The Independent Commission on Referendums: issues and early ideas

The Constitution Unit has today launched an Independent Commission on Referendums, to review the role of referendums in UK democracy and consider how the rules and practice could be improved. The Commission’s members represent a range of political opinions, with expertise extending across all major UK referendums of recent years. Alan Renwick and Meg Russell highlight some of the key issues that have led to the Commission’s establishment.

The Constitution Unit is pleased to announce the launch of an Independent Commission on Referendums. The UK’s recent experience of referendums has prompted various criticisms of their use and conduct. With referendums now an established part of UK democracy, a review of their regulation and practice is needed. The Commission’s twelve members – listed in full on its webpages – include two former cabinet-level ministers, four other present or former parliamentarians, as well as senior figures from the worlds of regulation, journalism and academia. With their immense expertise and experience, and supported by international research conducted by the Constitution Unit, they will be very well placed to develop constructive and thoughtful recommendations for the use and conduct of referendums in the UK.

We make no attempt in this post to prejudge what the Commission members might conclude. Rather, we highlight some of the key issues and concerns that have led to the Commission’s creation and prompted such distinguished individuals to take part.

When and how should a referendum be called?

The most fundamental question is that of when referendums should be called – indeed, whether they should ever be held at all. Recent referendums in the UK have raised many doubts. In Wales in 2011, some queried whether voters could reasonably be expected to decide on what many saw as relatively technical changes to the devolution settlement. Turnout just above one third of eligible voters suggested that public engagement was low. Two months later, voters across the UK were asked to vote on an electoral system – the alternative vote system – that few campaigners really wanted, primarily due to bargaining between the two coalition partners. In Scotland, the question of who should have the power to call an independence referendum has been and remains contested. Since the Brexit referendum last year, some on the losing side have vowed ‘never again’, and even some of those prominent on the winning side have suggested that this was a vote that shouldn’t have been held. In its recent report Lessons learned from the EU Referendum, the Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) – chaired by arch-Brexiteer Bernard Jenkin – criticised the use of what it styled a ‘bluff-call’ referendum, initiated by the government on a proposal that it opposed in the hope of shutting down debate on the issue.

The UK currently has few agreed principles on when referendums can and should be held – parliament can, in principle, call a vote on anything it likes at any time by passing enabling legislation. In practice, some conventions have begun to emerge as to when a referendum is considered appropriate, and in 2010, the Constitution Committee of the House of Lords proposed a list of constitutional matters that might need to go to popular vote. Yet any such norms remain relatively weak.

So it is worth considering whether it would be desirable – and indeed even feasible – to stipulate more precisely when referendums should be held or how they should be called. PACAC suggested that ‘bluff-call referendums’ should stop, but is there any way of giving such an exhortation real-world weight? Many other democracies do specify the processes for triggering referendums much more tightly, and investigation of the options here will be important.

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After the general election: what’s next?

Just two days after the general election, Professor Meg Russell, Dr Jennifer Hudson and Dr Alan Renwick of the Constitution Unit spoke at UCL’s It’s All Academic festival about the constitutional and political fallout. Michela Palese summarises what they said.

Theresa May called for a snap election on 18 April in order to increase the Conservative Party’s majority in the House of Commons and give herself a strong personal mandate for the upcoming Brexit negotiations. The election took place on Thursday 8 June, and its results caught both the Prime Minister and the general public by surprise. No party secured an overall majority of seats and the United Kingdom has its second hung parliament in less than a decade. The Conservatives are left relying on the support of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to form a government.

On the morning of Saturday 10 June the Constitution Unit hosted an event at UCL’s ‘It’s All Academic’ Festival. In this atmosphere of uncertainty, the Unit’s Professor Meg Russell, Dr Jennifer Hudson and Dr Alan Renwick provided some initial analysis of the results and explored some of the likely challenges facing the new government.

The Unit’s Alan Renwick (left), Meg Russell (centre) and Jennifer Hudson (right)

Candidates and campaign

Jennifer Hudson analysed the election from the point of view of campaigning and the composition and diversity of the new parliament.

She argued that, contrary to the Prime Minister’s expectations, it was hard to make the case that the election was about Brexit. In fact, according to a survey that she had conducted in early May, most people did not seem to have strong feelings towards the Brexit negotiations or leaving the European Union without an agreement.

Figure 1: Feelings of the British electorate on Brexit

As shown in the diagram, around 25 per cent of respondents felt either depressed or angry about the negotiations and the prospect of exiting the EU without a deal, but the general feeling on the topic was of relative indifference. This may reflect a shift in the debate on Brexit, with a majority of ‘remainers’ accepting the result and wishing for negotiations to proceed, and only around 20 per cent continuing to claim that the UK should remain in the EU and that there should be a second referendum.

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Managing the new parliament: some challenges for Theresa May’s minority government

The unexpected election result leaves the Conservatives seeking to establish a minority government, with support from the Democratic Unionist Party’s ten MPs. With fewer than half the seats in the House of Commons, and barely more than half when adding the DUP, Theresa May’s new government will face many additional challenges in parliament. Meg Russell explores some of the clearest examples.

