The price of constitutional revenge: Ron Johnston and Charles Pattie outline possible consequences of the Liberal Democrats voting down the proposed new Parliamentary constituencies

 

On Monday, 6 August, the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, announced that because the Prime Minister could not deliver Conservative party backbench support for the coalition’s House of Lords Reform Bill, it was being withdrawn. Mr Clegg interpreted this as the Conservative party failing to deliver on part of its coalition agreement – a point also made by other Liberal Democrat spokespersons (rather unsuccessfully in some cases, as with Jeremy Browne on the next day’s Today programme). As a consequence he would instruct his party to vote against the main Conservative component in the package of constitutional changes in that agreement – the Boundary Commissions’ recommendations for 600 new Parliamentary constituencies involving a reduction in the number of MPs, much greater electoral equality and more frequent (every five years) redistributions.

Two days later, David Cameron indicated his determination to proceed with the review arguing – according to The Independent, 8 August 2012 – that every MP should agree that ‘the House of Commons ought to be smaller, ought to be less expensive and we ought to have seats that are exactly the same size’. (No convincing evidence was ever cited in the long Parliamentary debates over the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act, 2011, to sustain his first two oughts, and of course the legislation does not require exact equality, only that the range of constituency electorates should be no more than 10 per cent of the average – i.e. 7643 voters.)

The Boundary Commissions are currently just over half-way through their review implementing the new rules for redistribution. They have published their initial proposals and undertaken the first stage of the public consultation process. Revised recommendations are expected in October, and after a further period of consultation they are expected to complete their work in mid-2013. Their final recommendations have to be delivered by October 2013 and presented to both Houses for approval. When they are tabled in the House of Commons, Mr Clegg (who was responsible for the Act which created the new situation, though it was steered through by a Conservative Minister, Mark Harper) would have been expected to present the Orders. There is, of course, a precedent for a Cabinet Minister presenting such an Order, only for his whips to ensure it was defeated – James Callaghan in 1969 – although that did not have the potential to bring down a government. Mr Clegg may well pass the task to another, but if he does instruct his MPs, including all Liberal Democrat Ministers, to vote against and assist Labour in defeating the Orders this could lead to the coalition’s demise!

What would happen then is uncertain. Under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, 2011 (another element of the coalition constitutional package) a general election can only be held before the scheduled date of 7 May, 2015, if either:

  1. The House of Commons passes a motion to the effect that ‘There shall be an early Parliamentary general election’, with the number voting for that motion being at least two-thirds of the number of seats in the House (including current vacancies); or
  2. The House of Commons passes a motion ‘That this House has no confidence in her Majesty’s Government’ and a further motion ‘That this House has confidence in her Majesty’s Government’ is not then passed (presumably on another potential government, with a different leader, than that in which no confidence was recently expressed) within fifteen days of the first motion.

If the government falls as a consequence of the vote on the new 600 constituencies, therefore, an immediate general election may follow if the House of Commons so decides. It would be fought in the existing 650 seats.

Of course, if Labour and the Liberal Democrat MPs all voted against the Order, it would not necessarily fail. Together they could muster 312 votes (assuming a Labour win in the forthcoming Corby by-election) to the Conservatives 304. Everything would then depend on the 25 other MPs who normally attend and vote (i.e. excluding Sinn Féin’s five plus the Speaker and three Deputies): nine Scottish and Welsh nationalists, eight from the DUP, three from the SDLP, three from single-member parties (Alliance, Green, Respect) and the two independents. It would be possible, but difficult, for the Conservatives to use ‘sweeteners’ to manufacture a majority of 321 without their coalition partners, if they were determined to get the new constituencies in place for the 2015 election.

And David Cameron has indicated that they will be determined. The legislation was introduced because the Conservatives believe – rightly – that they have been substantially disadvantaged by the operation of the electoral system for two decades. They also believe – wrongly – that the major reason for this is the current inequality in constituency electorates, which substantially favours Labour. That component of the pro-Labour bias is much less than they sometimes claim. Nevertheless, analysis of the Boundary Commissions’ initial recommendations clearly indicates should be the Conservatives will be the major beneficiaries of the first implementation of the new system for redistributions and the reduced number of MPs. In 2010, they gained a lead over Labour of 48 seats. If that election had been fought in the Commissions’ proposed new seats, best estimates suggest that their lead over Labour would have been extended to 68 seats (in a House of only 600 MPs compared to the current 650). With the Liberal Democrats estimated to win only 46 seats (they got 57 in 2010), the Conservatives would have been only two seats short of an overall majority (and with Sinn Féin MPs not voting would in effect have a very small one).

