On restoring responsible political parties

picture.52.1535547351DtrC8R1XQAIIktGAs calls for another Brexit referendum grow ever louder, Frances McCall Rosenbluth and Ian Shapiro discuss their new book, Responsible Parties: Saving Democracy from Itself, in which they argue that attempts to decentralise political decision-making in the US and UK have made governments and political parties less effective and damaged their ability to address constituents’ long-term interests. 

Since the 1960s, powerful movements across the democratic world have sought to bring politics closer to the people. Party members more often elect their leaders directly. There has been greater use of referendums and plebiscites. Many political parties have adopted decentralised ways of choosing candidates. Boundaries have been redrawn to create ‘majority-minority districts’ – in which the majority of the constituents in the district are non-white – and thus ensure selection of racial and ethnic minorities. In many (especially newer) democracies, proportional representation (PR) is favoured as more inclusive of non-majority voters. Unlike single member district systems, which generate two big catch-all parties, parties proliferate under PR; minority groups can all vote for parties they expect to fight for them in the legislature. These changes are touted as democratic enhancements that move decisions closer to the people and elect politicians who are less remote from – and more responsive to – the voters.  

Paradoxically, however, this decentralisation has been accompanied by dramatic increases in voter alienation. Poll after poll reflects historic lows of citizen trust in politicians, parties and institutions, dramatically underscored in 2016 by the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s populist stampede to the US presidency. Similar patterns prevail in many democracies, where anti-establishment parties and candidates enjoy unprecedented support from voters. They reject government recommendations in referendums and plebiscites, and elect anti-establishment figures who would not have been taken seriously half a generation ago. Incumbency, which used to be a decisive advantage, seems increasingly to be a liability as ‘tossing the bums out’ shortens political half-lives at every turn. Angry voters flail at their own impotence, waging semi-permanent war on their representatives.

There are, to be sure, many sources of voter disaffection. A new ‘Gilded Age’ has brought unprecedented wealth to the ultra-rich alongside decades of wage stagnation for the great majority. The 2008 financial crisis cost millions their homes and savings, yet their governments bailed out the big banks and paid multimillion-dollar bonuses to the executives who helped cause the mess. Corruption scandals have tarnished many governments and leaders, forcing some from office. Western governments have poured trillions of dollars into failed wars in the Middle East, with little to show for it whilst low growth and aging populations add fiscal strains to government budgets, compounding anxieties about health insurance and pensions. Voters have many reasons to be angry.

Yet the apparent paradox is real. The decentralising democratic reforms since the 1960s are a separate, and important, source of voter disaffection. They feed political dysfunction and produce policies that are self-defeating for most voters, even those who support such reforms. The seeming truism that increasing voters’ direct control of decisions and politicians enhances democratic accountability has, in fact, the opposite effect. Rebuilding well-functioning democracy means reversing this trend.

The key to dissolving the paradox – that devolving power to the grass roots increases voter alienation – lies in understanding the relations between voters’ interests and what governments can actually do once in office. Focusing on this question leads us to advocate a single member district system that typically generates two large parties that compete to form governments and regularly alternate in power. But those parties have to be strong and centrally controlled. Party leaders should be elected by – and retain the confidence of – backbenchers. Leaders should play a major role in selecting candidates to compete for their party in elections, so that over time backbenchers and frontbenchers select and reselect one another. Traditionally this was known as the Westminster system, although the actual system in the UK has now been adulterated in various ways. Some changes, such as greater regional variation that operates at odds with the goal of producing catch-all national parties, have resulted from self-conscious reform, but there are ways to counteract their baleful influence. Others, such as greater grass roots participation in leadership selection, fixed-term parliaments, and reliance on referendums, are ill-considered reforms that weaken parties and should be reversed.

Much of the misguided appeal of decentralising reforms results from failing to evaluate systems as systems. Reformers typically focus instead on one aspect of the system deemed insufficiently democratic and then devise reforms without attending to their knock-on effects.

