Punch & Judy Politics? The roles and functions of Prime Minister’s Question Time

ruxandra.serbanIn their recently published book, former Labour advisers Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton explore the backstage machinery behind Prime Minister’s Question Time. Drawing on her PhD research, which focuses on parliamentary mechanisms for holding prime ministers accountable in parliamentary democracies, Ruxandra Serban reflects on how the book informs wider debates in legislative studies.

Prime Minister’s Question Time does not have a particularly good reputation. Designed as a weekly opportunity for MPs to question the Prime Minister, it is criticised for being noisy, excessively theatrical, scripted, and confrontational. But to what extent does it fulfil its role in holding the Prime Minister to account? What other roles does it perform for parliament and for the political system?

As PMQs provides a forum for the head of government to be questioned publicly and routinely by MPs, its implications for politics and for the workings of democracy are very important. In the recently published Punch & Judy Politics: An Insider’s Guide to Prime Minister’s Questions, Ayesha Hazarika and Tom Hamilton offer useful insights into the procedures and practices for holding Prime Ministers accountable. Drawing on interviews with key players at the centre of politics, as well as on their experience as advisers to several Labour Party leaders, the authors expose the machinery behind the weekly duel between party leaders. In what is a thorough and insightful overview of PMQs, they trace the development of the procedure from its introduction in 1961, document the extensive preparation that goes on both in No 10 and in the Leader of the Opposition’s office, and describe the strategies underpinning questions and answers. In providing such a detailed account, the book in part sets out to understand the roles and functions of PMQs, and contributes to a wider conversation in legislative studies about the functions of parliamentary questions, and of parliaments more generally. Continue reading

Choosing a voting method for British Columbia: the case for a Mixed Member Proportional system

jq finalIn the second of two posts on the voting reform referendum in British Columbia, Jameson Quinn argues that the province’s electorate should support a move to some form of proportional representation. Specifically, he argues that the version known as Mixed Member Proportional is best for both the province itself and representative democracy as a whole. 

This is the second of two posts on the upcoming British Columbia (BC) referendum on proportional representation (which I’ll call ‘pro-rep’, because ‘PR’ has too many other meanings). In the first post, I discussed the context and rules of the referendum itself. In this one, I’m going to discuss the options available, in the context of theories of voting and democracy. I’ll also look at some of the arguments being used in this campaign.

Before I start, I should lay my cards on the table. I am unabashedly in favour of voting reform. For over 20 years, I’ve felt that choose-one voting, as used in most English speaking countries, is a badly-flawed form of democracy. Also known as FPTP, for ‘first past the post’, choose-one almost inevitably leads to spoiled elections, dishonest strategic voting, or both. My support of voting reform is what led me to join the board of the Center for Election Science, a non-profit that advocates for better voting systems.

As my previous post mentioned, I was one of the primary organisers of the BC Symposium on Proportional Representation. Though many of the experts and activists attending that symposium were, like me, advocates for reform, the symposium itself remained neutral on whether changing to pro-rep was a good idea. Our role was to impartially lay out the evidence regarding the relative advantages and disadvantages of various options.

The functions of representative democracy

In order to argue that pro-rep is a better option for BC, I’m going to be explicit about what I mean by ‘better’; that is, what representative democracy is for. I believe that representative democracy serves three basic functions:

  1. Provides a format for regular, orderly, non-violent transitions of power. If you’re dissatisfied with the current government, you don’t have to pick up a gun; if you’re currently in power, you avoid excessive corruption, because you know the next government would investigate. Any voting method can fulfill this function, as long as it’s seen as legitimate; so I won’t discuss this further.
  2. Helps make relatively good decisions. Diverse groups in society get to have input, and all in all the wisdom of these diverse points of view can, at least sometimes, add up to more than the sum of its parts. We all know that democratic decisions can still sometimes be terrible, but as far as I can tell, any other government structure is more often worse.
  3. Is relatively efficient at making decisions. Unlike direct democracy, where everybody has to weigh in on every argument, representative democracy keeps that task to a relatively small group of professionals. Ideally, the voting method should make voters’ task easy, while choosing representatives who are both well-qualified for their jobs and reflective of the community from which they are elected.

Any well-designed pro-rep method—which all three of the options on the BC referendum are or could be—is clearly superior to the current choose-one method on the latter two points: each would give outcomes that are more representative without being more divisive (point 2), all the while remaining comparably simple for voters (point 3). Continue reading

Choosing a new voting method for British Columbia: the 2018 referendum and the choices on offer

jq final

As British Columbia prepares for a referendum on the voting method for provincial elections, Jameson Quinn (in the first of two posts on the subject) discusses the historical background to the vote, analyses the options on the ballot, and sets out the rules the campaigns will have to follow. 

