The electoral system for an English Parliament: options and implications

Ongoing Constitution Unit research is exploring options for an English Parliament. One essential question for such a body is the choice of electoral system. In this post Jack Sheldon and Meg Russell focus on the possible implications of using FPTP as compared to using AMS or another proportional system. They conclude that the choice of system would have substantial effects on an English Parliament’s likely political dynamics.

Since last autumn we have been working on a research project exploring the options for an English Parliament. Although there have been various calls over the last 20 years to establish such a body, how might it actually work in practice? One question that would need to be addressed is the choice of electoral system. In this post we focus on the possible implications of alternative systems.

Models for an English Parliament and likely electoral systems

Our research has identified two primary models for an English Parliament. Some proponents, including Conservative MPs John Redwood and Andrew Rosindell, want a ‘dual mandate’ body, whereby members of the UK House of Commons sitting for English constituencies would meet as the English Parliament on certain days. This clearly implies that members of the English Parliament would be chosen by first past the post (FPTP), at least so long as it continues to be used for UK general elections.

The alternative model is for a separately-elected English Parliament, equivalent to the existing devolved legislatures elsewhere in the UK. Proponents of this kind of change have generally said little about the choice of electoral system. FPTP has not been used for any new institutions in recent years and so a proportional system is more likely. AMS is used in both Scotland and Wales, and given these precedents it seems the most likely system to be adopted. A major part of the rationale for establishing an English Parliament is to bring more coherence and symmetry to the UK’s constitutional arrangements. UKIP’s 2017 election manifesto, which included a proposal for a separately-elected English Parliament, explicitly suggested that an English Parliament should be elected under AMS, while in correspondence  with the authors senior Campaign for an English Parliament figures have stated that ‘the electoral systems for all the devolved administrations should be the same’.

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The performance of the electoral system: strengthening or weakening the case for reform?

In this post Alan Renwick assesses the performance of the first-past-the-post electoral system at last week’s general election. Focusing on eight criteria, he concludes that the problems generally associated with FPTP were milder in this election than in other recent elections. However, by failing to produce the single-party majority government that its proponents argue is a major advantage over proportional alternatives, the case for FPTP was nonetheless weakened.

Amidst all the profound issues affected by the election results – not least Brexit, the governance of Northern Ireland, and the sovereignty question in Scotland – the performance of the electoral system is not perhaps the most pressing. Nevertheless, a routine health check is in order. Did the electoral system perform better or worse this time than in other recent polls? Did this election strengthen or weaken the case for reform?

Any analysis of performance requires some assessment criteria. Many criteria could be used. In this post, I shall focus on eight of the most important.

1/ Single-party majority

The House of Commons is elected by first past the post (FPTP). While acknowledging its imperfections, supporters of FPTP argue that it has at least one crucial advantage over its proportional rivals: it generally produces single-party majorities, which, they say, help deliver (to coin a phrase) strong and stable leadership.

Clearly, that did not happen this time. Indeed, this was the second election in three that failed to perform as FPTP backers expect. Political scientists pointed out long before the first of those elections, in 2010, that the decline of the UK’s traditional two-party system since the 1970s had made such outcomes more likely. It is noteworthy, therefore, that this time we have a hung parliament even though two-party politics appears resurgent: the vote share of the two largest parties, at 82.4 per cent, is higher than at any election since 1970, and 17.4 percentage points up on the low of 2010. But though multipartism has declined, it has not disappeared: the minor parties still hold over 10 per cent of the seats – a higher proportion than at any post-war election before 1997. Unless things change dramatically, results such as this are likely to become fairly normal.

2/ A government with popular support

The flipside of the coin of so-called ‘manufactured’ majorities is the possibility that FPTP can give power to a government that commands only minority support among voters. Concern about this possibility reached its height in 2005, when Labour secured majority power on only 35.2 per cent of the votes cast and, given low turnout, just 21.5 percent of the eligible electorate.

This time, the Conservatives won 42.4 of the vote. Despite the failure to secure a majority of seats, that is one of the highest vote shares since 1970: only Margaret Thatcher in 1979 and (very marginally) 1983, and Tony Blair in 1997 did better. Theresa May’s party captured the votes of 29.1 of the eligible electorate. While this is the highest share secured by any party this century, it is lower than the share of any winning party between 1945 and 1997 except Labour in October 1974, owing to diminished turnout.

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The 2017 election manifestos and the constitution

Over the past two weeks the political parties have published their manifestos for the snap general election. In this post Chris Caden and Fionnuala Ní Mhuilleoir summarise the constitutional content, covering proposals relating to Brexit, the possibility of a constitutional convention, devolution, House of Lords reform, electoral reform, human rights and freedom of information.

Theresa May’s surprise election announcement left the political parties with the challenge of putting together manifestos in a matter of weeks. The Conservatives, Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party and Plaid Cymru all published their manifestos in the week beginning 15 May. UKIP followed on 25 May and the SNP on 30 May. With much of the election debate centring on whom the public trust to lead the country through the biggest constitutional upheaval in recent history, Brexit is unsurprisingly covered by all the parties. Attention on other constitutional issues has wavered somewhat as a result, but Labour and the Liberal Democrats both propose a constitutional convention to review aspects of the UK’s constitutional arrangements. The manifestos also lay out a variety of options in areas such as House of Lords reform, devolution, electoral reform and human rights.