The results are often perverse. Primaries and caucuses  – a form of candidate selection in which which local members of a political party register their preference among candidates running for office – allow extreme political minorities to pick candidates. Visible signs of this in the US are the Tea Party’s power over Congressional Republicans and Donald Trump’s presidential nomination by a highly unrepresentative 5% of the US electorate. In the UK, direct election meant that activists re-elected Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader when he had just lost a confidence vote in his parliamentary party by 172 to 40. Majority-minority districts often weaken parties that serve minorities’ interests. Term limits increase the gridlock that most voters abhor: why work with lame ducks when you can just wait them out? Ballot initiatives – a form of direct democracy in which the public can secure public votes on specific issues – generate myopic decisions that often frustrate voter preferences. Rather than enhance democracy, these disconnected reforms create Rube Goldberg machines that undermine it by unnecessarily complicating what should be a simple system.

What to do instead? The central task is to restore centralised control of the much-maligned but core institution of modern representative democracy: the political party. The American Progressives of the late 19th century were not wrong to take aim at corrupt party machines that traded favours for votes, but replacing smoke-filled back rooms with primaries and local caucuses inadvertently robbed voters of the very thing they hoped to restore: democratic accountability. As long as party leaders are forced to compete with leaders of an opposing party also hoping for an electoral majority, they are in the best position to forge platforms with long term and widespread benefits. Competition within parties undermines this by holding leaders hostage to intense minorities with narrow interests. Ballot initiatives and referendums have similar effects. They sound more democratic but this is an illusion. Party leaders need to be freed from their clutches so that they can stitch together coherent policy platforms and select competent candidates to carry them out.

If political competition is indispensable for political accountability, district-based systems such as the US need radical restructuring in light of what has been done to them in recent decades. In the UK, it would be smart to follow the recent recommendations of the Boundary Commissions to reduce the number of parliamentary constituencies by at least 50 (to 600), and arguably by more (Britain’s constituencies are a third the size of Germany’s single member districts in their mixed system, and a tenth of the size of the typical Congressional district in the US). In an ideal world, every electoral district would be diverse in ways that mirror the nation’s diversity across the range of issues that voters care about. This might be a bridge too far, but given the wealth and prosperity differentials between London and the rest of the country, it would be good to include a sliver of London in every British constituency. The median voter in each constituency would then better resemble the national median voter, and their elected representatives would find it comparatively easy to agree on policy priorities. Backbenchers in the legislature would be happier to delegate authority to their party leaders in order to get legislative work done and protect the party’s brand into the future.

American geographic diversity puts that arrangement out of reach unless we were to adopt fully non-geographic districts. That extreme solution would in any case generate its own pathologies. More realistically, reformers should insist on continuous and non-partisan adjustment of district lines to maintain the competitiveness of congressional elections. This recommendation flies in the face of recent history, in which majority parties in state legislatures have relentlessly done the opposite: creating the maximum number of districts for their own party while wasting as many votes for the opposite party as possible with super-safe districts. In most districts this means that the primary election is the only contest of any consequence and competition between the parties falls by the wayside.

Majority-minority districts have a similar effect, undermining competition and in the end failing to serve the interests of the minority voters that they are intended to benefit. There are better ways to achieve diversity in legislatures, such as the reservation of seven out of New Zealand’s 120 parliamentary seats for Māoris or the comparable provision in India dating back to the Poona Pact of 1934, which reserves 84 out of the parliament’s 543 seats for scheduled castes. Similar measures can enhance gender diversity without diluting democracy’s competitive lifeblood. Making every district accountable to the preferences of voters in the political middle would go a long way towards both moderating the stances of American legislative parties, and strengthening their leaders at the expense of the shrinking number of outliers.

