The government’s electoral reform agenda: an assessment

alan.jfif (1)The Johnson government is committed to maintaining the core element of the electoral system – First Past the Post. But it has indicated its intention to pursue a range of other reforms. In this post, Alan Renwick assesses its agenda. Most urgent is the need to update campaign rules to reflect the digital age – but the strength of the government’s will to act here remains unclear, and recent steps that could undermine media independence are worrying. Other proposals are mixed, but some have the potential to strengthen the system.

Boris Johnson’s government has indicated plans to reform four aspects of the electoral system: (1) who can vote; (2) the process of voting; (3) how constituency boundaries are set; and (4) the campaign rules. This agenda excludes the core of the system: the principle of First Past the Post. But that is unsurprising: as I examined in a book published in 2011, political parties rarely change the electoral rules that empower them; there is no reason to expect an exception in current circumstances.

This post examines each of the four areas of proposed action. The third and fourth areas deserve most attention: valuable reform of boundary setting is possible; and strengthened rules around digital campaigning are urgently needed. Whether the government will focus on what matters remains to be seen.

Who can vote

The Conservative manifesto said two things about the franchise: the voting age will not be reduced to 16, as has happened for local and devolved elections in Scotland and Wales, and as Labour promised in its manifesto; but voting rights will be extended to all British citizens living abroad, eliminating the current 15-year limit.

I have set out the case for votes at 16 in a previous post, and will not rehearse the arguments here. Enfranchising expats, meanwhile, is unlikely to cause much controversy. Yet it appears to be a relatively low government priority: the December Queen’s Speech said merely that the relevant measures would ‘be brought forward in due course’. Commitments to so-called ‘votes for life’ appeared in the 2015 and 2017 Conservative manifestos too, but no progress followed.

The process of voting

The government wants to reform the voting process for two reasons: to improve accessibility for people with disabilities; and to tackle electoral fraud.

The first of these is uncontroversial. Though it was not mentioned in the Conservative manifesto, the December Queen’s Speech (repeating commitments in the Queen’s Speech in October) set out proposals that reflect recommendations made by the Electoral Commission last May. Continue reading

The Constitution Unit blog in 2018: a year in review

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2018 has been an interesting year for the UK constitution, its institutions and those involved in studying or working within them. As the year draws to a close, blog editor Dave Busfield-Birch offers a roundup of the most popular blogs of the year, as well as a look at the reach of the blog through the lens of its readership statistics. 

Obviously, Brexit has made this a very interesting time to work in political science, and the blog has benefited both in terms of increased general interest as a result, but also because there are niche topics being discussed in public now that would have generated little interest in other years. Few, for example, would have predicted in May 2016 that whether or not a motion in the House of Commons was amendable would become a hot political topic.

Below are our most popular blogs from the past year, as well as two personal selections from me, at the end of my first twelve months as blog editor.

Editor’s pick

Gendered Vulnerability’ and representation in United States politics by Jeffrey Lazarus and Amy Steigerwalt.

This was obviously a tough decision, but if you were to ask me for my favourite post of the year, this would be my instinctive choice. Jeffrey Lazarus and Amy Steigerwalt discuss their new book, Gendered Vulnerability: How Women Work Harder to Stay in Office, which argues that women’s perception of a more difficult electoral landscape leads them to adopt distinct, and more constituent-oriented, legislative strategies than their male counterparts. It is a fascinating insight into the challenges faced by women in running for, securing and retaining office. A similar blog on the UK experience, entitled Strategies for Success, was written by Leah Culhane in November. Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Beating the boundaries? The stalled debate on how to draw up the UK’s parliamentary constituencies

A major 2011 shake-up of the rules governing how the UK’s parliamentary constituencies are drawn has proved controversial. While the new rules deal with the long-standing issue of substantial inequalities in constituency electorates, they also threaten frequent major disruption of the country’s constituency map. But attempts to square the circle by revising the 2011 legislation seem stalled, and the new rules themselves have yet to result in new constituencies. Charles Pattie, Ron Johnston and David Rossiter offer their view of where we are, and where we should go from here.

Largely unnoticed outside Westminster, an important debate has been going on over how to redraw the UK’s constituency map. The current rules for doing so are enshrined in the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act 2011 (the Constituencies Act). But since the start of this year, two major proposals have been made to revise aspects of the Act. In February, the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) published a report setting out its proposals (and in late May, the government responded). And a private member’s bill sponsored by Labour MP Afzal Khan, containing a different set of recommended changes is still making its way through parliament. Continue reading

We must be realistic about what independent regulation of referendum campaigns might be able to achieve

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In the aftermath of the EU referendum much has been written about the conduct of referendums in the UK, and whether changes to the way referendum campaigns are regulated should be made in future. The latest contribution is a report by the Electoral Reform Society, in which a number of recommendations are made. In this post Alistair Clark writes that we must be realistic about how much independent regulation might be able to achieve. During the EU referendum independent authorities did speak out against Vote Leave’s £350 million claim, but with no noticeable effect on the campaign, whilst existing experience with regulatory bodies in the UK suggests that political parties push back against regulation and exploit loopholes.

