Reforming referendums: how can their use and conduct be improved?

jess.sargeant.resizedalan_renwick_webThis week’s turbulent political events represent the fallout from a referendum where the consequences of a ‘change vote’ were unclear. This is just one of many concerns raised about recent UK referendums. To reflect on such problems and consider possible solutions, the Constitution Unit established the Independent Commission on Referendums. Here Jess Sargeant and Alan Renwick summarise the Commission’s conclusions and recommendations.

The Independent Commission on Referendums has published its final report today. This sets out almost 70 conclusions and recommendations, all agreed unanimously by the 12 distinguished Commissioners, who span the major divides in recent referendums. The report is the product of eight months of discussion and deliberation amongst the Commissioners, backed by comprehensive Constitution Unit research into referendums in the UK and other democracies. The Commission has also consulted widely with experts and the public, including seminars in each of the four constituent countries of the UK. We hope that, like the work of the Constitution Unit’s previous commission on referendums, this report will set the agenda for debate about the future use and conduct of referendums. 

Background

The use of referendums internationally has increased dramatically over the past three decades. This has been driven partly by changing public expectations of democracy: deference has declined and public desire for input in decision-making has grown. The UK experience has mirrored this trend. Following the first non-local referendum in 1973, there were three further such polls in the 1970s. A further nine non-local referendums have been held since the late 1990s – two of which were UK-wide.

Unlike many countries, the UK has no formal rules regarding when or on what a referendum should happen. As explored in an earlier blogpost, decisions to hold such votes have been driven by a mixture of principle and pragmatism. Nonetheless, conventions have emerged for holding referendums on fundamental questions to do with devolution and the European Union; in some cases, these conventions have even been codified in law. Referendums provide a mechanism for entrenchment in the absence of a codified constitution: decisions explicitly endorsed by the electorate are hard to reverse without further reference to the people.

The role of referendums in democracy

Referendums can enhance democracy: they can answer fundamental questions about who ‘the people’ are, strengthen the legitimacy of major decisions, and allow the public a direct say on major issues.

But referendums can also in some ways inhibit democracy. Voting is central to democracy, but so are processes such as deliberation, compromise and scrutiny. Binary referendum campaigns don’t necessarily create space for these: rather, they can encourage polarisation and division. Badly designed referendum processes can also risk undermining the institutions of representative democracy, which are essential for democratic governance across the board. There are also some topics, such as those affecting minority rights, where using such a majoritarian device may be inappropriate.

Thus, the Commission recommends that referendums be used with caution. Engaging the public in policy-making processes is essential, but there are often better ways of doing so. Continue reading

The Labour Party’s long-standing lethargy over House of Lords reform

s200_pete.dorey (1)Labour recently announced that any new peers it nominates must commit to abolishing the House of Lords. In this post, Pete Dorey discusses Labour’s track record on Lords reform and why the party has failed to enact serious reforms when in government, arguing that the subject has suffered from a lack of intra-party consensus and a lack of serious interest in reform at ministerial level.

It is a clear reflection of the political turbulence and febrile atmosphere wrought by Brexit that some prominent Conservatives, and pro-Conservative newspapers, have attacked the House of Lords for daring to obstruct ‘the people’s will’, with regard to tabling significant amendments to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. Of course, there is delicious irony in such condemnation, given that support for Brexit has long been couched in a discourse about restoring parliamentary sovereignty, whereby Westminster, not Brussels, should be the locus of all political decisions affecting the British people.

That it is also Conservatives who have recently denounced the unrepresentative and undemocratic character of the House of Lords is even more ironic, not to say hypocritical, given that the Conservative Party has hitherto been a staunch defender of the unelected second chamber – bitterly opposing the 1999 removal of most hereditary peers – particularly when Labour has mooted reforms to render it more politically representative, and/or curb its (limited) power.

That such reforms have only occasionally and sporadically been enacted by Labour governments has not been due to Conservative opposition, however, but to disagreements within the Labour Party itself over the desirability and details of Lords’ reform. Condemning the socially and politically unrepresentative character of the House of Lords, and its veto power, has been easy for Labour MPs and ministers, but intra-party agreement on what exactly should be done to remedy these apparent defects has proved rather more elusive. There are four main reasons why Labour governments have only pursued House of Lords reform sporadically, rather than systematically. Continue reading

The EU (Withdrawal) Bill raises questions about the role of smaller opposition parties in the legislative process

leston.bandeira.thompson.and.mace (1)The EU (Withdrawal) Bill’s return to the Commons saw SNP MPs protest about their voices having been excluded from the debate. Louise Thompson explains how parliamentary procedures can indeed restrict debate for smaller opposition parties, and considers whether something ought to be done about it.

Following the first session of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill’s return to the Commons, most newspaper headlines focused of the battle between Theresa May and the group of backbench Conservative rebels seeking concessions from the government about parliament’s ‘meaningful vote’ on the Brexit deal. The front page of The National instead highlighted the lack of debate on the devolution clauses within the bill, which was limited to just 15 minutes, as well as the fact that only one SNP MP was able to speak. Just a few hours later, every single SNP MP walked out of the Commons chamber during Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) in protest about this issue – and the Speaker’s refusal to allow a vote that the House sit in private to discuss it. It’s not unknown for the SNP to deploy tactics like this in the chamber and it raises interesting questions about the role of smaller opposition parties in the Commons.