The pathologies we identify are not limited to single member district systems like the US and UK. PR systems, while less than optimal to begin with, have also suffered from the misguided impulse to increase grassroots control in the name of democratic accountability. Low vote thresholds to protect small parties, open-list systems that let voters select individuals on party lists, and the use of primaries when lists are drawn up all produce intra-party competition that rewards small groups with intense preferences. These reforms undermine healthy competition over national programmes, promoting instead logrolling deals in which parties and even individual politicians make bilateral pacts to support local pet projects and special interest politics. Increasing thresholds would be better, forcing small parties to combine, retain closed lists to strengthen party leaderships, and use counting rules that tilt in favour of the largest parties. Whatever the system, reforms should move away from smaller, weaker parties toward larger, stronger ones. Strong political parties play a vital role in identifying, competing over, and defending the broad interests of the voting public.

Internally disciplined and hierarchical parties might seem undemocratic, but the leaders’ authority is granted by the party’s parliamentary backbenchers for their collective good. Party members know they are better able to get and stay elected when they offer coherent policies; and everyone knows that if they lose confidence in their party leaders to provide that coherence, they can choose new leaders who can—as underscored by the swift departures of Margaret Thatcher in 1990 and David Cameron in 2016. Parties that are broad-gauged, encompassing an electoral majority, and are disciplined enough to enforce majority-enhancing deals, are as good as we can get in a democracy. Voters know not only what the party stands for, but also what it will implement in the event that it takes office.

Even Westminster is merely good – not great – because every attractive attribute of political competition has a countervailing flaw. Favouring the majority at the expense of minorities has a substantial drawback, especially if some voters are permanently in a minority on any issue. But many of the standard solutions to this problem make it worse. Instead, we advocate reforms that avoid entrenching Balkanised electorates while undermining democratic competition. It might be true that there are some vulnerable minorities that will not be adequately protected by any electoral arrangements, particularly when ethnic and racial inequalities consistently map onto inequalities of income. Even in that case, vulnerable minorities will be better served when politicians are not given incentives to campaign on political platforms defined by ethnicity and race.

Attempts to bypass the parliamentary electoral system using direct democracy do not work either. The evidence is now overwhelming that most advances for vulnerable minorities in the US have come through legislatures and not the courts, protestations by lawyers to the contrary notwithstanding. Comparative evidence confirms that separation-of-powers systems with independent courts do no better than parliamentary democracy at protecting vulnerable minorities. Indeed, courts have undermined democratic competition in the US since 1976 by declaring money to be speech protected by the First Amendment, disproportionately empowering the well-heeled to work their will in the American political process.

Likewise with plebiscites and referendums. Britain had never held a referendum before Harold Wilson called one in 1975 over remaining in the European Community, rather than doing the hard work of fighting it out within his divided party. Remain beat Leave by 67.2% to 32.8% but five years later the issue split Labour anyway. When Michael Foot won the leadership contest in 1980, his proposal that the UK should leave the EC without another referendum led a group known as the Gang of Four to abandon Labour and form the Social Democratic Party. Had Dennis Healey not defeated Tony Benn for the Deputy Leadership, the exodus could have been a lot larger. Three decades later David Cameron made a comparable blunder to avoid confronting Conservative rifts over Brexit. It is not working out any better for them than it did for Labour.

It is the job of political parties to bundle issues, so that voters ‘discount’ things that they want against each other. American voters support unilateral tax cuts in referendums such as Proposition 13 in California in 1978, which limited property taxes to 1% of assessed value. The downstream effect was to decimate funding for California’s public schools and local government. Polls show voters will support any tax cut when asked about it in isolation, but not if they are told that a particular cut will be accompanied by losing a popular programme such as free medical prescriptions. Then they are forced to discount their preference for lower taxes by their preference of free medical prescriptions.

That is exactly the kind of discounting that parties do when they ‘bundle’ policies into programmes in ways they hope will appeal to as large a swathe of the population as possible. This is why both the Labour and Conservative parliamentary parties strongly favour EU membership. When they discount the costs of leaving against everything else they know most voters want, Remain makes the most sense, but yanking the issue out of the mix for a referendum creates an artificial choice.

