Who should pick party leaders: MPs, members or a wider public?

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are currently in the midst of party leadership campaigns that could change the country’s political course. The winner of the former will likely succeed Theresa May as Prime Minister, whilst the next Lib Dem leader could lend a crucial number of votes to the largest minority party in the event of a hung parliament. On 17 June the Constitution Unit hosted four experts in political party processes to discuss the question, ‘Who should pick party leaders: MPs, members or a wider public?’. Lorenzo Leoni summarises the speakers’ contributions.

The question of how parties elect their leaders has perhaps never been so pertinent to the wider political process. For the first time, the decision of who becomes the country’s next Prime Minister looks likely to be decided as a consequence of a party membership choosing their party leader, without the intervening event of a general election. The implications of this (and the growing influence of memberships in party leadership elections more generally) for our system of representative democracy have perhaps not been sufficiently articulated before now. This well timed seminar sought to address some of these issues by bringing together four party experts to help make sense of leadership elections:  Tim Bale, Professor of Politics, Queen Mary University of London; Mark Pack, editor of Liberal Democrat Newswire and former Head of Innovations at the Liberal Democrats; Jess Garland, Director of Policy and Research at the Electoral Reform Society and Paul Webb, Professor of Politics at the Sussex European Institute.

Tim Bale, Professor of Politics, Queen Mary University of London

Tim Bale opened the evening with what was perhaps the most timely analysis: that of how the Conservative Party chooses its leader. Unlike members of other parties, they have no direct influence on policy, so leadership elections are one of the only ways in which they can influence the party’s direction. Beginning with a brief pen-portrait of the party, he illustrated how the 160,000 or so members of the party are unrepresentative of the population as a whole: demographically they are middle class, over 50, white, and geographically concentrated in the South; ideologically they generally identify as either ‘fairly or very right-wing’.

Bale was sanguine about the fact that a small group of people are responsible for electing not only their party leader but the country’s Prime Minister. Whilst divergent from the wider population, Bale noted that Conservative members are not too dissimilar from the larger group of people who vote for the party at a general election: they are not a ‘breed apart’ from those who support the party come polling day. He also sought to remind the audience that the UK is a democracy that relies on party strength within the House of Commons to determine who should be Prime Minister. In that context, he argued, allowing the party to select their own leader (and therefore the Prime Minister) was not automatically a cause for concern.  

Bale argued that it is imperative that parties remain organisations of civil society rather than drifting into a position where they are over-regulated and closely entwined with the apparatus of the state. It is crucial they have agency to do as they wish and, as the ‘movers and shakers’ in our system, if the party commands a majority in parliament it is quite natural that their leader should also become Prime Minister.  Continue reading

Looking forward, looking back: an evening with Sir David Natzler

IMG.2771On 19 March, the Unit held an event: ‘Challenges for Parliament: Looking Back, Looking Forward’, at which Sir David Natzler – who retired as Clerk of the House of Commons in February – spoke to Professor Meg Russell about his 40-year career in parliament. The discussion was both entertaining and informative; Dave Busfield-Birch summarises the key points.

Early days

Sir David first started working in the House of Commons in 1975, at what he called an ‘exciting time’, just two years after the UK had joined what was then known as the European Communities. His first assignment was as clerk to the European Legislation Committee, which was facing the novel challenge of sifting through the legislation passed by an unelected Council of Ministers sitting in the capital city of another country, and recommending which measures should be debated.

Parliament was unsurprisingly a very different place in the early years of Sir David’s Commons career. Talking of the key differences, he first spoke of how ‘expectations’ had changed significantly since then. For example, there were no limits on how long a Member could speak in those days. Whereas the Speaker (or one of the Deputy Speakers) can now impose relatively short time limits for MPs wishing to speak, that was not the case in 1975. Sir David considered this ‘almost one of the biggest changes’ of the past two or three centuries; that speaking for a long time can no longer be used to ‘destroy business’.

One of the other key differences between then and now is that the House of Commons lacked fiscal independence when he first started working there. It was instead reliant on the government for finance, thereby limiting its ability to take crucial decisions such as whether or not to recruit more staff. The Treasury hence had control of the Commons until the establishment of the House of Commons Commission in 1978, at which point the Commons became fiscally independent. Continue reading

The challenges of reforming the Italian Senate

u8TSxoiJ_400x400 (1)On 11 and 12 June 2018 the Constitution Unit co-hosted two workshops with Rome LUISS university, the first being on ‘The challenges of reforming upper houses in the UK and Italy’. The contributions of Unit Director Meg Russell and Carlo Fusaro of the University of Florence were summarised in the first two posts in this series. Here, Roberta Damiani summarises what was said by the other contributors. 

 

Claudio Tucciarelli, Chamber of Deputies

Claudio Tucciarelli discussed how Italian ‘perfect’ bicameralism, where the two chambers have the same powers and functions and are both directly elected (as explained here), was a ‘disappointing’ outcome that in the end emerged from the negotiations of the 1946 Constituent Assembly. Nevertheless, he argued that some of the accusations that are often made against Italian bicameralism are not true. For instance, it is generally said that the system is too slow and that the process to approve bills is too lengthy, but Tucciarelli argued that ‘good decisions are better than quick ones’, and he pointed out that the majority of bills in Italy are approved without the use of the navette procedure (shuttling bills back and forth between the chambers). Furthermore, he remarked that the 2016 reform proposal would have diminished the legitimacy of the Italian Senate. The lack of legitimacy is often a cause of controversy about second chambers (as argued by Meg Russell), and hence Renzi’s reform would have introduced problems of a different kind.

Francesca Rosa, Associate Professor of Comparative Public Law at the University of Foggia

Professor Rosa discussed the main hurdles to reforming Italian bicameralism. One obstacle is very long-term: simply that the complete symmetry of Italian bicameralism is now very long-standing. While the Chamber of Deputies and Senate always had the same legislative powers and functions, originally the 1948 republican Constitution predicted at least some minor differences between the two chambers, in terms of the duration of their terms (five years for the Chamber and six years for the Senate), and in terms of composition, as the Senate should have been elected ‘on a regional basis’. However, these differences were quickly nullified: in 1953, the terms of the two chambers were equalised to five years, and the electoral laws used to elect the Senate, which never went beyond using the regions as constituencies, did not result in meaningful regional representation This made the two chambers completely identical, and this parity has now been in place for decades – and as argued by Donald Shell, ‘inertia’ is in itself a reason why second chambers often continue to exist unreformed. Continue reading