The parliamentary position of small ‘o’ opposition parties

When it comes to opposition in the House of Commons, it’s easy to focus attention solely on the ‘Official’ Opposition. But there are four (or five, or six) other opposition parties, depending on where you position the DUP and Sinn Fein. Just as parliamentary architecture in the Commons privileges a two-party system (with the green benches facing each other in adversarial style, the despatch boxes for the use of the government and official opposition party only), parliamentary procedures also help to underpin a system which seems to prioritise the ‘Official Opposition’. Hence, the guarantee of questions at PMQs.

Continue reading

What is the Salisbury convention, and have the Lords broken it over Brexit?

downloadThe European Union (Withdrawal) Bill returns to the Commons today for consideration of the numerous amendments made during its eventful passage though the Lords. Some commentators have accused the Lords of exceeding their constitutional authority, with the Salisbury convention being cited in defence of this position. David Beamish discusses how the convention operates and argues that the Lords have not breached it so far.

The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill has prompted much discussion of the role of the House of Lords in passing legislation, including references such as this to the Salisbury convention:

‘ …the Lords has effectively torn up the Salisbury convention: that manifesto promises by the governing party should not be blocked by an unrepresentative upper house’.

That passage, from an article in The Times by Matt Ridley, who sits in parliament as an elected hereditary peer, relates to the amendments made by the Lords to the Withdrawal Bill and in relation to the proposal for a ‘Leveson Two’ inquiry. A day later, Iain Martin wrote in The Times:

‘This week there was the worst illustration of the problem yet. The Commons thought that it had settled the question of press freedom, when it voted against moves to hold yet another inquiry into the press. But the Lords had another go on voting down the government, in breach of the convention that bills which enact manifesto commitments should be passed by the Lords.’

It is perhaps ironic that this ‘convention’ is now being cited in relation to the difficulties which the House is making for a Conservative government. It was originally introduced by a Conservative opposition which dominated the House of Lords following the election in 1945 of a Labour government with a large Commons majority but only a small representation in the Lords, which then consisted entirely of hereditary peers.  Continue reading

Crisis, headache, or sideshow: how should the UK government respond to the Scottish parliament’s decision to withhold consent for the Withdrawal Bill?

 

mcewen

Different political actors have responded to the decision by the Scottish Parliament to withhold its consent for the UK government’s showpiece EU (Withdrawal) Bill in very different ways. Professor Nicola McEwen discusses the options open to both the Scottish and UK governments. 

After much deliberation, the Scottish Parliament voted by 93-30 to withhold consent for the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, the main piece of UK legislation paving the way for Brexit. Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Greens accepted the SNP government’s charge that the Bill undermines the devolution settlement and the principles on which it was founded. On the same day, the National Assembly for Wales voted by 46-9 to grant consent for the Bill, with the Welsh government arguing that the amended clause 15 (formerly clause 11) and the agreement they reached with the UK government ‘defended and entrenched’ devolution. Only Plaid Cymru disagreed.

Consent was sought from both legislatures following the convention (usually referred to as the Sewel convention) that the UK parliament will not normally legislate in devolved areas, or alter devolved powers, without their agreement. The Withdrawal Bill alters the devolution settlements by placing a new constraint on devolved legislatures and ministers to avoid acting incompatibly with ‘retained EU law’, even in policy fields which otherwise fall within their remit. In its original form, this constraint was placed upon all retained EU law, with provision to release the constraint once it was agreed that there was no need to preserve a common UK legislative or regulatory framework. In its amended form, the Bill requires the UK government to specify in regulations the areas to which the restriction will apply. It introduced a time limit – UK ministers have two years from Brexit day to bring forward new regulations, and these would last for no more than five years. The amendment also places a duty on UK ministers to await a ‘consent decision’ before tabling the regulations, but herein lies the controversy. Whereas the Sewel convention assumes that consent means agreement, Clause 15 empowers UK ministers to proceed even if the ‘consent decision’ is to withhold consent. Continue reading

Lords Brexit defeats are forcing MPs to face crucial choices

meg-russellOne part of the government’s flagship Brexit legislation is now nearing its parliamentary endpoint after the EU (Withdrawal) Bill completed its report stage in the House of Lords in early May. The UK parliament’s second chamber inflicted 14 government defeats on the bill, which sets out arrangements to facilitate Brexit. It will soon return to the House of Commons for these various issues to be considered. Meg Russell examines some of the issues this may cause for the House of Commons and parliament as a whole.

The Lords’ interventions have led some to claim that this is a “peers versus the people power grab”, or even that the chamber is behaving in an “unconstitutional” manner. But while the current situation may be unusual, it’s not for the reasons many commentators claim.

There have been many past standoffs between governments and the House of Lords, some far more serious than this one. The most famous clashes occurred a century or more ago under Liberal governments, including over the 1832 Great Reform Act and Lloyd George’s 1909 “people’s budget”. The largest recorded annual number of Lords defeats– 126 – occurred under Labour in 1975-76. Defeats under the Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were commonplace – for example there were 12 on the 2005-6 Identity Cards Bill. Continue reading