Brexit

Negotiating Brexit is a major theme for all parties. The Conservative Brexit commitments include ending membership of the single market and customs union so that a greater distinction between ‘domestic and international affairs in matters of migration, national security and the economy’ can be made. This means negotiating a free trade and customs agreement between the UK and EU member states and securing new trade agreements with other countries. Theresa May’s party aims for a ‘deep and special partnership’ with member states. A successful Brexit deal would entail regaining control of borders, reducing and controlling net migration, but maintaining a ‘frictionless’ Common Travel Area for people, goods and services to pass between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The manifesto controversially maintains that ‘no deal’ is better than a bad deal for the UK.

Labour also accepts the referendum result, but rejects ‘no deal’ as a feasible option and envisages something more akin to a ‘soft Brexit’. The party would scrap the Conservatives’ Brexit white paper and replace it with an agreement maintaining the benefits of the single market and customs union; the government’s proposed ‘Great Repeal Bill’ would be replaced with an EU Rights and Protections Bill to ensure no changes to workers’ and consumers’ rights, equality law or environmental protections. The party pledges to immediately guarantee existing rights for all EU nationals in the UK and UK citizens in EU countries, and would also seek to remain part of various research and educational projects such as Horizon 2020, Erasmus and the European Medicines Agency. Additionally, membership of organisations like Eurojust and Europol would be retained. Labour commits to no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Unlike the Conservatives and Labour, the Liberal Democrats and Greens pledge a second referendum after a Brexit agreement is concluded, which in each case would include an option on the ballot paper of staying in the EU. Preventing a hard Brexit is the first priority for the Lib Dems and as a result the party promises to fight for the continuation of UK membership of the single market and customs union. It also pledges to protect the rights of EU citizens living in the UK and UK citizens abroad, to maintain UK participation in the Erasmus+ programme and other EU-funded schemes, and to retain the European Health Insurance Card. The Greens set out a similar agenda.

The SNP wishes to mitigate what they see as the damage of Brexit with the proposal that Scotland should remain in the single market. The party seeks additional powers for the Scottish government including powers that will be repatriated from Brussels to the UK like agriculture, fisheries, environmental protection and employment law. Plaid Cymru, meanwhile, pledges to make sure ‘every penny’ of European funding for Wales is replaced by the UK government and that the Welsh share of the money promised by the Leave campaign (referring to the £350 million for the NHS) is delivered. It also demands that the UK government seeks the endorsement of each UK devolved legislature before any trade deal can be signed.

UKIP supports leaving the single market, the customs union and the European Court of Justice. The manifesto outlines that no ‘divorce’ bill should be paid to the EU and that Brexit negotiations will be complete by the end of 2019.

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Changing the way the UK votes: the Conservative manifesto’s proposals relating to the conduct of elections

The main focus of media coverage of the Conservative manifesto has been on the party’s controversial social care policy, but it also includes some surprising and significant proposed changes to do with the conduct of elections – the abolition of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, first past the post to replace the supplementary vote and requiring proof of ID to vote. Andrew Cook discusses these proposals and their implications.

The polls still suggest that the Conservatives are heading for victory in next month’s election. Nothing is certain. Nevertheless, the Conservative manifesto – Forward Together – is worth examining in detail. The media focus has been on the party’s controversial social care policy, but a section of the manifesto called ‘The Home of Democracy and the Rule of Law’ also includes some surprising and significant proposed changes to do with the conduct of elections. This post concentrates on these, while a larger comparison of the constitutional pledges of all the parties will follow on this blog later in the week.

Abolishing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act

The first issue is the fundamental question of when elections can be held. The manifesto commits to repealing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which was enacted into law by the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition government in 2011.

This Act was supposed to constrain a Prime Minister from calling an early election at a time of her or his convenience.  But it certainly did not do that this time round: as Alan Renwick argued here earlier this month the ‘Act really has changed only the choreography, not the underlying pattern of power.’ May easily cleared the bar of two thirds of all MPs voting for the snap election and if the Act is repealed it will be remarked that it served little purpose. On the other hand, there may be more to the story. Under different circumstances, different political incentives could have seen the Act constrain the choices of a future Prime Minister. If the Conservatives form a government and fulfil their commitment, that will no longer be the case.

The question remains as to what will replace the Act (a replacement is needed, as simple repeal would abolish any limit on the length of a parliament). There is some disagreement as to whether you can ‘revive’ a prerogative power through legislation, allowing a reversion to the status quo ante, or whether an entirely new system for calling an election will need to be created.

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Canadians to debate electoral reform, again – but at this stage success seems unlikely

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Canada’s Liberal government, elected in October 2015, came to office with a commitment to replace the first-past-the-post electoral system. A parliamentary committee has now been established to consider the options for reform and report by December. Louis Massicotte offers an overview of the long, and largely unsuccessful, history of attempts to reform the Canadian electoral system and discusses the prospects for the current debate. He concludes that at this stage success seems unlikely.

