to abolish the House of Lords in favour of Labour’s preferred option of an elected Senate of the Nations and Regions, but we also believe that the people must be central to historic political changes.’
So, although the manifesto sets out Labour’s preferred end-goal, it will ultimately be up to the party’s proposed Constitutional Convention to decide what replaces the Lords. The manifesto does not set out what the Senate of the Nations and Regions might look like or how it would function: it is largely concerned with the greater integration of all parts of the UK. Meg Russell has explored the history of proposals for a territorial, elected upper chamber in the UK.
The Liberal Democrats, Greens, and Plaid Cymru talk of ‘reforming’ the House of Lords. The Greens and Plaid are concerned with making it ‘fully’ and ‘directly’ elected; the Liberal Democrats pledge to ‘reform the House of Lords with a proper democratic mandate’. Plaid display similar concerns to Labour when they state that the House of Lords must represent ‘the regions of England, and so long as they remain part of the UK state, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland.’ The Green Party make the most specific proposal: ‘Members will be elected for a maximum of ten years with half of the house being elected every 5 years.’
The Conservatives make the most reserved proposal: that the Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission will ‘look at’ the role of the House of Lords. This is characteristic of what has been referred to as a ‘cautious’ manifesto. But to the extent that their proposals are designed to reduce the obstacles to Brexit, it may herald a further attempt to reduce the powers of the Lords.
The Conservatives do, however, propose the wholesale repeal of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 (FTPA) which they themselves passed in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Labour also support its repeal, stating that the FTPA ‘stifled democracy and propped up weak governments’. Neither of the major parties mention what might replace the FTPA. If the answer is nothing, the answer must be that they wish to revive the old system of the Prime Minister deciding on the timing of the election, and asking the Queen to dissolve parliament.
The judiciary and the courts
We mentioned above that the Conservative manifesto calls for a Constitution, Democracy & Rights Commission to examine the ‘relationship between Government, Parliament, and the courts’ and ‘ensure that judicial review … is not used to conduct politics by another means or to create needless delays’. The implication is that the Supreme Court and other courts did just that when ruling on Brexit-related cases. The Brexit Party also pledges to ‘reform the Supreme Court’ with promises to subject judges to further political scrutiny, especially during the appointment process, because they now ‘play a role in politics’. No other major parties have pledged anything like this, and the Green Party’s manifesto explicitly calls out the government for ‘attacking’ judicial independence. Judicial reform has become a political issue, with Leave parties more likely to be sceptical of the role of the courts due to the success of cases like those brought by Gina Miller.
For a full list of the parties’ constitutional reform proposals, see here.
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About the authors
Stephen Mitchell, Elspeth Nicholson, Harrison Shaylor and Alex Walker are Research Volunteers at the Constitution Unit.