The origins of the Cabinet Office Constitution Unit (1974–79): documenting the pitfalls of constitutional reform

In 1974, the Cabinet Office established a ‘Constitution Unitfollowing a difficult birthing process, which operated until the election of the Thatcher government in 1979. It was this Unit that inspired our own founding Director, Robert Hazell, when naming the newly-formed Constitution Unit 25 years ago. As part of this latter Unit’s 25th anniversary, Joseph Ward examines its earlier namesake, its founding and work, and what lessons we can learn from its role within government.

The 1970s was a decade marked by rising distrust in Britain’s political institutions. Intransigent governing problems, from inflation to nascent nationalism, fuelled a narrative that Britain was in crisis. Commentators in both academia and the press talked of a crisis of ‘governability’, with the state seemingly unable to keep pace with the demands placed on it by the public. 

In response to these trends, the Wilson government(s) of 1964–70 and 1974–76 instigated a series of constitutional reform measures. After creating the Kilbrandon Commission on the Constitution in 1969, Wilson sought to revisit the findings of the inquiry once returned to government in 1974, creating a bespoke Constitution Unit within the Cabinet Office to implement proposals for devolution to Scotland and Wales in particular. This ‘Constitution Unit’ was the conscious inspiration for the name adopted by UCL’s Constitution Unit when it was founded by Professor Robert Hazell in 1995, and which is currently celebrating its 25th anniversary

This blog post examines a selection of the Constitution Unit records held at the National Archives to document how the unit came about and to consider the struggles within the state over its remit. The political turbulence of that period, especially after James Callaghan succeeded Harold Wilson in 1976, presented the Unit with many challenges, as did the magnitude of its task. The post concludes with some reflections on the origins of the Unit to consider any lessons it might hold for constitutional reform in the contemporary context.

Foundations: The Kilbrandon Commission on the Constitution

In response to significant by-election wins for Plaid Cymru and the Scottish Nationalists in the late 1960s, Harold Wilson set up a Royal Commission on the Constitution in 1969, tasked with examination of ‘the present functions of the central legislature and government in relation to the several countries, nations and regions of the United Kingdom’ (Cmnd. 5460: 32). Its course was characterised by turbulence and disagreement: the commission took 4.5 years to report, more than one member resigned before it completed its work and the initial Chairman, Lord Crowther, died in 1972 midway through the inquiry. 

Continue reading

Why we need an independent Electoral Commission

The UK’s guardian of public ethics is reviewing the role of the Electoral Commission in regulating election finance. The evidence submitted to the inquiry shows wide support for maintaining, and in some ways enhancing, the Commission’s functions. But the regulator’s position is also challenged from some quarters, and the House of Commons Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee is currently conducting its own enquiry. Alan Renwick and Charlotte Kincaid argue that the debate raises important wider questions about the place of checks and balances in our system of democratic governance.

The Committee on Standards in Public Life – the body charged with monitoring ethical standards in public life in the UK – is conducting a review of electoral regulation. The terms of reference focus largely on the role of the Electoral Commission in regulating election finance. The first stage was a public call for evidence, and the responses were published last month. 

Grabbing some media headlines was a suggestion in the response from the Conservative Party that the Electoral Commission might be abolished, with its core functions transferred to other bodies. This was not the only option put forward in the submission. Indeed, the central proposal appeared rather to be that the Commission should continue to operate, but with a more restrictively defined remit. Nevertheless, the general tenor was striking. The submission said: ‘The Electoral Commission consistently lobbies for itself to be given more powers – this is not an argument for doing so. Rather, this is public choice theory in action: quangos seeking to expand their remit for their own sake.’

Following the same logic, however, that is a political party seeking to abolish or curtail the remit of the regulator of political parties. If the argument from public choice theory has any force against the Electoral Commission, it has the same force against the Conservative Party. Both the Commission and the Conservatives have interests at stake here. But both also have a wealth of relevant experience. Their arguments should be judged on their merits, with an eye to the possibility that they may be skewed by the organisations’ particular interests.

Continue reading

The next steps for reforming the Senedd

In September, the Committee on Senedd Electoral Reform published a report that recommended a wide range of reforms to the Welsh Parliament’s arrangements, including increasing the number of Members of the Senedd, adopting a new electoral system, and implementing measures to improve diversity. In this post, Michela Palese summarises the key recommendations and reflects on the likely next steps.