Of course, the Commissions will probably change their recommendations (though not extensively, given the constraints they are working under) after they have considered the representations received: these have included strenuous efforts by each of the parties to alter the proposed boundaries in their electoral favour in many areas, by suggesting alternative configurations that better meet the deployed criteria (community ties, continuity of representation, special geographical considerations etc.) other than electoral equality. Indeed, if all of the Conservatives’ counter-proposals were implemented (which is very unlikely, despite their very professional, painstaking approach to the task) they might expect to have won a further 13 seats than in those constituencies proposed by the Commissions: with Labour losing twelve the gap between the two parties would be 93 seats rather than 68, and the Conservatives would have had a workable majority. (Of course, if the other parties’ counter-proposals were all implemented the situation would not be so rosy: Labour’s would close the gap to only 47 seats, for example.)

The implication is that between now and October 2013 the Conservatives will do much to try and win back Liberal Democrat support for the new constituencies – based on arguments made by Mr Clegg in Parliament in 2011 that the rules used to produce them are much fairer than those previously deployed. Whether that involves a much more limited reform of the House of Lords, along the lines being vigorously promoted by David Steel (an ex-leader of Mr Clegg’s party), or other ‘concessions’ in a renewed coalition agreement remains to be seen. (The Conservatives may also have to convince some of their own MPs that the exercise is worth it. Many were surprised by the extensive fracturing of the constituency maps in the Commissions’ initial proposals – one termed them ‘somewhat more disruptive than we had in mind’ – and although most indicated their support for greater equality, fewer MPs, and more frequent redistributions in their representations to the Commissions, in some cases this was clearly grudging support as they faced the possibility of having to seek re-election from a very different seat to that currently represented.)

At this stage, however unlikely it might be that Mr Clegg carries out his threat (assuming he is still leading his party in a year’s time), it is illuminating to rehearse briefly several other scenarios that might play out.

The first – although very unlikely, because of the loss of face it would involve and the potential use of Parliamentary time – is that the 2011 Act is repealed in autumn 2012. The Boundary Commissions will then terminate the present exercise and the previous legislation will come back into play. This requires them to undertake a review every 8-12 years. The last one was completed in 2007 (2004 in Scotland) and in order to meet that timetable they (especially the English Commission) may deem it necessary to start a review in 2013. It would not report until after the 2015 general election, however, which would have to be fought in the current 650 constituencies with some at least of the pro-Labour biases accentuated in seats that were created using 2000-2001 electoral data. New constituencies would only be in place in time for the 2020 election – but with at least the same number of MPs as now, and perhaps a few more.

One of a second pair of scenarios would eventuate if the Boundary Commissions complete their current task in 2013, but their recommendations are then voted down by Parliament. In that case too, the 2015 election would be held in the current 650 constituencies. Much will then depend on who wins that election. If the Conservatives do, or they are the largest party in a new coalition government, they will presumably retain the current legislation (perhaps with some amendments: they were pressured to retain Public Hearings and may try again to abolish them – like the previous Local Inquiries, they continue to be dominated by the political parties). The Boundary Commissions will, under the 2011 Act, start their next review in 2015-2016, to produce a House of 600 members by October 2018, for use at the 2020 election. The 600 constituencies currently being created would probably form the basis for that exercise, although significant changes in some areas may be needed because of population movements, re-warding by local government boundary commissions, and the impact of Individual Electoral Registration, assuming that legislation passes.

If Labour forms a government in 2015, however, or is the largest party in a coalition, it may well repeal the 2011 legislation, which it vigorously opposed, especially in the long and tedious House of Lords Second Reading debates. The Boundary Commissions would then have to begin a new review based on the rules set out in the Boundary Commissions Act, 1986 (before it was amended by the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Act, 2011). Under those conditions, it is unlikely that that review would be completed in time for new constituencies to be in place for the 2020 general election (particularly in England: it may be completed and its recommendations implemented in the other three countries). In that case an election would be held 2020 in the 650 constituencies based on data some twenty years old, with very substantial electoral inequality (although, given the growing re-population of urban England recently reported, this may not be as much to Labour’s advantage – except in Scotland and Wales – as it has been previously). The new constituencies, based on 2015 electoral data, would then be ten years old when first used in 2025 – exactly the situation the Conservatives sought to avoid with the 2011 legislation.

Half-way through the two decades from 2000, there are already substantial variations in constituency electorates within each country. In December 2011, for example, the average English constituency contained 72,522 voters but three (including the two Wirral seats) had electorates below 60,000 and a further 47 had 60,000-65,000: at the other end of the scale, three (Manchester Central, East Ham and the Isle of Wight) had electorates in excess of 90,000, and another 45 had 85,000-90,000. By 2020, the variation would be much greater. Meanwhile, in over-represented Wales the current average electorate is just 57,465, and four of the 40 constituencies have fewer than 50,000 voters.