Weakening parties and undermining their vital function in electoral competition sounds democratic and is often the path of least resistance for party leaders who want to avoid the hard work of figuring out the compromises and trade-offs that successful bundling requires. But that is what parties are there for. As E.E. Schattschneider said three quarters of a century ago, ‘the condition of the parties is the best possible evidence of the nature of any regime.’ Strengthening political parties is urgently needed if we are to have any hope of restoring healthy democratic regimes.

Responsible Parties: Saving Democracy from Itself was published by Yale University Press in October. Professor Shapiro will be attending an event, entitled Democratic Competition: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly at the Constitution Unit on Wednesday 12 December. Dr Sherrill Stroschein, Reader in Politics at UCL, will also be speaking, and the event will be chaired by Unit Director Meg Russell. Tickets are still available here.

About the authors

Frances McCall Rosenbluth is the Damon Wells Professor of Political Science at Yale University and co-author of Responsible Parties: Saving Democracy from Itself

Ian Shapiro is Sterling Professor of Political Science, director of the MacMillan Center at Yale University and co-author of Responsible Parties: Saving Democracy from Itself

A second Brexit referendum looks increasingly likely: what key questions need to be addressed?


Widespread negative reactions to Theresa May’s Brexit deal have focused increasing attention on a possible further EU referendum. With MPs appearing poised to vote down the Withdrawal Agreement, a referendum could provide a way out of the apparent deadlock. But how would it work in practice? Ahead of the parliamentary debate, Meg Russell and Alan Renwick summarise the conclusions of their recent report on this topic.

When the Constitution Unit published The Mechanics of a Further Referendum on Brexit in October, it was still unclear if the government would successfully reach a deal with the EU, what that deal would contain, or how parliament and the public would react. Now that those facts are known, increasing numbers of MPs are demanding that the Brexit issue be returned to the public in a fresh referendum. But many unanswered questions about the practicalities remain. Here, we offer short responses to the most pressing of those questions, drawn from our report, to inform the parliamentary and growing public debate.

1. Is a referendum possible in the time available?

To hold a referendum, the UK parliament must first pass legislation. Before the bill leaves parliament, the Electoral Commission must assess the ‘intelligibility’ of the wording of the proposed referendum question – which usually takes ten weeks. This limits the ability to pass a bill very rapidly. Once the bill has received royal assent, sufficient time must be set aside to allow the Electoral Commission to designate lead campaigners, and for the campaign to take place.

In total, we estimate that the whole process – from introducing legislation to polling day – could be compressed to around 22 weeks. This is significantly less time than for previous referendums: for example the equivalent gap for the 2016 EU referendum was 13 months. But similar levels of urgency did not apply in these earlier cases.

The timetable could potentially be compressed even further, but doing so would risk delegitimising the result of the referendum – it is important given the sensitivity of the topic that the legislation is seen to be fully scrutinised, the question fair, and the campaigns adequately regulated. Continue reading

Understanding English identity and institutions in a changing United Kingdom

_MIK4650.cropped.114x133image_normaliainmclean200pxThe current devolution settlement has left England as the only UK country subject to permanent direct rule from Westminster, which has the dual role of governing both the UK and England. In their new book, Akash Paun, Michael Kenny and Iain McLean have been exploring some of the key arguments concerning the status of England within the Union, who speaks for England politically, and the concept of an English national identity.

Governing England, a new volume published today by the British Academy and Oxford University Press, explores whether, why and with what consequences there has been a disentangling of England from Britain in terms of its governance and national identity. The book concludes that the English have grown dissatisfied with their constitution and relationship with the wider world (as reflected in England’s decisive vote in favour of Brexit), and less content for their nationhood to be poured into the larger vessel of Britishness. But England’s national consciousness is fragmented and embryonic – unlike the other UK nations, it has yet to engage in a reflective national conversation about how it wishes to be governed – and, as Brexit unfolds, England is struggling to reshape its relationship with the other UK nations and the wider world without a cohesive national narrative to guide the way.