Reform of Wales’s legislature has been on the political agenda for many years. Earlier this year, the first phase of reform led to the extension of the franchise to 16- and 17-year olds; to changing the name of the Welsh Assembly to the Welsh Parliament/Senedd Cymru and of its members to Members of the Senedd (MS); and to changes around electoral administration. These reforms were part of the Senedd and Elections (Wales) Act 2020, which became law on 15 January.

Another area of reform, which has yet to be taken forward, is the size of the legislature itself. Constitutional developments in Wales, particularly following the Wales Act 2017, have meant that the Welsh legislature has acquired new, primary law-making powers, including in relation to its size and electoral arrangements, and is now recognised as permanent within the UK’s constitutional settlement, alongside the Welsh government. The 2017 Act also moved Wales from a conferred powers model of devolution (an anomaly in the UK’s set-up) to a reserved matters model similar to that of Scotland, as recommended by the Unit in 2016

These significant new legislative powers have not been matched, however, by an increase in the number of members of the legislature (hereafter, MSs or Members of the Senedd, though note their name was Assembly Members/AMs until May 2020), which have remained at 60. 

There has been much, long-standing debate around this issue – it is broadly accepted that 60 MSs are insufficient to carry out the important legislative and scrutiny work of a fully-fledged parliament, with its own committee system, particularly if one considers that 14 MSs (around 23% of the total) are part of the executive.

Continue reading

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

Enacting the manifesto? Labour’s pledges and the reality of a hung parliament

professor_hazell_2000x2500_1.jpgmeg_russell_2000x2500.jpgMedia coverage in this election has been dominated by the Conservatives and Labour, and their competing policy plans. But a key difference between the parties is that, while a Conservative majority government is clearly possible based on the polls, a Labour majority government is not. Hence a Labour-led government would need to negotiate its policy with other parties, which would soften its stance. Robert Hazell and Meg Russell reflect on the lack of coverage of these questions, and what a Labour-led government would actually look like – in terms of personalities, policies and style.

Consistent opinion poll evidence during the general election campaign suggests that there are two possible outcomes: a majority Conservative government led by Boris Johnson, or a hung parliament. In the event of the latter, Johnson might still remain Prime Minister, but he has few allies – even having alienated Northern Ireland’s DUP. So a hung parliament might well result in a government led by Labour, even if the Conservatives are the largest party. But one thing is clear: nobody is really expecting a Labour majority government. 

Consequently, particularly as the polls have failed to shift into majority Labour government territory during the campaign, it is strange that so little attention has been given to the question of what a Labour-led government might actually deliver in policy terms. To navigate policy through a hung parliament this would need to be accepted by other parties. In some areas – notably the commitment to a referendum on Brexit – the parties agree; but in other areas there may be less agreement. So whilst significant attention has been paid to the radicalism of Labour’s manifesto, a hung parliament – which might lead to a minority Labour government, or less likely (given statements from the Liberal Democrats and SNP) a formal coalition – would inevitably result in some dilution. As noted in the Constitution Unit’s 2009 report on minority government, hung parliaments ‘[entail] a greater degree of compromise and concession than leaders of governments at Westminster are used to’.

Thus focus on Labour’s economic policy – such as its tax or nationalisation plans – might usefully have been tempered by journalists asking questions of the other parties about the extent to which they would accept such plans, or how they might be softened as a result of negotiation. In a country where hung parliaments are more frequent, debate about the likely compromises between parties would be far more upfront during the campaign. Instead, the UK’s legacy of single-party majority government (notwithstanding the fact that this situation has applied for just two of the last nine years) has led to parties and journalists alike avoiding such questions. This, in turn, risks leaving the public ill-informed about the real prospects post-election. Continue reading

Ten things you need to know about a hung parliament

professor_hazell_2000x2500_1.jpgimage1.000.jpg.pngWe know there will be an election on 12 December, but the outcome, in terms of parliamentary seats and who will form the next government, remains uncertain. Robert Hazell and Harrison Shaylor answer some of the key questions about what happens if the election creates another hung parliament.

With an increasingly volatile electorate, and uncertain forecasts in the polls, it is possible the 2019 election will result in another hung parliament. Although bookmakers currently have a Conservative majority as comfortably the most likely election result, and the Conservatives are currently polling around 11 points ahead of Labour, a hung parliament is by no means out of the question. It would be the third hung parliament in four general elections. This explains what lessons can be learned from our previous experience of hung parliaments at Westminster and around the world. It addresses questions such as how a new government is formed, how long formation of that government will take, what kinds of government might emerge, and what the most likely outcomes are.