Finally, if the Commissions’ recommendations for 600 new constituencies are accepted by Parliament in 2013 and used for the 2015 general election, what happens next remains a matter of conjecture. If Labour wins then it will probably seek to amend the Act, creating new rules (probably with a wider range of acceptable electorate sizes that the 5 per cent maximum variation from the average currently enacted and different guidelines for the conduct of public consultation, and perhaps also with less frequent redistributions than every five years)? If so, the outcome could well be another new set of constituencies considerably different from those used for the 2015 election. If the Conservatives win, they are more likely to retain the current rules – though some at least of their MPs are uneasy about them. At one stage before the 2010 election there was talk of reducing the size of the House of Commons in two tranches – to 585 MPs in 2015 and then 500 in 2020 (a goal supported by some Liberal Democrat MPs). After the problems with the current redistribution that is probably now off their agenda!

*****

If a week is a long time in politics, a year is a geological era and much may happen to change Mr Clegg’s stance – if not that of his Conservative partners – before the Orders based on the Boundary Commissions’ current reviews are placed before Parliament and voted on. But if, for some reason, those new constituencies are not in place in time for the 2015 general election, the result will not only be a larger House of Commons than that legislated for in the coalition government’s early months, but also a very unsatisfactory, ancient, set of unequal constituencies (both across and within each of the UK’s four countries) and all the biases this can introduce to the electoral system’s operation. As seemed possible at times in 2010, Labour could win a majority even though it wasn’t the largest party!

Defeat of Lords reform a blow for Clegg and the Coalition

Nick Clegg’s announcement on 6 August that he is abandoning his bill for an elected second chamber is a serious defeat for the Deputy Prime Minister which also marks a turning point for the coalition.  For the coalition, it underlines a point repeatedly made in our book The Politics of Coalition that we have a coalition government, but not a coalition Parliament.  Conservative and Lib Dem backbenchers have little love for the coalition, and have rebelled in this Parliament with unprecedented frequency.  But because they tend to rebel on different issues, the government’s majority is generally safe.  Generally, but not always, as the 91 Conservative rebels signalled over Lords reform.  Parliament cannot be taken for granted.

Some Conservative MPs will privately be relieved at Nick Clegg’s announcement that the Lib Dems will no longer support the constituency boundary changes, because in the musical chairs involved in shrinking the Commons from 650 to 600 MPs several of them stood to lose their seats.  But publicly this retaliation signals a harsher tone between Clegg and Cameron, an end to the spirit of generosity and give and take which characterised the first two years, and a more narrowly contractual approach to their coalition partnership.  There is even less hope now for ‘Coalition 2.0’, a mid term coalition review announcing renewed plans for the second half of the Parliament.  But the dangers of a narrowly contractual approach are twofold:  first, that the original coalition agreement  will not stand up to that kind of detailed scrutiny, because it was negotiated in such haste after the election; second, that circumstances have moved on since May 2010, particularly in the worsening of the economy.  The coalition partners need to keep ahead of the game, and not continually going back to a document now over two years old.

Lords reform provides a good example.  An elected second chamber is clearly dead, at least in this Parliament, because there is not a majority in either House to support it.  Only a referendum can now overcome the opposition of the parliamentarians; and Clegg should have held a pre-legislative referendum to test the will of the people, as Labour shrewdly did with devolution in 1997.  But that is looking back.  Looking ahead, Clegg need not give up on Lords reform.  As his Liberal predecessor David Steel has repeatedly suggested, there are more modest reforms which could be put in place now. These would cap the size of the House, which is ballooning out of control; allow peers to retire; give the House proper powers to discipline its members; and remove the remaining hereditary peers.  For these incremental reforms there would be a better chance of support in both Houses.  The whole story of Lords reform has been a series of incremental reforms, each building on the last.   It will be a test of Clegg’s leadership whether he is willing to opt for some reforms rather than none.

Unit in the News: Clegg appoints new Spads

Nick Clegg & Robert HazellFollowing recommendations in our report into coalition government, the Deputy Prime Minister has announced new Liberal Democrat advisors will be placed in government departments.

The report, by Prof Robert Hazell and Dr Ben Yong, suggested that the Liberal Democrats have spread themselves too thinly and require additional resources to extend their influence, including more special advisers, expanded Private Offices, and additional support for the parliamentary party.