England, alone among the nations of the UK, has no legislature or executive of its own, and remains one of the most centralised countries in Europe. It is ruled directly from Westminster and Whitehall by a parliament, government and political parties that simultaneously represent the interests of both the UK and England. Correspondingly, at the level of identity, the English have historically displayed a greater propensity than the Scots and Welsh to conflate their own nationhood with a sense of affiliation to Britain and its state. As Robert Hazell noted in 2006, writing for the Constitution Unit on The English Question, ‘in our history and in our institutions the two identities [of English and British] are closely intertwined, and cannot easily be unwoven’.

As a result of devolution to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, Westminster and Whitehall frequently oversee legislation that applies entirely, or predominantly, to England. But the government and most politicians at Westminster tend to elide these territorial complexities, talking of setting policy or legislating for ‘the nation’ or ‘the country’, whatever the precise territorial application of the announcement in question. Governing England is rarely considered as an enterprise separate from the wider governance of the UK. Continue reading

House of Lords Constitution Committee reports on delegated powers

photo_2017_1_cropped (1)tierney2.e1489415384219Last week, the Constitution Committee published its report on the increasing use of delegated powers by the government. Mark Elliott and Stephen Tierney highlight the key concerns raised and proposals made by the Committee in two principal areas: the ways in and extent to which legislative powers are delegated, and scrutiny of such powers’ exercise.

The House of Lords Constitution Committee last week published a major report on delegated powers. It is a component of a larger, four-part inquiry that the Committee is undertaking into the legislative process. The first report in this series, concerning the preparation of legislation for parliament, was published in October 2017; reports on the passage of legislation through parliament and post-legislative scrutiny will be published in due course.

Delegation of power

The Constitution Committee, unsurprisingly, does not begin from the unworldly premise that parliamentary delegations of law-making authority are inherently problematic; after all, they are, and will remain, a fact of life. The Committee does, however, adopt as its premise the position that the legitimacy of such delegations is governed by ‘constitutional standards’ whose enforcement amounts to a ‘constitutional obligation’ on parliament’s part.

The Committee goes on to articulate two key principles by reference to which the legitimacy of delegations of power ought to be judged. First, it is ‘essential that primary legislation is used to legislate for policy and other major objectives’, with delegated legislation used only ‘to fill in the details’. Against this background, the Committee laments the ‘upward trend in the seeking of delegated powers in recent years’. Second, and relatedly, the Committee states that it is ‘constitutionally objectionable for the Government to seek delegated powers simply because substantive policy decisions have not yet been taken’ — a phenomenon in which there has been ‘a significant and unwelcome increase’. Having thus nailed its colours to the mast, the Committee goes on to identify a suite of constitutionally dubious trends and practices to which its attention was drawn during the course of the inquiry and which it has itself discerned in recent years through its constitutional scrutiny of all Bills that reach the House of Lords. Continue reading

Strategies for Success: Women’s experiences of selection and election in the UK parliament


Earlier this month, The Fawcett Society released Strategies for Success, a new report containing research on women’s experiences of selection and election to the UK parliament. Dr Leah Culhane summarises the key findings and argues that political parties must act to reform their internal structures and tackle discrimination head-on if progress is to be made on women’s representation.

It is 100 years since some women first won the vote and approaching 100 years since the first woman was elected to the House of Commons. While progress has been made since then, parliament remains male-dominated; women make up only 32% of all MPs, with significant variation across political parties.

While men are undoubtedly present in greater numbers, the culture of politics, its rules, norms and expectations also continue to reflect a masculinised way of operating. In recent months, heightened attention has been brought to the culture of sexism within parliament, in light of Dame Laura Cox’s report on bullying and harassment and various allegations of sexual misconduct amongst and towards Commons staff. This follows on from previous reports such as Professor Sarah Child’s Good Parliament report, which details the various ways that the infrastructure and culture of the House of Commons has led to an unrepresentative and exclusive parliament.

