Rethinking Democracy: three routes to majority government

albert_weale (1)After 65 years of single-party government in the House of Commons, the last three general elections have led to three differently constituted governments: a two-party coalition, a Conservative majority government and a Conservative minority government reliant on a confidence and supply agreement for its parliamentary majority. Albert Weale argues that if a rethinking of British democracy is required, that we must start from first principles and consider how to create ways of institutionalising political negotiation among different groups in a way that embraces an incentive towards encompassing different interests and opinions.

A UK trio

2010 – 2015 – 2017. Three elections; three results; three parliaments varying in their party balance: three types of government. Three types of majority rule.

2010 produced a hung parliament with no one party holding an overall majority of seats in the Commons, leading to a Conservative-Liberal Democrat government, the first UK government formed by a coalition of more than one party since 1945. In 2015 the UK reverted to its familiar type with one party holding a majority of parliamentary seats, and with the Conservatives able to form a single-party government. 2017 produced another hung parliament and the government exhibited yet another form: a minority government dependent on a small party, the Democratic Unionists, for confidence and supply, but without the assurance that it could carry the whole of its programme during its term of office.

These three examples illustrate the different ways in which the principle of majority rule can be interpreted. 2015 exhibits the typical pattern of government formation in the UK: one party gains a majority of seats in parliament on less than a majority of votes in the election, with the Conservatives holding just over 50% of the seats on the basis of 37% of the popular vote. On this view of majority rule, it means government by the party that can secure a majority of seats in the legislature whether or not it has secured a majority of votes in the country. No UK governing government since 1935 has secured more than a plurality of the popular vote. Continue reading

Brexit and the constitution: seven lessons

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The process of exiting the European Union has revealed that the relationship between law and politics was perhaps not as sound as it might once have appeared. Jack Simson Caird believes that we are in the midst of a constitutional moment that has taught us seven key lessons.

Brexit can plausibly be described as a ‘constitutional moment’. The decision to leave the EU will shape the UK constitution over the coming decades. Even if the full extent of the constitutional changes that will flow from Brexit are not yet known, future Prime Ministers will be defined (in part, at least) by their ability to oversee successful constitutional reform. The post-referendum period has revealed a great deal about the relationship between the UK’s political system and its constitutional framework. Those responsible for changing the constitution moving forward will need to learn the lessons from this tumultuous period.

1. Governing without a majority needs a change of approach

One of the principal causes of the current crisis has been the way in which Theresa May’s government approached the task of governing without a majority. In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, members of the government stressed the need to deliver on the referendum result without delay. The overwhelming sentiment was that the government, led by the Prime Minister and her Cabinet, should be left to get on with the task of negotiating a deal: a majoritarian mindset disconnected from the reality of a divided Cabinet and parliament. Instead, the government should have sought to build a majority for its proposed approach to delivering Brexit before it triggered Article 50 (or at the beginning of the 2017 Parliament).

Any future government that wishes to deliver constitutional change without a majority should look to the example of 2010 Coalition government. The coalition agreement struck between the Conservative and Liberal Democrats specified the constitutional changes that the two parties would agree to support. Theresa May’s government should have done the same and at the outset sought support for the substance of its approach for delivering Brexit.

2. Identify processes that can help to build consensus

The domestic process by which Brexit was to be delivered was not given sufficient attention early enough. Constitutional change gives rise to cross-cutting issues deserving of a special form of public and parliamentary scrutiny. In the absence of a rock-solid parliamentary majority, a special process needed to be constructed to deliver the constitutional transformation of the scale required by Brexit. The commitment to construct such a process at an early stage would have sent a positive message to other parties – and to the public – that the government was committed to finding a compromise that commanded wide support.

In the absence of a formal agreement with another party, the government could have sought to construct a bespoke process that might have facilitated cross-party support for delivering Brexit.

In the early stages of the process, suggestions that parliament should have more input in the negotiations were rejected on the basis that the government should not have its hands tied. Rather than treating these suggestions as an opportunity to bring MPs onside, they were treated as threats that could derail the process. Theresa May’s government only resorted to indicative votes and cross-party talks after the negotiations with the EU finished (and her deal or no deal strategy had failed) which did little to inspire the sense that the desire to engage was genuine.

3. Parliament needs to develop new forms of influence

The Article 50 process has demonstrated that parliament is a powerful constitutional actor. Since the Withdrawal Agreement was published in November 2018, the majorities against the Withdrawal Agreement and against a no deal exit shaped the debate. However, the Article 50 process has also shown that parliament’s influence on the substance of treaty negotiations and the legislative process is limited. Over the course of the 2017 parliament, the House of Commons inched its way to more control through innovative uses of parliamentary procedure, such as through business of the House motions and the Humble Address. The problem is that MPs only realised the extent of their power when it was too late. This meant that compromises were put together and agreed in haste. Essentially, backbench MPs made the same mistake as the government by not prioritising their influence over the process at an earlier stage.

