The future of electoral reform: the importance of the personal dimension

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On 26 July the Constitution Unit held a launch event for a new book by Alan Renwick and Jean-Benoit Pilet on the ‘personalisation’ of electoral systems. At the event Alan Renwick outlined the book’s key findings, which were then discussed by electoral experts Justin Fisher, Darren Hughes and Roger Scully. Zander Goss reports on the event.

There is a well-known trend in contemporary democracies towards so-called ‘personalisation’, through which increasing attention is given to individual politicians and candidates rather than political parties. In a new book published earlier this year by Oxford University Press – Faces on the Ballot: The Personalization of Electoral Systems in Europe – the Deputy Director of the Constitution Unit, Dr Alan Renwick, writing with Jean-Benoit Pilet of the Université libre de Bruxelles, offers detailed analysis of one aspect of this phenomenon: the personalisation of electoral systems. At a launch event on 26 July chaired by the Unit’s Dr Jennifer vanHeerde-Hudson, Dr Renwick was joined by a panel of electoral experts consisting of Professor Justin Fisher (Brunel University), Professor Roger Scully (Cardiff University), and Darren Hughes (Deputy Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society), to discuss the book’s findings and its implications for electoral reform in the United Kingdom.

The ‘personalisation’ of electoral systems

Alan Renwick began the seminar by outlining some of the book’s core arguments. He defined the personalisation of an electoral system as ‘the degree to which voters under that system can express preferences among individual candidates and the degree to which those preferences determine which candidates win election’.

In order to examine trends in such personalisation, the book analyses changes in electoral systems in European democracies since 1945. It finds that electoral reforms changed fundamentally in the late 1980s. Whereas, before that time, there was no trend towards more or less personalised electoral systems, since then, many European countries have shifted their electoral systems towards greater personalisation. Furthermore, the processes underlying these reforms have also changed. Before 1989, electoral reforms were primarily driven by parties and political elites, while public opinion received scant attention. Since 1989, by contrast, reforms have often been motivated – at least in large part – by a desire to respond to public disengagement from or disillusionment with political parties in particular, and politics more generally. Thus, while political elites continue to hold the reins when electoral reforms are enacted, they have grown more responsive – or, at least, have sought to create the impression of being more responsive – to public opinion and voters’ desire for change. Yet the book also finds that these reforms have had only limited effects. There is some evidence that voters are now using opportunities to express candidate preferences in greater numbers, and these preferences are affecting who gets elected to a greater extent than before. But if reforms were intended to tackle rising dissatisfaction with democracy or reverse growing disengagement from electoral politics, there is no evidence that they have done so.

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Reforming party funding by stealth and compromise may have longer-term consequences

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Since the 2015 general election the government has introduced two measures –proposals relating to trade union political funds and cuts to Short money – that have the potential to affect the funding of at least some political parties. Justin Fisher argues that reforms such as these that have an asymmetric impact on parties could have longer-term consequences by causing a future government to exact ‘revenge’. That would do little for the prospects of reaching consensus on the vexed question of party finance reform.

The phrase ‘stop-go’ has become a useful means by which one can characterise Britain’s approach to party finance reform since 2000, when the wide ranging Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act  (PPERA) was passed. Despite PPERA, the ‘problem’ of British party finance has refused to go away and, in the relatively short period since its introduction in 2001, there have been two subsequent government sponsored inquiries, both of which have recommended significant further reform but have failed to see their proposals implemented. The result is that Britain has developed a stop-go approach to reform, whereby reviews are entered into with reforming zeal, only for the ensuing proposals to be shelved by a failure of the main political parties to reach agreement. However, since the 2015 election two measures have been introduced which have the potential to affect the funding of at least some parties. In both cases the final proposals are likely to be somewhat less radical than was originally envisaged but could nonetheless have significant short- and longer-term consequences.

The Trade Union Bill

The election of the Conservative majority government in May 2015 very quickly signalled that reforms related to party funding would be attempted, not as a comprehensive attempt at reform, but with possibly far reaching consequences for some parties. In July 2015, a Trade Union Bill was presented, which included a clause requiring trade unions with a political fund to operate a ‘contracting-in’ system rather than a ‘contracting-out’ system. This had been a Conservative Party manifesto commitment, but went to the heart of the Labour Party’s relationship with the trade unions, following the Trade Union Act 1913. This established that for trade unions to engage in political activity, they must create a separate political fund. This covered all political activity – not just that with the Labour Party – and trade union members were required to actively ‘contract-out’ if they wanted to avoid paying this modest additional fee. The 1913 Act laid the ground rules for an important aspect of Labour funding for much of the next 100 years. Political activity through the Labour Party would be expressed collectively through a union’s decision to affiliate to the party.

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