Do we need a written constitution?

image1.000.jpgPrior to the general election, several of the parties’ manifestos called for the creation of a codified constitution for the UK. In December, the Constitution Unit hosted an event to debate the merits and downsides of such an exercise. Harrison Shaylor summarises the discussion.

What did the 2019 Liberal Democrat election manifesto and the Brexit Party’s ‘Contract with the People’ (from the same election) have in common? Both advocate the need for a written constitution in the UK. So too did the Green Party manifesto, and that of the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland. Meg Russell took part in a discussion on a written constitution in The Briefing Room on Radio 4 in September, and on 28 November, the Constitution Unit held its own event entitled ‘Do we need a written constitution?’. Two distinguished law professors – Sionaidh Douglas-Scott of Queen Mary University of London and Nicholas Barber of the University of Oxford – set out the case for and against a written constitution, in a debate chaired by a former Unit Director, Professor Robert Hazell. What follows is a summary of the presentations made by each participant. 

The argument for a written constitution: Sionaidh Douglas-Scott

‘Someone, I haven’t been able to trace whom, once said: Constitution building is a bit like dentistry: there’s never a good time for it; no one does it for fun; but it’s sometimes necessary and, when it’s done right, it prevents greater pain in the future.’

Professor Douglas-Scott explained that a constitution delineates the relationships between the major institutions of state, such as the executive and the legislature, as well as between the state and its citizens. More abstractly, a constitution says something about legitimacy and power. How does the state exercise power? And when is it legitimate for it do so?

The UK is unusual in not having a written constitution, in the sense of not having the fundamental rules of the constitution codified in a single document. It is one of only a few democracies in the world which lacks one, alongside Israel and New Zealand. The reason for this is historical. Since 1688, Britain has not experienced a revolution or regime change – a ‘constitutional moment’ – like the American or the French Revolution, or the withdrawal of colonial rule. Rather, Britain’s constitution has evolved slowly over time under relative stability; it has never been deemed necessary to list the fundamental laws and principles underpinning the country’s polity. As the Constitution Unit website states: ‘What Britain has instead is an accumulation of various statutes, conventions, judicial decisions and treaties which collectively can be referred to as the British Constitution.’

This arrangement, Professor Douglas-Scott argued, is no longer adequate. The current constitution is deficient for three reasons: its lack of clarity; its failure to properly protect fundamental rights; and the inadequacy of the current devolution settlement. Continue reading

Election replay with the experts: looking back at the 2019 general election

luke_moore1_500x625_0.jpgThe 2019 general election is now complete, but there is still plenty to say about the campaign, the rules that governed it, and the new parliament it has produced. Luke Moore summarises the contributions at our final seminar of 2019, where Unit staff were joined by other experts to dicuss the lessons of the election.

On Monday 16 December the Constitution United hosted an event entitled Election Replay with the Experts, at which four leading political scientists, including the Director and Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit, looked back on the 2019 general election. The issues discussed included polling, women’s representation, the rules of the electoral game, and the effect of the election on the new parliament. The event was chaired by Unit Research Associate Lisa James

Ben Lauderdale – polling 

Ben Lauderdale, Professor of Political Science at UCL, started the evening by discussing the performance of polling at the election. During the election campaign Lauderdale had been involved in producing the much-discussed ‘MRP’ (multilevel regression and post-stratification) polling used to predict constituency results. His central message was that after two general elections — in 2015 and 2017 — in which some of the polls proved to be significantly out of step with the results, polling for the 2019 election is largely a non-story, as most pollsters were on target in their predictions. Further, the accuracy of the polls meant that the media was (in retrospect and in Lauderdale’s view) discussing the right topics during the election campaign. The most important of these was the prospect of a Conservative majority, but also the specific demographic and geographic weaknesses of the 2017 Labour coalition. While the terminology was a bit reductive and silly, it was not wrong to have focused on the vulnerability of Labour’s ‘red wall’ and Conservative appeals to ‘Workington man’.  Continue reading

Is there an app for that? Voter information in the event of a snap election

juxZ1M58_400x400.jpg.pngDigital technology has transformed the way we access information and interact with services. Democratic services have not kept up, risking a situation where democracy is seen as out of date. Joe Mitchell argues that it’s time to dream big: the UK has an opportunity to create a new digital-first office of civic education and democratic information, to restore trust and grow public understanding of our democracy.

What’s the biggest threat to democracy in the UK? Interference by foreign powers? Disinformation? Fake news? Micro-targeting of voters on social media? Or is it more simple than that? Is itt is just that engaging in the democratic process no longer fits with people’s lives? 

Digital technology has transformed the way we live. It has changed our expectations of how we access information, how we communicate, how we bank, shop or access government services. It should not surprise us then, to learn that people expect to access information on the democratic process digitally. For example, Google News Trends published the top ten searches on Google UK on the day of the 2015 general election; these all related to the election. The most popular question was ‘who should I vote for’ — a genuinely complex question, but the following searches were straightforward: variations on the theme of ‘who are the candidates’ and ‘where do I vote’. 

Worryingly, the democratic process has been left behind by digital transformation. A gulf has emerged between the way we live our lives now and the way we participate in democracy: it can feel like something from a bygone age. Notices of elections are posted to a noticeboard in front of a council building and (not even in all cases) uploaded as a PDF to a webpage buried in a council website somewhere. While the digital register-to-vote service is welcome, no state institution has taken responsibility for meeting the digital demand for even the most basic information: when are elections happening, who is standing, what was the result? How to vote is covered by the Electoral Commission’s website, but with research on voter ID showing that only 8% of voters know the voting rules, clearly not enough is being done.  Continue reading

If there is a snap election, what can we do to improve the campaign?