How common are hung parliaments in other countries?

In most democracies across the world, single party majority governments are the exception. Whereas the ‘first-past-the-post’ (FPTP) voting system used in the UK has had the tendency to encourage adversarial two-party politics and majority government, this is far from a default setting. Proportional representation tends almost always to produce coalitions: many countries in Europe currently have a coalition government.

Recent years have shown that, even in countries using FPTP, hung parliaments can occur quite frequently. In Canada, whose parliament uses the same electoral system as Westminster, there were 10 minority governments in the 20th century. There have already been four since 2000, including the incumbent minority government led by Justin Trudeau, formed after the Liberals lost their majority in the October 2019 federal election.

What is the experience of hung parliaments at Westminster?

Screenshot_20191126-180614_Word

Westminster has more experience of hung parliaments than is generally recognised. There were 20 governments in Westminster in the 20th century: four were coalitions, and six were minority governments. But single party majority governments dominated after the Second World War. The 2010 coalition government was the first since 1945 and the product of the first hung parliament in 36 years. Since 2010, however, two out of three general elections have produced hung parliaments (and the fact that David Cameron’s Conservatives succeeded in obtaining an absolute majority in 2015 was a surprise). Continue reading

Deal or no deal, the UK government needs a new strategy for the Union

_MIK4650.cropped.114x133Almost seven months after the EU and UK agreed to extend the Article 50 process, a new Brexit deal has been agreed. Akash Paun argues that whether the new deal passes parliament or not, the Brexit process so far has demonstrated that the UK government needs to change its strategy for maintaining the cohesion of the Union.

In his first public statement as prime minister, Boris Johnson made two constitutional pledges that stand in tension with one another. On the one hand, he promised to strengthen the UK, which he described as ‘the awesome foursome that are incarnated in that red, white and blue flag, who together are so much more than the sum of their parts.’ But in the same speech, he reiterated his determination to take the UK out of the EU by 31 October ‘no ifs, no buts’ and, if necessary, no deal. Brexit has already strained relations between the UK and devolved governments. A no deal departure would make matters even worse, and would run directly counter to the PM’s ambitions to strengthen the Union.

The Scottish and Welsh governments strongly oppose leaving the EU without a deal. In a joint letter to the prime minister in July, the Scottish and Welsh first ministers argued that ‘it would be unconscionable for a UK government to contemplate a chaotic no deal exit and we urge you to reject this possibility clearly and unambiguously as soon as possible.’ The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly have also explicitly voted against no deal. Continue reading

Taking stock: what have we learned from the European elections?

alan.jfif (1)

Last week, voters across the UK (and indeed, across the European Union) took part in the European Parliament elections. Now that we know the outcome, Alan Renwick examines the impact on the results of both the rules that governed the election and the strategies of the parties.

The European elections raised important questions about how the voting system – and parties’ and voters’ reactions to it – might influence the results. Would the imperfect proportionality of the system harm the smaller parties? Should those parties – particularly the three Britain-wide anti-Brexit parties – have formed an alliance? Could voters maximise the impact of their ballots through tactical voting? Now that the results are in, it is time to take stock.

The impact of the rules

As I set out in an earlier post, European Parliament elections in Great Britain use a list-based system of proportional representation (while those in Northern Ireland use Single Transferable vote, or STV). This system is proportional, but not very. The D’Hondt formula for allocating seats favours larger parties. So does the fact that the number of seats available in each region (ranging from three in the North East of England to ten in the South East) is fairly low.

The results would certainly have been different had the elections been held using First Past the Post, as was the case for European elections in Great Britain before 1999. This system, still used for Westminster elections, awards a seat to the largest party in each constituency. Had voters cast the same votes as they did on Thursday, the Brexit Party would under First Past the Post have won almost every seat in England and Wales outside London and the Home Counties; the Liberal Democrats and Labour would have dominated in London and parts of its environs; the SNP would have captured every seat in Scotland; and the Conservatives would have been wiped out. In fact, many voters would not have cast the same votes as they did. For example, the anti-Brexit parties could probably have agreed joint candidates much more easily than under the actual system, helping them to secure some extra seats. But the Brexit Party would very likely still have scooped up most seats on less than a third of the vote. Continue reading

The European Parliament elections: seven things you need to know

alan.jfif (1)

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