The new opposition: How will SNP MPs influence Westminster politics?

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Louise Thompson argues that the constitutional challenges we will see over the next 5 years will be a product of the changed composition of Parliament. Here, she specifically considers how SNP are likely to try and amend proposed constitutional reforms announced in the Queen’s Speech last week.

We are only a couple of weeks in to the 2015 Parliament, but we can already see signs of big changes from the previous Parliament, as well as some major parliamentary and constitutional challenges ahead. Last week’s Queen’s Speech proved what most commentators had already suspected; the first majority Conservative Government for nearly two decades will oversee a period of major constitutional change. This includes greater devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as to English cities and an In-Out referendum on membership of the European Union to be held by the end of 2017. The constitutional ground is beginning to move already. The Prime Minister has already met with the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to discuss the devolution of more powers to the Scottish Parliament.

As returning MPs took their seats in the chamber following the Queen’s Speech last week, they were met with a sea of unfamiliar faces as 182 new Members took their seats in the chamber. There is nothing new about a high turnover of MPs – the 2010 General Election saw an even higher turnover of Members. But the composition of the new intake, with record numbers of women and ethnic minority MPs, a massive drop in the number of Liberal Democrat MPs and the arrival of a much larger number of SNP MPs is very different to what the House has seen before. The challenges we will see over the next five years to the government’s planned constitutional reforms are very much a product of this changing composition.

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Can David Cameron call a second election? How does that fit with the Fixed Term Parliaments Act?

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Robert Hazell outlines how the Fixed Term Parliaments Act restricts the new government from calling a second election. He writes that if Cameron wanted to take a gamble to boost his slender majority, he would have to work within the confines of the Act given the likely complexities of any attempt to repeal it.

This is the third in a series of posts based on the Unit’s latest report, Devolution and the Future of the Union, published here.

Now that David Cameron has won, but only with a slender majority, speculation will turn to whether his government will last a full five years; and whether he could improve his numbers by calling a second election. In the run up to the election there was talk of the new government calling a second election after a year or so, as Harold Wilson did in 1966 and again in 1974. This kind of speculation is wild. It is no longer possible for the Prime Minister to seek an early dissolution, because the prerogative power to dissolve Parliament was abolished by the Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011. It is now up to Parliament to decide whether there should be an early election. Under the Act there are only two ways in which Parliament can be dissolved early:

  • By a motion ‘that there shall be an early parliamentary general election’ passed by at least two thirds of the House of Commons (s 2(1))
  • By a formal no confidence motion, in the statutory form prescribed in the Act (that ‘this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government’), passed by a simple majority of those voting (s 2(3)). If no alternative government can be formed within 14 days which can command confidence, Parliament is dissolved and an early election held.

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UK elects most diverse parliament ever but it’s still not representative

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Jennifer Hudson and Rosie Campbell assess the diversity of the new parliament and write that while the Class of 2015 has more female and BME MPs, it is still a long way from being descriptively representative of the population it serves.

Ahead of the 2015 election, broadcaster Jeremy Paxman argued that voters were being given a choice ‘between one man who was at primary school with Boris Johnson and one man who was at secondary school with him – both of whom did PPE at Oxford’.

Throughout the campaign, we’ve been gathering data on the parliamentary candidates to see if this lack of choice plays out across the board. Do the people elected to represent the UK, bear any resemblance to the public they represent?

Women on the rise

This year saw 48 more women elected that in 2010 – bringing the total number of women MPs to a record 191. Women make up 29% of newly elected MPs, up from 22% in 2010.

The Green party had the highest percentage of women candidates selected at 38%, but with chances in only a handful of seats, they had little chance of affecting parliamentary gender balance.

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Cameron’s parliamentary challenge #2: Managing the Lords

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As the fallout from the general election is dissected, some commentators have noted the challenges facing Cameron’s new government in managing the House of Commons with such small majority. But Meg Russell warns that his challenges in managing the House of Lords could be even greater.

The country is now adjusting to a Conservative majority government that none of the general election polls (bar, broadly interpreted, the exit poll) predicted. The Conservatives are jubilant having increased their number of Commons seats, and now look forward to governing on their own. Senior figures no doubt hope for a more straightforward period of government than under coalition, subject to less negotiation and with greater ability to navigate policy through parliament. The challenges of governing with a narrow Commons majority have attracted some comment (with various references to the difficulties of managing rebellious backbenchers and reminders of the challenges of the Major years). But what most commentators have completely overlooked so far is the much greater challenge facing Cameron’s new government in managing the House of Lords.