The report is part of a one-year project into monitoring the new coalition government in the UK sponsored by the Nuffield Foundation.

Media:

Further information:

Clegg comes through for the Conservatives on Constitutional Reform

At a joint Constitution Unit/Institute for Government seminar on 11 July I developed three propositions:

  1. The Conservatives are just as much a party of constitutional reform as the Lib Dems, but this has never been acknowledged, not least by themselves.
  2. Nick Clegg in taking the lead on the whole of the government’s constitutional reform programme has taken responsibility for delivering the Conservatives’ reforms as well as the Lib Dem ones.
  3. At the end of the coalition government, Clegg will have delivered more of the Conservative package of constitutional reforms than his own. In particular, he will have failed on the AV referendum and on Lords reform, the Lib Dems’ two biggest priorities.

For proof that the Conservatives are a party of constitutional reform, see the report which I wrote analysing all the Conservatives’ plans for constitutional change in February 2010. To my surprise it ran to 12 chapters, and can be found here.

For proof that Clegg will have delivered more of the Conservative package than of his own reforms, see the table here. It shows on one page the main constitutional reform items in the coalition’s Programme for Government. It is not comprehensive, but it does capture the more important of the government’s constitutional reforms. And it is inevitably a crude score card, in that it lists all the reforms as if they were equal, when some are clearly more important than others.

Columns 2 and 3 in the table show where a commitment in the Programme for Government came from: in the Conservative manifesto, the Lib Dem manifesto, or both. Further proof of my Proposition 1, that the coalition’s constitutional reform agenda comes just as much from the Conservatives as the Lib Dems, can be found by summing those two columns. Of the 14 items analysed in my table, 10 were in the Conservative manifesto, and 8 in the Lib Dem manifesto

The last two columns record the Conservative and Lib Dem manifesto commitments. Columns 2 and 3 summarise these by two symbols:

● = manifesto commitment fully incorporated into Programme for Government

○ = manifesto commitment only partially incorporated.

Column 4, headed Result, indicates whether the commitment is likely to be delivered or not. This requires some educated guesswork, and not everyone will agree with my forecasts. Those who disagree can insert their own, to see if they come to a different overall conclusion. My own conclusion, summing up my forecasts, is that at the end of this government Nick Clegg will have delivered six of the Conservative commitments for constitutional reform, but only four of his own. As I put it at the end of my chapter for the Institute for Government report on the first year of coalition government, One Year On:

‘He will get little credit from the Conservatives for this, because they do not see themselves as constitutional reformers. So he risks being damned by his own side for his failures, and ignored by the Conservatives for his successes’.

– Professor Robert Hazell

Strange Love: Or, How Conservatives and Lib Dems Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Coalition Government*

We published our interim report on coalition government Inside Story: How Coalition Government Works [1] a couple of weeks ago, and it behooves me to be grateful for the press our interim report, received. Thus: “How David Cameron and Nick Clegg decide policy – by phone”! and “Lib Dems and Tories get on better than Blair and Brown”!

Alas—that is not quite what the report says. What we say is that formal cabinet government has returned; but that coalition issues are mostly dealt with through informal mechanisms, of which the Cameron-Clegg weekly bilaterals are but one mechanism—to be sure, the most important, but not the only one. None of this means policy is ‘decided on the hoof’: just that coalition issues are decided in informal channels. That’s slightly different.

Do Tories and Lib Dems get on better than Blair and Brown? Well, yes and no. Yes, there are strong relationships within the executive. Yes, it is true that Cameron and Clegg, Letwin and Alexander, work well together. And that makes executive government much smoother. But, but… in Parliament, the parties operate as they always have. The relationship between the parties is cordial at best. And it is at the parliamentary level where problems may emerge.

It’s also important to address a couple of criticisms of our report. One: how can we claim that ‘the coalition is working well’ when a good part of the report is devoted to the problems that the Lib Dems are having? Two: it’s too process-based; too structural. These two criticisms merge into each other.

On the coalition working well: the problem is that there are two measurements of ‘success’ are being run together here. One measure is how well the two parties are working together; the other is the ability to implement party policy and/or the ability to project party distinctiveness. I take the point that perhaps we weren’t clear enough on what our measures of coalition ‘success’ were.

On the first measure, it’s worth bearing in mind that prior to May 2010 coalition government in Westminster was thought to be a recipe for unstable, unworkable or inefficient government: that two national political parties could not work together. But at least in the first year, that doesn’t seem to be so: there is no sign of imminent collapse; and decision-making hasn’t slowed down at all. That is what we meant by ‘working well’. (Yes, now there are the NHS reforms, but is this a coalition issue? There are differing schools: one school pointing to a Lib Dem response following the failure of the AV referendum; the other school suggesting a U-turn from the Conservatives themselves because of a fear of ‘retoxifying’ the Conservative party. And anyway, it’s not clear that this is a systemic problem—yet).