From October 22nd to November 30th, British Columbia (BC) will be carrying out a vote-by-mail referendum on changing the voting method for provincial elections from choose-one (aka First Past the Post, or FPTP) to some form of proportional representation (which I’ll abbreviate as pro-rep, since the initialism PR has too many other meanings to work well in the age of Google).

In this post, I’ll discuss the context and structure of this referendum, from a largely neutral point of view. I’ll save opinionated advocacy for a separate follow-up post.

This will be the third time the province votes on such a change. The first of BC’s voting reform referendums traces its roots back to the 1996 provincial election. Then, the NDP (center-left New Democratic Party) got 52% of seats despite having 39% of votes, less than the Liberals’ 42% (the province’s rightmost major party). This ‘wrong winner’ election (the province’s first since 1954) motivated Liberals to put voting reform (without specifics) on their platform. Continue reading

Article 50 and a Brexit general election: the problem of political time

wager.150x150Given the political divisions over the government’s Brexit strategy and the state of the Article 50 negotiations, speculation about a general election has increased in recent weeks. Alan Wager analyses the scenarios that could lead to a fourth parliament in as many years, and how the current timeframe imposed by Article 50 and the Withdrawal Act might complicate matters.

How will the current Brexit impasse be broken? If the government can’t get its Brexit deal through parliament, there are two potential ways of getting through the deadlock: a referendum, or a general election.

The Constitution Unit’s recent report, The Mechanics of a Further Referendum on Brexit, set out two sets of obstacles standing in the way of a Brexit referendum: problems of political will, and issues of political timing. It convincingly showed that issues of timing were far from insurmountable, but would likely require an extension of the Article 50 process. To make that extension a viable prospect, and for parliament to support a referendum, will in turn require significant political will.

The path to a referendum is fraught, but the route to a general election is no less difficult to map out. Westminster is quickly getting to grips with the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011  (FTPA), a piece of legislation which many wrote off as dead following Theresa May’s successful snap election in 2017. Stated simply, there are two ways parliamentary gridlock could lead to a general election. Firstly, the government could, as Theresa May did in April 2016, seek the approval of 434 MPs in the House of Commons to trigger an election. Secondly, if the Prime Minister lost a vote of confidence in the Commons by a simple majority, and no majority could be found in parliament for a new government after two weeks, then a general election would be the result.

These procedural hurdles are forbidding, but far from insurmountable. Labour would undoubtedly support Theresa May in parliament if she called a general election. It is hard to see the circumstances where the Prime Minister would wish to risk seeking the support of 434 MPs to trigger a general election. It is less difficult to imagine a new Conservative leader, if May lost a leadership election, doing so in order to gain a mandate. The second path, losing a confidence vote, would require some Conservative MPs to vote against their own government in parliament. This would, in short, require a fracture in the party system. Continue reading

How and when might a second referendum on Brexit come about?

download.001alan_renwick.000jess_sargent.000Today the Constitution Unit launches a report on the possible mechanics of a further referendum on Brexit. In the last of a series of posts on this topic, Meg Russell, Alan Renwick and Jess Sargeant sum up the report’s findings, focusing on how a referendum might come about, what question would be asked, and the implications for referendum timing.

Our new report, The Mechanics of a Further Referendum on Brexit, is published today. While the report takes no position on whether a further referendum should be held, it explores the constitutional and legal questions that politicians would need to consider if proceeding with such a poll. Earlier blog posts in this series have considered the timetable, the possible triggers, the referendum question, the legal and regulatory framework, and the implications of extending Article 50. This post, based on the final chapter of the report, draws all this material together to consider how and when a further referendum might occur.

Conclusions from earlier chapters (and posts) include the following:

  • It would take at least 22 weeks to hold a referendum, following parliament’s initial decision. This is required for passing legislation, question testing by the Electoral Commission, and preparing and holding the campaign. An extra six weeks might be needed if a three-option question were used.
  • This implies that Article 50 would need to be extended, but this should be easy to achieve. The biggest complication is the European Parliament elections, due in late May 2019.
  • Given the planned parliamentary processes around Brexit there are five basic scenarios in which a referendum might be triggered – these are examined further below.
  • There are three viable options to put to a referendum – accepting the government’s deal with the EU (assuming there is one), leaving without a deal, or remaining in the EU. A yes/no vote on the deal would be unwise (as the meaning of a ‘no’ vote would be unclear). A two-part referendum would also be problematic. Hence the public might be offered the choice between two options, or all three options, in a single-question referendum.
  • The franchise for the poll should remain the same as in 2016, to avoid exacerbating arguments about legitimacy. Some updates to regulation (particularly regarding online campaigning) would be advisable.

Continue reading