Much of my research in recent years has focussed on the changing nature of the Lords following the 1999 reform that removed most hereditary peers. That reform was transformative: the previously Conservative-dominated chamber became one of ‘no overall control’, in which the balance of power was held by the Liberal Democrats and numerous non-party Crossbenchers. Peers became both more confident, and more able, to inflict government defeats – of which the Blair and Brown governments suffered over 450 during 1999-2010. The key ‘swing voters’ in that period were the Liberal Democrats; had they voted differently, over 90% of defeats would have been averted (as first shown here, and updated later here). Hence the 2010 coalition had a rather easier time managing the Lords – these swing voters having been absorbed into government. While Labour could defeat the coalition in the Lords if it joined forces with sufficient Crossbenchers or government rebels, defeats became less common – with just 51 during 2012-15. But this week’s move to single party government marks a return to something like the status quo ante – that is, a far more similar position to 1999-2010.

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Once the election results are in, how do we decide who forms the government?

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Robert Hazell summarises the process of government formation that will begin tomorrow.

By Friday morning we should know most of the election results. Assuming the polls are proved correct, with Labour and the Conservatives each having around 270 to 280 seats, and both well short of a majority, what happens next? Answer: this is not a political or constitutional crisis. The parties will negotiate to work out who can command confidence in the new Parliament. That will be formally established in the vote on the Queen’s Speech in 3-4 weeks’ time. In the meantime the Cameron government remains in office as a caretaker government.

Who governs in the meantime?

If Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats choose to resign (because they have done badly, or to strengthen their negotiating position) Cameron still remains in office as Prime Minister. He may leave the Lib Dem positions vacant, or fill just a few in case of emergencies (e.g. Energy Secretary). The incumbent government will be able to respond to any emergencies at home or abroad, but otherwise is limited in the decisions it can make. Ministers remain in office, even if they have lost their seats. Under the caretaker convention, the government will try to avoid taking any decisions which might bind the hands of a future government. This means that it should not embark on any new policy, let any major government contracts, or make any senior public appointments. If these are unavoidable, it should consult first with the opposition parties: as Alistair Darling did before going to the ECOFIN meeting on 9 May 2010 to discuss the first Greek bailout.

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Staring at the bark, while others are separating the wood from the trees

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Seasoned Returning Officer Barry Quirk reflects on managing elections in the UK and the logistics of running ‘one of the most administratively cumbersome processes that local councils have to complete’.

Today’s election will be the 22nd election I have managed as a Returning Officer. This includes local elections, London-wide elections, European elections, various referenda as well as four previous UK-wide parliamentary general elections. And each different election presents new challenges of management and administration. Running elections are a professional privilege; it connects public servants with the pulse of our representative democracy – whether that is at the local or national level.

The running of elections requires acute attention to detail, and very close managerial oversight and control. In many ways this is the antithesis of why people become local authority chief executives. They tend to have strong strategic skills and broad approaches to management leadership. But as returning officers they need to avoid examining both the wood and the trees; in elections they are staring at the bark! This is because elections are about focussing on detail, detail, detail. You need to focus on how ballot papers are to be printed, folded and handed to electors; and you need to prepare in astonishing detail as to the precise way in which votes are to be counted and aggregated.

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“Thursday’s election will either reshape the UK significantly or ease the way to its breakup”

Alan Trench assesses devolution commitments in the party manifestos and argues that pro-UK and nationalist parties alike display a lack of coherence and consistency. The SNP and Plaid Cymru seem to have conflicting demands, while the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems fail to take an overarching view of the implications of their proposals for each part of the UK on the others. It is however clear that the outcome of Thursday’s election will have major implications for the structure of the country.

It is hard to think of a general election that has ever been so freighted with questions about the UK’s territorial constitution. It is hardly an overstatement to say that the outcome of the 2015 election, and actions of the government that takes office after it, will either reshape the UK significantly or ease the way to its breakup. This post considers what the manifestos tell us about what the various parties propose to do and how they propose to do it, when it comes to the reshaping of devolution arrangements across the UK, and then discusses some of the issues that will loom larger after 7 May.

The pro-UK parties

The 2015 manifestos contain a welter of devolution-related commitments. Those in the three pro-UK parties (Conservative, Liberal Democrats and Labour) are all strikingly similar, though not identical. For Scotland, all commit to implementing the Smith Commission’s recommendations, and to retaining the Barnett formula. (Interestingly, they do not commit to the UK Government’s white paper Scotland in the United Kingdom: An enduring settlement, raising the possibility they could scrape off some of the barnacles that paper puts on the Smith proposals). Labour want to go further in a ‘Home Rule bill’ in unspecified ways, though it appears that wider scope for the Scottish Parliament to legislate on welfare matters is key to it. These commitments rather resemble those made by the same three parties in 2010 about the implementation of the Calman Commission’s recommendations, though with Labour somewhat breaking ranks with the two governing parties.

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