Monitor 68: A constitution in flux

The latest issue of Monitor, the Constitution Unit’s regular newsletter, was published today. The issue covers all of the major UK constitutional developments over the past four months, a period that has seen the EU (Withdrawal) Bill pass from the Commons to the Lords; the failure of talks in Northern Ireland; and a significant government reshuffle. Abroad, Ireland is considering a permanent constitutional change and Japan has seen a constitutional first as its current emperor confirmed he is to abdicate. This post is the opening article from Monitor 68. The full edition can be found on our website. 

The UK is experiencing a period of deep constitutional uncertainty. In at least four key areas, structures of power and governance are in flux. Screenshot_20180308.210141 (1)

The first of these, of course, is the nature of the UK’s future relationship with the European Union, to which the Brexit negotiations will shortly turn. The degree to which the UK continues to pool its sovereignty with other European countries depends on the form of that relationship: how far, and on what issues, the UK continues to adhere to EU rules, align closely with them, or follow its own separate path. Theresa May set out her most detailed proposals yet in a speech at Mansion House on 2 March, advocating close alignment outside the structures of the EU Single Market and Customs Union. On 7 March, the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, published draft guidelines for the EU’s position. As before, this emphasises ‘that the four freedoms of the Single Market are indivisible and that there can be no “cherry picking.”’ What deal will emerge from the negotiations is entirely unclear.

The government’s preferred path will face stiff resistance in parliament too. In late February Jeremy Corbyn signalled that Labour wants a UK–EU customs union (an issue also central to the conclusions reached by the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit). Consequently the government now risks defeat on an amendment to the Trade Bill pursuing the same objective, tabled by Conservative backbencher Anna Soubry. Beyond that, an amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill passed in the House of Commons in December guarantees that the deal between the UK and the EU agreed through the Brexit negotiations will need to be endorsed by an Act of Parliament in the UK. Brexit’s opponents are increasingly vocal and organised, and occupy a strong position in Westminster. The odds remain that Brexit will happen, but that isn’t guaranteed. Continue reading

The Independent Commission on Referendums: who, what, why, and how

jess.sargeant doneOn 17 January, Jess Sargeant attended a Constitution Unit seminar entitled The Independent Commission on Referendums: who, what, why, and how. The aim of the event was to discuss the work of the Commission, which has no affiliation to any political party or campaign groups, but which does receive research support from the Constitution Unit. The session sought to identify some of the referendum-related problems that the Commission would have to grapple with. This post sets out the main talking points of the seminar. 

The Independent Commission on Referendums was established by the Constitution Unit in August 2017 to review the role and conduct of referendums in the UK. The Commission consists of 12 distinguished members representing a range of political opinions, with expertise extending across all the major UK referendums of recent years. The Commission first met in October 2017 and meets monthly to deliberate on the issues. It will produce a report and detailed recommendations in summer 2018.

On Wednesday, the Constitution Unit held a seminar about the work of the Commission. Speakers included the Commission’s Chair, Sir Joe Pilling; its Research Director, Alan Renwick; and Sue Inglish, who is both a Commission member and former Head of Political Programmes at the BBC. The aim of the event was to inform the audience about the key issues that the Commission aims to address and to gain audience members’ feedback on them. Sarah Baxter, Deputy Editor of the Sunday Times, also spoke, giving an outsider’s perspective of the Commission’s task along with her reflections on past referendums. Continue reading

What new challenges does the changing nature of campaigning pose for referendum regulation?

me-2015-large-e1485255919145.jpg jess-sargeant-resizedEarlier this year, the Constitution Unit established an Independent Commission on Referendums to review the role of referendums in British democracy – whose work will be discussed at a public seminar next week. In this blogpost, Alan Renwick and Jess Sargeant examine some of the difficult questions the commission will have to consider. Their focus is on the way in which political campaigning has changed since 2000, when the current legislation regulating referendums was enacted.  

The UK’s current legislation regulating the conduct of referendums – the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act (PPERA) 2000 – was designed and introduced almost two decades ago. Since then, technological innovations have led to new ways of campaigning and communicating. These changes create new challenges for referendums regulation. While most of these challenges are not unique to referendums – they apply equally to elections – one key task of the Independent Commission on Referendums is to assess how well the existing rules work in the context of new digital developments and to consider solutions to some of the problems posed by the modern world. This blog post explores just some of those challenges.