Following weeks of speculation about the general election result, few were contemplating the prospect of a minority government led by Theresa May. The Prime Minister proposed the election in the clear expectation of an increased House of Commons majority, citing (in a rather exaggerated manner) difficulties in parliament. Instead she now doesn’t have a majority at all. With one seat still to declare, the Conservatives are on 318 in a 650-number House. Combined others (excluding seven Sinn Féin, who do not take their seats), have 324. May’s government is hence liable to be outnumbered without relying on the support of the 10 DUP members, with whom she has opened talks.

The Prime Minister’s initial statement gave little detail of the form that the relationship with the DUP is likely to take, but it is assumed that she will seek a single-party minority government rather than a formal coalition. The Constitution Unit’s December 2009 report Making Minority Government Work suddenly looks like essential reading, for politicians and politics-watchers alike. As it sets out, there are various options in a situation where a government lacks a single-party majority. One is a formal ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement, whereby another party (or parties) pledge to support the governing party (or parties) in confidence votes and on essential funding decisions; another is for the government to simply negotiate support for policies on a case-by-case basis. A coalition is the most formalised arrangement, with both parties signed up to a programme and liable to both have ministers in the government.

Our report emphasised (as repeated more recently on this blog by one of its authors) that minority governments are not unusual in other democracies, and can be relatively stable. Nonetheless, particularly in the UK context where majority governments are the norm, such an arrangement will present a number of fresh (or enhanced) challenges for the government in managing its relationship with parliament. These may affect all kinds of areas of policy; but the Prime Minister will be perhaps most troubled about their impact on the Brexit process.

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Options for an English Parliament: lessons from existing decentralised states

Jack_SheldonMeg-Russell

Last year the Constitution Unit began work on a project exploring the options for an English Parliament. As part of this research we are examining arrangements in other decentralised states, particularly those which are federal, to draw out lessons for the design of political institutions were an English Parliament to be established. Jack Sheldon and Meg Russell summarise some early findings.

Last autumn we began work on a research project exploring the options for an English Parliament. As outlined in a previous blog post, calls for an English Parliament have long existed, but frequently been dismissed by academics and mainstream politicians. However, in recent years the salience of questions concerning England’s constitutional status has increased and as a result the idea has gained new supporters. Despite this no detailed analysis of the design options for an English Parliament – including key questions such as its possible powers, structure and location – has previously been undertaken. We are aiming to close this gap and plan to publish a report in late 2017.

As part of our research we are examining constitutional arrangements in existing decentralised states, including those which are federal. In this blog post we present some early findings from a survey of arrangements in the 22 states that are listed as federations by the Forum of Federations. The establishment of an English Parliament would not necessarily imply a federal arrangement for the UK, but certainly something like it – with separate legislative institutions for the four historic nations. When drawing out comparative lessons, looking at existing federal states is therefore an obvious place to start.

What are federations and when are they established?

The term federalism covers a wide range of political systems in which legislative powers are divided between state and sub-state levels (see Dardanelli and Kincaid, 2016, for further discussion of the definition). Among the 22 federations listed by the Forum of Federations there are 11 parliamentary systems, nine presidential or semi-presidential systems and two that fall into none of these categories. Even within these categories there is great variation in institutional structures.

The classic early federations – the United States, Australia and Canada, for example – were comprised of existing autonomous political systems. ‘Coming together’ federations of this type remain more numerous than ‘holding together’ federations formed from previously unitary states (for discussion of this distinction see Stepan, 1999). However, the latter category has grown in the post-1945 period. Examples of ‘holding together’ federations include Belgium and India, whilst Spain – though not strictly a federation – has moved in an increasingly federal direction. Were it to move in the direction of a more federal structure the UK would not, therefore, be out of step with developments elsewhere.

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What will the Lords do with the Article 50 bill?

Meg-Russell

The bill authorising the Prime Minister to trigger Article 50, enabling the UK to leave the EU, has cleared the Commons. It begins its consideration in the Lords today. In this post Lords expert Meg Russell discusses how the second chamber is likely to treat the bill. She suggests that this illustrates important dynamics between Lords and Commons, which are often disappointingly misunderstood both in the media and inside government.

The European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill is a simple two-clause measure to authorise the government to trigger Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union and thereby begin negotiations on the UK’s exit from the EU. This follows the ‘Leave’ vote in last June’s referendum, followed by the Supreme Court ruling that parliament’s authorisation was required. A previous blog considered the bill’s likely reception in the Commons, where it completed its initial stages on 8 February. Today the bill begins its consideration in the Lords, where it is due a two-day second reading debate, followed by two-day committee stage next week, and a day spent on remaining stages the week after that.

There has been much discussion of how the House of Lords will treat the bill – including wild speculation about possible retribution if peers try to ‘block’ the bill. Much of this fundamentally misunderstands the relationship between the two chambers of parliament, and the constraints within which the Lords always operates. The bill in fact nicely illustrates some of the subtleties of these relationships, and – while unusual in many ways – can serve as a case study of how the dynamics at Westminster work. By setting out how the Lords is likely to respond to the bill, this post seeks to communicate those wider dynamics.