4. The values of liberal democracy should be robustly defended

During the Brexit process, parliamentary scrutiny and debate has been characterised by some as anti-democratic. However, one of the central tenets of liberal constitutionalism is that proposals to change the constitution should be subject to scrutiny and debate. Constitutional democracy is in a very difficult place if this scrutiny and debate is not valued and defended. The core of the case for a carefully constructed procedure for constitutional change is that it enhances the democratic legitimacy of the end-product. How can constitutional reformers build the case for properly constructed change, if deliberation itself is undervalued in UK political culture?

The House of Commons and the Civil Service are restricted in their ability to defend their constitutional role by the requirements of impartiality. So, advocates of constitutional democracy need to robustly defend the role that institutions play in empowering citizens through democratic deliberation. No one is suggesting that politicians or institutions should be free from criticism (on the contrary, criticism is critical to their health and development). However, Brexit has highlighted a need for the values that underpin the basic elements of the democratic process to be defended far more vigorously.

5. Reframe the language of constitutional democracy

Prior to the referendum vote, the Vote Leave campaign demonstrated that a constitutional argument could be framed and communicated in a way that could cut through. Restoration of sovereignty (‘take back control’) was central to the Vote Leave campaign narrative. However, in the post-referendum period, the government has struggled to find a way of communicating the message that leaving the EU with a deal would empower ordinary citizens.

Of course, the reality of constitutional change is more complex than the messaging during the referendum campaign conveyed. However, it is clear that the constitutional ambition of the government was limited by its ability to communicate the value of democratic institutions. Implementing Brexit through radical constitutional change (by, for example, devolving power to English regions) would have required innovative ways of communicating this change to voters – and the government did not have this capacity.

6. Bring law and politics closer together

The Brexit process has exposed a fairly dysfunctional relationship between law and politics in Westminster. Parliamentarians have often been called out for misunderstanding some of the legal fundamentals of the Brexit process. The level of understanding of international law and EU law has been particularly problematic (although this perhaps reflects the limited incentives that parliamentarians have so far had to engage with either of these areas of law). At the same time, it is important to recognise that lawyers are not best equipped to engage with politics. As a result, the Brexit process has often been characterised by a frustratingly circular discourse. To improve the quality of debate over constitutional change, we need to bridge the gap between law and politics.

7. We need politicians that want to build a constitutional consensus

It may be that the UK’s constitutional democracy is in such difficulty that it cannot be repaired through piecemeal change. However, a more radical constitutional overhaul (perhaps in the form of a written constitution) will require politicians that are willing to prioritise finding a new constitutional settlement to resolve the post-Brexit divisions. At present, there are very few frontline politicians that prominently advocate constitutional change. It is not a message that seems to garner support.

Professor Jeff King’s inaugural lecture – delivered at University College London in April 2018 – persuasively argued that moving towards a written constitution in the UK would provide a means for citizens to take ownership over the UK’s constitutional democracy. In order to revitalise constitutional democracy in the UK post-Brexit, political leadership will need to harness this insight and communicate it to the public at large.

This article originally appeared in the June issue of Counsel and is reprinted with permission.  

About the author

Dr Jack Simson Caird is Senior Research Fellow in Parliaments and the Rule of Law at the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law. He tweets as @jasimsoncaird

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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

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

Revisiting Tony King’s analysis of executive-legislative relations shows just how much parliament has changed

meg-russellPhilip.Cowley.2016The inaugural issue of Legislative Studies Quarterly contained one of Tony King’s most insightful pieces on parliament and politicians. It is still regularly cited, and has influenced the analysis of a generation of parliamentary scholars. In this blog post, Meg Russell and Philip Cowley analyse the extent to which King’s conclusions hold true in a parliament that looks significantly different to its 1976 counterpart.

Parliaments are not monoliths, they are highly complex political organisations. Anthony King’s 1976 article ‘Modes of executive–legislative relations: Great Britain, France and West Germany’ was one of the first to point out the importance of the multiple relationships inside legislatures – including some relationships that are often hidden from view.

King argued that the most important of these in the British parliament was the ‘intraparty mode’: between the government and its own backbenchers. Others, such as the ‘non-party mode’ or ‘cross-party mode’, he judged to be weak at Westminster.

King’s objective was to strip away the noise and present parliamentary dynamics as a set of stylised relationships between different actors. The fundamentals of this analysis have stood the test of time very well in the last 40 years, and the article remains a classic. But since it was published, a great deal has also changed. We review these changes, and their effects on his conclusions, in a recently-published article in the Political Quarterly entitled ‘Modes of UK Executive-Legislative Relations Revisited’.
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