Financial regulation doesn’t reflect the modern world

Increasingly, political campaigners are using social media to communicate with voters. We know this because we can observe political adverts on Facebook, Twitter, and even Instagram during elections and referendum campaigns. However, we have very little information about how much money they are spending to do so. This is because financial regulation of political campaigns, first designed in 2000, has yet to be updated to reflect the nature of campaigning in the modern world.

Registered referendum campaign groups are required to submit returns of referendum expenses. The purpose of these transparency requirements is to allow campaign spending to be scrutinised by both the Electoral Commission and the public. Financial transparency requirements apply equally to expenses incurred for online and for offline campaigning. However, how this is reported makes scrutiny of online spending difficult. There is no separate category for spending on social media: such spending is reported as either ‘advertising’ or ‘unsolicited material sent to voters’. Furthermore, within this category it is only identifiable if spent directly with the platform, such as Facebook, Twitter, or YouTube. Spending through agencies remains opaque, with no breakdown of how money is used. In this area, it could be argued that transparency requirements are rendered meaningless.

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Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit full report: launch events

The full report of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit was launched last week with well-attended events in parliament and at UCL. Speakers included members of the project team, two Assembly members, an MP and leading EU experts. Hannah Dowling and Kelly Shuttleworth report on what was said.

The Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit gathered together 50 members of the public, who were broadly representative of the UK population in terms of age, sex, ethnicity, social class, where they lived, and how they voted in last year’s referendum. They met over two weekends in September to deliberate on what kind of Brexit they wanted to see.

On 13 December, events were held in parliament and at UCL to launch the Assembly’s full report and to discuss the recommendations the Assembly reached. At both events Dr Alan Renwick, the Director of the Assembly, gave a quick introduction to what the Citizens’ Assembly entailed, outlining the two key aims of the project. These were, firstly, to provide evidence on informed and considered public opinion on the form that Brexit should take, and secondly, to gather evidence on the value of deliberative processes in the UK.

The Assembly members considered two key aspects of the future UK–EU relationship: trade and migration. The majority of members of the Assembly wanted to pursue a close, bespoke relationship with the EU. If such an agreement proved impossible, the majority of members preferred the option of the UK staying in the Single Market and the Customs Union rather than leaving the EU with no deal on future relations. This is a significant recommendation considering the current rhetoric from some Brexit supporters on the possibility of no deal.

Present to speak about the Assembly from different perspectives were Sarah Allan, Suella Fernandes MP, Professor Anand Menon, Professor Catherine Barnard and two members of the Assembly.

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Why it’s time to reduce the voting age to 16 in Wales

Last week an expert panel published recommendations for reform of elections to the National Assembly for Wales. Among its recommendations was that the minimum voting age should be reduced from 18 to 16. Panel member Alan Renwick makes the case for this, citing evidence that suggests that voters are more likely to turn out when they first get the vote if that happens when they are 16 or 17 than if they are 18 or 19.

The Expert Panel on Welsh Assembly Electoral Reform reported last week. Besides the size of the Assembly and its electoral system, the Panel was asked also to examine the franchise for Assembly elections. Our clear recommendation is that the minimum voting age should be reduced to 16 with effect from the 2021 election.

As a member of the Panel, I found it fascinating to examine the debates over the best voting age. The evidence for reducing the minimum age to 16 is very strong. But the arguments of both proponents and opponents of this change often fail to hit the mark. I hope our report may help to reset the terms of debate in Wales and across the UK.

The commonest argument offered by advocates of votes at 16 is that a later voting age is inconsistent with the rights and responsibilities that young people gain earlier in their lives. They point out that we can marry, join the army, or change our names at 16. The principle of ‘no taxation without representation’ is often invoked: 16 and 17-year-olds are liable to pay tax, so should not be denied the vote.

When we delved into the evidence, however, we found such arguments to be inconclusive. Young people acquire different rights and responsibilities at all sorts of ages. They are liable for some taxes – such as VAT and inheritance tax – from birth. At 16, they can marry or join the army only with parental consent. Only from 18 can they enter a legally binding contract, buy tobacco, or get a tattoo. There is no one age when we are recognised in law as adults.