As a starting point, two key features of the Lords are clearly pertinent, and feature prominently in stories about how it might respond to the Article 50 bill. First, the government has no majority in the chamber. As of today the Lords has 805 members, of whom only 252 are Conservatives. Labour has 202 seats, the Liberal Democrats 102, and the independent Crossbenchers – who do not have a whip or vote as a block – 178 (the remainder comprising bishops, smaller parties and other non-aligned members). This obviously, on the face of it, makes things look difficult for the government. Furthermore, the Lords is known to have an innate pro-‘Remain’ majority. The other obvious feature is that the Lords is unelected. This means (as further explored below) that it generally defers to the will of the elected House of Commons. Of course, the Commons also includes an innate pro-‘Remain’ majority. This presented MPs with various representational dilemmas (explored in the previous post) when debating the Article 50 bill. But the great majority concluded that the will of the public as expressed in the referendum must be respected – and hence that the bill should be approved. It passed its second reading by 498 votes to 114, and its third reading by 494 votes to 122. This is the starting point for debates in the Lords.

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What might parliament do with the Article 50 bill?

Meg-Russell

On 24 January the Supreme Court ruled that the government requires parliament’s consent to trigger Article 50 of the EU Treaty and hence begin formally negotiating Brexit. This requires a bill, and the government responded with the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill – on which debates in the Commons begin today. Meg Russell asks how parliament could respond to the bill – both procedurally, and in terms of the political dilemmas facing members.

In the form it was introduced, the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill is a very short and simple measure. With just two clauses, it authorises the government to ‘notify, under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union, the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the EU’, stating that this is notwithstanding the 1972 European Communities Act or any other existing statute. Yet its simplicity clearly belies its importance; the decision to trigger Article 50, following the Leave vote in last June’s referendum, has potentially huge ramifications for both the UK’s politics and its economic future. It is well-known that a majority of MPs, and probably an even higher proportion of peers, supported Remain in the referendum. The government’s original starting point was that parliamentary approval of this kind was neither desirable nor necessary. Now that the bill has been published, its passage could present significant political challenges, for government and parliamentarians alike.

This post focuses primarily on the procedural aspects. What are the stages through which the bill will have to pass, and where do the potential obstacles lie? The post focuses in particular on the immediate Commons stages. Having indicated the key steps, it moves on to discuss MPs’ representational dilemmas, and how these could play out. Finally, it provides some brief reflections on the bill’s likely reception in the Lords.

The timetable for the bill in the Commons was set out by David Lidington, Leader of the House of Commons, on Thursday 26 January. Its second reading stage is due to take place on Tuesday and Wednesday this week, with debate today able to last up to midnight. It is then proposed to spend three days in committee, on the floor of the House of Commons, next week, after which it will quickly receive a third reading and (if approved) pass to the House of Lords.

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More than just populism: Renzi, the Italian Senate referendum and the perils of second chamber reform

Roberta Damiani passport-styleMeg-RussellOn 4 December Italians decisively rejected Matteo Renzi’s proposed constitutional reforms, which centred on reforming the Senate – leading to his resignation as Prime Minister. The international media widely reported this as a victory for populism. In this post Roberta Damiani and Meg Russell argue that the referendum result was more complex than that. It demonstrated the perils of referendums on detailed constitutional matters and in particular – with echoes of Nick Clegg’s experience in the UK – of attempted second chamber reform.

Italian ‘perfect’ bicameralism has dodged another bullet. After a long, fragmented, and highly personalised referendum campaign, on 4 December the Italian electorate voted against Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s constitutional reform by 59 per cent to 41 per cent, on a turnout of 65 per cent. The main elements of the reform would have been to drastically cut the powers of the upper chamber (the Senate), reduce its membership from 315 to 100, and turn it from a directly elected chamber into an indirectly-elected one, comprising representatives of the regions. Vincenzo Scarpetta has previously described what else the reform entailed on this blog.

Opinion polls over the last few months showed a shift towards a No outcome. The latest, published before the two-week ‘electoral silence’, indicated that 54 per cent of respondents would vote against the reform. This time, the polls showed the correct outcome. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who had linked the passage of this reform to his government’s survival, resigned the following day. In an emotional speech delivered on the evening of the defeat, he claimed: ‘I wanted to get rid of some seats in Italian politics. I failed, and hence the only seat I can get rid of is my own’.

Many commentators described the possibility of a No victory as the third anti-establishment vote of the year, following the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election. The main reason for this interpretation was that Renzi, a little too confident of the merits of his reform, highly personalised the campaign, and bet his political career on it. This naturally meant that his opponents would vote against him, and turned the referendum into a protest vote against the government. Renzi eventually personalised the loss just as much as the campaign: ‘To all my friends from the Yes front I say that you didn’t lose. I lost’, he said in his speech.

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