With sincere apologies to Edwin Starr, referendums, what are they good for? If you believe much that has been written since the fateful decision on June 23, not much. Except of course for those writing reports and comment about how they have been conducted, the present author of this blog included. The latest in a long and continuing series of commentary is the Electoral Reform Society’s It’s Good To Talk: Doing Referendums Differently After the EU Vote, published on 1 September.

This is a typically thoughtful and provocative report from ERS. It essentially highlights the egregious quality of debate in the EU referendum, with lies, half-truths and obfuscation at a level rarely seen in British politics. That this was possible was because of the generally ill-informed nature of political debate and the lack of reliable political information. Many PSA members, this author included, signed an open letter orchestrated by the Constitution Unit and published in the Daily Telegraph during the referendum campaign, highlighting the level of misinformation and its likely impact on the democratic legitimacy of the result.

The consequences of this misinformation are becoming clearer by the day, and the warnings of the much derided ‘experts’ about the difficulties involved with Brexit are also being underlined by events. The actual date of triggering Article 50, never mind Brexit itself, recedes ever further into the distance. No-one is any clearer about what a post-Brexit UK might look like, despite some of the more outrageous claims during the campaign and recent statements by the Prime Minister and her cabinet.

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The number of ‘safe’ seats should be reduced to strengthen UK democracy and increase participation

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Ron Johnston, Charles Pattie and David Rossiter have argued that an IPPR report’s proposal that constituency boundaries should be gerrymandered to produce more marginal seats would be neither feasible nor sensible. The authors of the report, Sarah Birch and Mathew Lawrence, respond here. They suggest that a boundary delimitation outcome entailing more competitive results would not necessarily be more ‘political’, but it would be more democratic.

The UK has become significantly more unequal politically over the course of the past 30 years. Whereas in the 1970s and 1980s there were only small differences in rates of electoral participation between young and old,  advantaged and disadvantaged groups, by 2015 these differences had turned into gaping chasms. Fewer than half of 18–24 year-olds voted in the recent general election, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of ‘AB’ individuals who were registered to vote actually did so, against just over half of ‘DE’ registered voters.

Differential electoral participation matters for democracy. If certain sectors of the electorate are known to vote with lower frequency, politicians are less likely to consider their interests when making policy. The result is policy that fails the inclusivity test, and also increased disaffection among members of those groups who – rightly – feel neglected by politicians. Disaffection in turn strengthens alienation and reinforces electoral abstention, generating a vicious cycle of under-participation and under-representation.

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50 fewer MPs: Challenges for the constituency boundary review

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Work on the parliamentary constituency boundary review is set to begin next March. At a seminar jointly organised by The Constitution Unit and the House of Commons Library on October 27 Tony Bellringer, the Secretary to the Boundary Commission for England, outlined the boundary review process and Ron Johnston spoke about some of the challenges likely to be faced. Daniel Goldstein and Matthew Rice provide an overview.

As a result of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act of 2011 a review of parliamentary constituency boundaries is now required to occur every five years.  After the first of these was abandoned in 2013, following an amendment to what became the Electoral Registration and Administration Act , the first official revised review is scheduled for completion in 2018. On October 27 the Secretary to the Boundary Commission for England, Tony Bellringer, and the foremost academic expert on constituency reviews, Professor Ron Johnston, came to Parliament to discuss the process and implications of the review at an event jointly organised by The Constitution Unit and the House of Commons Library’s Parliament and Constitution Centre.

Law and process

Tony Bellringer began by explaining how the constituency review process has changed since the 2011 law.  Prior to 2011, a review occurred every eight to 12 years.  While preserving constituency stability, this timetable permitted the size of the electorate in each constituency to vary significantly over time.  One advantage of that structure was that it allowed the Boundary Commission for England (BCE) to work over time across the country with a small, experienced staff.  Reviews are now regularly scheduled for every five years.  This better mitigates drift but carries the cost of more frequent constituency change.  Further, interim reviews are now prohibited, compressing work into the two-and-a-half years prior to a review deadline.  This presents budgeting as well as staff retention issues for the BCE.

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