In October 2015, Canadians elected a new Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, who quickly reached international celebrity status and has been enjoying a prolonged honeymoon with the public since then. A few months earlier, when his party languished in third place in opinion polls, Trudeau had boldly promised that the 2015 election would be the last one conducted under first-past-the-Post (FPTP), and that a parliamentary committee would consider two options: ‘ranked ballots’, known as the alternative voting (AV) in Britain, where it was rejected at a referendum in 2011; and MMP (mixed-member proportional system), a German-created mixed system that inspired the systems used for electing the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the London Assembly. On May 10, the terms of reference of the committee were disclosed. The committee is expected to consult widely and to report by December 1. The prospects for success will be discussed below, but it is fitting that we start by summarising the history of electoral system reform in Canada.

Earlier attempts at electoral system reform

In theory, a federal country with ten powerful provinces, including mostly French-speaking Quebec, is the kind of setting that offers plenty of opportunities for electoral innovation. Yet, the predominance of single-member plurality throughout the country is now absolute, and has rarely been challenged successfully in the past. The break-up of the two-party system following World War I, at a time when most of continental Europe was switching to proportional representation, led some Canadians to advocate either AV or the single transferable vote (STV). In 1920, STV was adopted for electing Manitoba’s provincial MLAs from Winnipeg, and this move was completed a few years later by introducing AV for electing rural members. In 1924, Alberta emulated this move by having provincial MLAs from Calgary and Edmonton elected by STV, and rural MLAs by AV. Both provinces kept these mixed systems until the mid 1950s, when they returned to first-past-the-post normalcy. An attempt to adopt the same hybrid failed in Ontario a few weeks before the 1923 election.

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When assessing electoral systems we should consider the degree of personalisation as well as proportionality

me 2015 (large)

A new book by Alan Renwick and Jean-Benoit Pilet examines the ‘personalisation’ of electoral systems. In this post, Alan Renwick outlines what such personalisation is, what patterns of personalisation the book identifies across European democracies, and what all of this means for the future of electoral reform in the UK. He argues that the importance of personalisation strengthens the case for first past the post for elections to Westminster but that the system used in European Parliament elections in Great Britain is ripe for reform.

Electoral systems are among the most discussed and studied of all political institutions. Few UK elections pass without debate about whether the electoral rules should be modified. Scholars have examined in enormous detail the effects of different electoral systems upon such diverse aspects of politics and life as the representation of women and minorities, corruption, budgetary discipline, electoral turnout, growth rates, and the stability of democracy.

Yet these debates have long been very partial. Though electoral systems are complex things, the great bulk of attention has focused on just one of their aspects: their proportionality, defined as the degree to which they share out seats across political parties in proportion to votes won. As is well known, the first past the post system used for elections to the House of Commons is not very proportional, whereas the various systems used for European Parliament and devolved assembly elections are more so.

Proportionality certainly matters. But it is not the only feature of electoral systems that deserves our attention. Indeed, as voters have become increasingly disengaged from and disillusioned with political parties, we might expect that their interest in proportionality – defined, remember, across parties – has declined in favour of other concerns.

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Gerrymandering for democracy: An impossible goal?

In a recent report by Mathew Lawrence and Sarah Birch the Institute for Public Policy Research has made several proposals for improving the quality of British democracy. One of them involves politicising the traditionally fiercely independent and neutral Boundary Commissions, by requiring them to gerrymander constituency boundaries to produce fewer safe and more marginal seats. Ron Johnston, Charles Pattie and David Rossiter consider this proposal, and find it neither feasible nor sensible. Alternative reforms which encourage greater public participation in the electoral process are needed.

In their recent IPPR report The Democracy Commission Mathew Lawrence and Sarah Birch propose four ways to improve the quality of British democracy, ranging from introducing the single transferrable vote in local government elections in England and Wales to establishing a ‘Democracy Commission’ to facilitate participation. Their proposals seek to tackle the unrepresentativeness of the House of Commons, brought about in part by the first-past-the-post system, which produces disproportional electoral outcomes with some parties substantially over-represented there relative to their vote shares and others even more substantially under-represented; one party predominates in the complement of MPs returned from most regions, even though it lacks even a majority of votes there.

One of the reasons they suggest for this disproportionality is that there are too many safe seats and too few marginal ones. Electioneering focuses very much on the latter as there is little incentive for parties to encourage participation in places where the outcome is a foregone conclusion. So one of the IPPR proposals is that the rules implemented by the four Boundary Commissions that recommend the boundaries of Parliamentary constituencies should be changed. In effect, the Commissions would be instructed to undertake a form of gerrymandering by seeking:

‘… to redraw a ‘safe’ seat to make it a ‘marginal’. ‘Gerrymandering’ safe seats out of existence where possible will increase the competitiveness of elections and reduce the oversized electoral power that voters in marginals currently have, and as a result is likely to improve participation rates.’

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