The new Strategies for Success report makes further inroads into explaining women’s under-representation. The report aimed to revisit the age old question: what enables some people to get through the ‘eye of the needle’ and succeed in getting elected? Consisting of a survey, focus groups and one-to-one interviews with political activists, aspirants, candidates and MPs, it sought to reveal new insights into the journey to political office.

The research finds that while parliament must change, it is political parties and party gatekeepers that play a pivotal role at every stage of the process. Crucially, it shows that women and other traditionally marginalised groups continue to face obstacles at each stage of the political process and that political parties must look inwards and address their own internal cultures, rules and norms, particularly around recruitment and selection. Continue reading

Intergovernmental relations: a blueprint for reform

downloadSince the Brexit referendum in 2016, the case for an overhaul of the management of intergovernmental relations has become much stronger. Jack Sheldon explains that in a new report, he and his colleagues have advanced the first detailed proposals for reform of the existing arrangements. These include formalising and restructuring the current ad hoc system, implementing a method of consensus decision-making, and increasing the transparency of the system.

It is widely agreed that the ad hoc and under-developed arrangements for relations between the UK government and the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are in urgent need of an overhaul. Even before the vote to leave the EU, several parliamentary committees, leading politicians and a number of constitutional experts called for reform. Since 2016 the case has only become stronger. Brexit-related ‘IGR’ has been marked by sharp disagreement over policy and process, against the background of low trust between governments. And it is envisaged that IGR will assume greater importance in the coming years, given the need to implement, govern and review ‘common frameworks’ in devolved areas currently covered by EU law.

In a new report Professor Nicola McEwen, Professor Michael Kenny, Dr Coree Brown Swan and I advance proposals for reform of the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC) structure – the primary forum within which formal IGR takes place. While the need to renew the JMC has frequently been recognised in recent years, few detailed proposals have been made. We seek to fill this gap, setting out 27 conclusions and recommendations. Our report is also distinctive in drawing heavily on experience of IGR in five broadly comparable multi-level political systems – Australia, Belgium, Canada, Italy and Spain. We were invited to produce the report by officials in the UK and devolved governments who are currently working on a review of IGR commissioned by the JMC itself, and hope that our conclusions will help to shape thinking as the review proceeds.

Principles of IGR

Existing principles underpinning intergovernmental relations, as articulated in the Memorandum of Understanding on devolution, are broadly stated and prone to being interpreted very differently by the various parties involved. For example, what amounts to ‘good’ communication and what is ‘practicable’ with respect to information exchange are matters of (often diverging) judgement. Continue reading

Reflecting on HRH The Prince of Wales’s Role as Heir to the Throne

sketch.1541418351959To mark the Prince of Wales’s 70th Birthday, Robert Hazell reflects on the difficult role of Heir to the Throne, with reference to the roles of heirs apparent in other Western European monarchies. This comparative material has been assembled as part of our preparation for a forthcoming conference on monarchies in western Europe, to be held next March.

The Prince of Wales is 70 years old today. At an age when most people are comfortably enjoying their retirement, Prince Charles is still preparing to assume the role for which he has been waiting almost all his life. He became heir to the throne in 1952, and so far his apprenticeship has lasted 67 years. In 2011 he became the longest serving heir apparent in British history, overtaking King Edward VII, who spent 59 years in the role.

That is one of the difficulties of being heir apparent: a very long and uncertain period of waiting. Another is that the role is unspecified. The constitution is silent about the role; so it is left to each heir apparent to make of it what they can. Some, like Edward VII, have pursued wine, women and song (and gambling, shooting and racing); others like Prince Charles have a more serious bent, and want to make a contribution to the public good. The difficulty is to find a way of contributing to public life without becoming embroiled in political controversy. Continue reading