JennyH.picture.jpgA snap election looks highly likely in the coming months. The UK’s rules for election campaigns have widely been branded as ‘not fit for purpose’, yet they will not be changed in time for an early poll. The Constitution Unit therefore convened a seminar to examine what else can be done. Jenny Holloway summarises the discussion.

The Constitution Unit held a seminar on 12 September asking ‘If there is a snap election, what can we do to improve the campaign?’ Focusing on ways both to tackle misinformation and to promote greater availability of good information, the event brought together four leading authorities in their respective fields: Dorothy Byrne, Head of News and Current Affairs at Channel 4; Ed Humpherson, Director General for Regulation at the UK Statistics Authority; Joe Mitchell, director of Democracy Club; and Will Moy, Chief Executive of Full Fact. It drew on many of the themes addressed in the Unit’s March 2019 report Doing Democracy Better, co-authored by Alan Renwick and Michela Palese. Given that changes to the legislative framework for election campaigns will not happen before a snap election, it focused particularly on strategies for improving the campaign within existing rules.

Dorothy Byrne

Building on her recent McTaggart Lecture, Dorothy Byrne argued that politicians and journalists both have crucial roles to play in improving the state of democracy and increasing public trust in politics. Politicians must be willing to submit themselves to scrutiny through the media. Broadcasters have a responsibility to actively call out lies and untruthful statements made by politicians. Continue reading

The European Parliament elections: seven things you need to know

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Nominations for election to the European Parliament closed on Thursday. We now know which parties will be contesting the elections (if they happen), and who those parties have selected to stand for them in each region of the UK. The Unit’s Alan Renwick offers a brief guide to how the elections will work and what we can expect to learn from them.

With little sign of progress in the Brexit talks between the government and the Labour Party, UK participation in next month’s European Parliament elections looks increasingly likely. The parties have nominated their candidates and begun to launch their campaigns. Much is being said about how the electoral system will shape the outcome, but not all of it is accurate. This post provides a quick guide to the key points and reaches two main conclusions. First, the system will disadvantage small parties: in particular, the anti-Brexit parties will be punished for their disunity. Second, anyone wanting to read the results as a proxy second Brexit referendum will need to do so with great care.

1. The system is proportional…

The UK uses a system of proportional representation (PR) for European Parliament elections. To be precise, it uses two different systems. England, Scotland, and Wales use a list-based form of PR, which was introduced to replace the old First Past the Post system in 1999. This is based on 11 regions, each electing between three and ten MEPs. Each party puts up a list of candidates and voters choose one party’s list. The seats are allocated to the parties in each region in proportion to the votes that they have won.

Northern Ireland, by contrast, has used the Single Transferable Vote (STV) form of PR ever since the first elections to the European Parliament in 1979. Each party again puts up a slate of candidates. But voters rank individual candidates in order of preference, and these votes are counted and transferred according to the preferences expressed until the three seats available have been filled.

Proportional systems make it easier than under First Past the Post for small parties to secure seats. Last time around, for example, the Green Party won three seats with 7.87% of the vote, whereas in 1989, under First Past the Post, it famously captured 14.5% of the vote but no seats at all.

2. …but not all that proportional

‘Proportional’ systems vary in just how proportional they are. In fact, neither of the systems used in the UK is especially so, for two reasons. First, the number of seats available in each region constrains how far it is possible to allocate seats proportionally. In the North East of England, for example, where there are only three seats, it is clearly impossible for any more than three parties to win representation. Even the largest region – the South East, with ten seats – is quite small in seat terms, making it impossible to reflect the pattern of votes perfectly in the allocation of seats. Continue reading

Election petitions remain important to the integrity of UK elections, but reforms are urgently needed

Wilks.HeegCaroline.Morris_webUntil recently, widespread confidence about the integrity of UK elections meant that almost no information was available about election petitions, the only legal mechanism through which a UK election result can be challenged. Stuart Wilks-Heeg and Caroline Morris present significant new data about elections petitions from 1900 to 2016. Their findings fill an important gap in our historical knowledge about electoral integrity and inform current debates about the need to reform the petition mechanism.

Beyond a few specialist election lawyers, knowledge of election petitions is rare. In its current form, as a private legal action heard by a special election court, the election petition was part of the Victorians’ efforts to tackle electoral corruption. As vote-buying and intimidation were eradicated, the mechanism was widely assumed to have become redundant. During the 20th century, the number of cases dwindled, and no systematic records were kept of legal challenges to election results. Among the few cases that attracted any attention, the best known related to the overturning of Tony Benn’s return at the 1961 Bristol South-East by-election, on the grounds that he was a member of the House of Lords.

However, since 2004, there has been a renewed interest in election petitions. The most obvious trigger was the re-emergence of petitions alleging large-scale corruption. Infamously, in election circles, Richard Mawrey QC’s (2005) judgment on the Aston and Bordesley Green election petitions referred to ‘evidence of electoral fraud that would disgrace a banana republic’. Petitions have also revealed failings in the running of elections. For instance, an election court voided a close result at the 2004 Hull City Council elections after finding that voters in Derringham ward had instead received postal ballots relating to the election in Marfleet ward. Continue reading