Arguments about the compatibility of different rights and responsibilities therefore cannot ground a decision on the voting age. Rather, what matters is how the voting age affects the level and quality of participation in electoral politics. Everyone wants to boost democratic engagement. If lowering the voting age would help with that, it is worth doing.

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Harassment and abuse of parliamentary candidates at the 2017 general election: findings from the Representative Audit of Britain

The Committee on Standards in Public Life published a report into harassment and abuse of parliamentary candidates on Wednesday. The report was informed by evidence from the 2017 Representative Audit of Britain survey, which is being administered by researchers from the Constitution Unit, Strathclyde and Birkbeck. Sofia Collignon Delmar and Jennifer Hudson summarise the evidence.

On Wednesday the Committee on Standards in Public Life published its report into harassment and abuse of parliamentary candidates, in response to claims of a frequently toxic and intimidating campaign environment during the 2017 general election. Claims of harassment have important consequences for democratic life in the UK and for the representativeness of parliament. Drawing on recent data from the Representative Audit of Britain’s survey of 2017 candidates, researchers from the UCL Constitution Unit, Strathclyde and Birkbeck provided evidence to the committee that shows the scale of the problem and the importance of the issue. They also put forward a host of potential recommendations to tackle intimidation and abuse.

In this blog post, we summarise the key findings which informed our evidence to the committee. Drawing on survey responses from Conservative, Labour, Liberal Democrat, SNP, Plaid Cymru, UKIP and Green candidates, we show who is more likely to suffer abuse, the most common forms of harassment, who candidates think is responsible for abuse and what can be done to prevent harassment and inappropriate behaviour during elections in the future. The total sample size is 964. This a response rate of 34% and can be considered representative of the party composition of the true population of candidates. The survey is still ongoing, but we do not expect the trends to change significantly.

Results show that 32% of the candidates who answered the survey suffered from some form of inappropriate behaviour during the 2017 general election campaign. The survey revealed significant differences between parties, with Conservative candidates statistically more likely to report having experienced abuse. Female candidates of all ages are also significantly more likely to report having experienced abuse than male candidates.

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Reforming the Welsh Assembly: how do you choose an electoral system?

A nine-month inquiry by a specially convened expert panel has culminated today in the publication of a report that sets out the case for a substantial increase in the size of the Welsh Assembly. In this post, Constitution Unit Deputy Director and panel member Alan Renwick offers a personal reflection on the inquiry and its findings. He focuses particularly on the aspect of the Panel’s remit that is closest to his own research: the appropriate electoral system for an enlarged chamber.

The Expert Panel on Assembly Electoral Reform has today published its report. Set up last February by the Presiding Officer of the Welsh Assembly, the Panel was charged with investigating and making recommendations on three issues: the number of members that the Assembly needs to perform its role effectively; the electoral system through which it is elected; and the minimum voting age for Assembly elections. The Panel’s work fits into a wider agenda of Assembly reform – including a proposal to rename it the Welsh Parliament – to ensure it can exercise effectively its increasing powers and responsibilities.

Core recommendations

The Panel’s main recommendation is that the number of Assembly members should rise from the present 60 at least to 80, and preferably closer to 90. We examined compelling evidence that this change is essential – however difficult it may be politically – if the Assembly is to remain able to perform its functions properly.

Increasing the size of the Assembly in this way inevitably requires some change in the electoral system. We concluded that the simplest possible change – retaining the existing Mixed-Member Proportional (MMP) electoral system (also somewhat misleadingly known as the Additional Member System, or AMS) and increasing the number of list seats – would be defensible, but not optimal. Most crucially, it would make any increase in the size of the Assembly beyond 80 members – the very bottom of the range that we think necessary – unfeasible in 2021. Rather, the Panel recommends that, if the Assembly adopts gender quotas, the optimal system would be the Single Transferable Vote (STV). If the Assembly does not accept gender quotas (or concludes that it lacks the power to enact them – there is some legal uncertainty in this area), the best option would be a Flexible List system of proportional representation.

Regarding the voting age, meanwhile, the Panel comes down firmly in favour of a reduction to 16, accompanied by measures to ensure that young people are properly taught in schools and other places of learning about politics, including about the choices available at elections and beyond.

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