On success in implementing policy—how can we talk of success if the Lib Dems are doing so poorly? And are we not being myopic for simply looking at process over policy? We did say this was not a review of policy. And it seemed to us that there had already been plenty of discussion in the media about the Lib Dems’ failure to have a noticeable impact in government in terms of policy implementation, but very little discussion of some of the very substantial structural problems the Lib Dems have. We thought it worth stressing that the Lib Dems made some crucial choices at the formation of the coalition which continue to hamper their ability to push their policies within government—losing short money, accepting the cap on special advisers, and most of all going for breadth over depth in terms of the allocation of Lib Dem ministers.

But anyway—as I said at the beginning, I’m grateful for the comments and criticisms. We will try to address some of these issues in the next report.

*Next week’s post: Tainted Love: Or, “It’s not you, it’s me”

[1] Thank you to all the interns who have worked on the coalition government project so far. Thanks to Ruchi Parekh (aka: Ms Doubtful), Jessica Carter, Ian Jordan, Alex Jacobson, Patrick Graham, Andreas Kutz and Chris Appleby. Props to y’all—except maybe you, Ian!

Coalition Works! The Independent View

Article from Liberal Democrat Voice

The coalition is working well, but the Lib Dems could do better, is the overall message from the Constitution Unit’s first report on how the coalition works in Whitehall and Westminster. We are conducting a 12 month study, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, with a research team of five, including two former senior civil servants, and one senior broadcaster. David Cameron and Nick Clegg have authorised access to all the key figures in Whitehall, and so far we have interviewed 90 ministers, special advisers, officials, parliamentarians, and external interest groups.

Everyone we interviewed in Whitehall says how much more harmonious the coalition is compared with the rivalries and infighting of the Blair/Brown years. After widespread fears that coalition government would be weak, quarrelsome and divided, in the first year the coalition has proved remarkably stable and united. Cabinet government has been revived; but coalition issues are mainly resolved in informal forums, with weekly meetings between Clegg and Cameron, and regular get togethers between Danny Alexander and Oliver Letwin. The mutual trust and close working relations developed not just between Clegg and Cameron, but amongst all their top advisers, should help the government as it faces tougher times ahead.

And how could the Lib Dems do better? Read the full article at:

http://www.libdemvoice.org/the-independent-view-coalition-works-the-inside-story-from-the-constitution-unit-24357.html

The Inside Story: How Coalition Government Works–A Summary

The Coalition in Whitehall

  • Finding a balance between unity and distinctiveness is the key problem for coalition government. The current coalition has successfully ensured unity, and stability; but struggles to allow the two parties to express their distinctiveness.
  • Formal cabinet government has been revived: Cabinet and cabinet committees now meet regularly, but these are mostly forums for dealing with interdepartmental issues rather than specifically coalition issues.
  • The main forums for reaching agreement between coalition partners are informal. Coalition issues are often dealt with before they reach the formal machinery of government.
  • This informality of coalition decision making is based on high levels of trust between the leadership of the two parties. Trust, and the importance of compatible personalities, are essential for coalition government.
  • However, this informality has one drawback: it means that the Lib Dems are often unable to demonstrate their influence in government.
  • Some machinery has surprisingly not been effective in coalition brokerage—in particular, the Deputy Prime Minister’s Office, special advisers, and Liberal Democrat junior ministers.

The Coalition in Westminster

  • Flexibility within the executive is not always matched by flexibility in parliament. Compromise hammered out in government has led to excessive rigidity when policies are introduced into Parliament.
  • The informality and relatively close relationships in the executive are not matched by similar relationships within Parliament. In both houses, the coalition is tolerated rather than embraced.
  • Coalition governments often lead to a divide between the frontbench and backbench. Rebellions in this parliament are historically at record highs.
  • The parliamentary parties have begun to modify their backbench committees to prevent the divide between frontbench and backbench widening.

The Dilemmas for the Junior Partner

  • The Lib Dems are still reeling from the loss of their state funding, given only to opposition parties. This has led to the loss of many of their staff. It may help explain their under powered performance, particularly with the media.
  • By going for breadth over depth, the Lib Dems have spread themselves too thinly. They need to prioritise. Given the numbers they have, what can they realistically do which will have an impact with the public?
  • In a future coalition, the junior partner might seek to specify the support to be made available to them, in terms of special advisers, expanded Private Offices, and additional support for the parliamentary party.