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?

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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

Rethinking Democracy: three routes to majority government

albert_weale (1)After 65 years of single-party government in the House of Commons, the last three general elections have led to three differently constituted governments: a two-party coalition, a Conservative majority government and a Conservative minority government reliant on a confidence and supply agreement for its parliamentary majority. Albert Weale argues that if a rethinking of British democracy is required, that we must start from first principles and consider how to create ways of institutionalising political negotiation among different groups in a way that embraces an incentive towards encompassing different interests and opinions.

A UK trio

2010 – 2015 – 2017. Three elections; three results; three parliaments varying in their party balance: three types of government. Three types of majority rule.

2010 produced a hung parliament with no one party holding an overall majority of seats in the Commons, leading to a Conservative-Liberal Democrat government, the first UK government formed by a coalition of more than one party since 1945. In 2015 the UK reverted to its familiar type with one party holding a majority of parliamentary seats, and with the Conservatives able to form a single-party government. 2017 produced another hung parliament and the government exhibited yet another form: a minority government dependent on a small party, the Democratic Unionists, for confidence and supply, but without the assurance that it could carry the whole of its programme during its term of office.

These three examples illustrate the different ways in which the principle of majority rule can be interpreted. 2015 exhibits the typical pattern of government formation in the UK: one party gains a majority of seats in parliament on less than a majority of votes in the election, with the Conservatives holding just over 50% of the seats on the basis of 37% of the popular vote. On this view of majority rule, it means government by the party that can secure a majority of seats in the legislature whether or not it has secured a majority of votes in the country. No UK governing government since 1935 has secured more than a plurality of the popular vote. Continue reading

The European Parliament elections: seven things you need to know

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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

On restoring responsible political parties

picture.52.1535547351DtrC8R1XQAIIktGAs calls for another Brexit referendum grow ever louder, Frances McCall Rosenbluth and Ian Shapiro discuss their new book, Responsible Parties: Saving Democracy from Itself, in which they argue that attempts to decentralise political decision-making in the US and UK have made governments and political parties less effective and damaged their ability to address constituents’ long-term interests. 

Since the 1960s, powerful movements across the democratic world have sought to bring politics closer to the people. Party members more often elect their leaders directly. There has been greater use of referendums and plebiscites. Many political parties have adopted decentralised ways of choosing candidates. Boundaries have been redrawn to create ‘majority-minority districts’ – in which the majority of the constituents in the district are non-white – and thus ensure selection of racial and ethnic minorities. In many (especially newer) democracies, proportional representation (PR) is favoured as more inclusive of non-majority voters. Unlike single member district systems, which generate two big catch-all parties, parties proliferate under PR; minority groups can all vote for parties they expect to fight for them in the legislature. These changes are touted as democratic enhancements that move decisions closer to the people and elect politicians who are less remote from – and more responsive to – the voters.  

Paradoxically, however, this decentralisation has been accompanied by dramatic increases in voter alienation. Poll after poll reflects historic lows of citizen trust in politicians, parties and institutions, dramatically underscored in 2016 by the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s populist stampede to the US presidency. Similar patterns prevail in many democracies, where anti-establishment parties and candidates enjoy unprecedented support from voters. They reject government recommendations in referendums and plebiscites, and elect anti-establishment figures who would not have been taken seriously half a generation ago. Incumbency, which used to be a decisive advantage, seems increasingly to be a liability as ‘tossing the bums out’ shortens political half-lives at every turn. Angry voters flail at their own impotence, waging semi-permanent war on their representatives. Continue reading

Choosing a voting method for British Columbia: the case for a Mixed Member Proportional system

jq finalIn the second of two posts on the voting reform referendum in British Columbia, Jameson Quinn argues that the province’s electorate should support a move to some form of proportional representation. Specifically, he argues that the version known as Mixed Member Proportional is best for both the province itself and representative democracy as a whole. 

This is the second of two posts on the upcoming British Columbia (BC) referendum on proportional representation (which I’ll call ‘pro-rep’, because ‘PR’ has too many other meanings). In the first post, I discussed the context and rules of the referendum itself. In this one, I’m going to discuss the options available, in the context of theories of voting and democracy. I’ll also look at some of the arguments being used in this campaign.

Before I start, I should lay my cards on the table. I am unabashedly in favour of voting reform. For over 20 years, I’ve felt that choose-one voting, as used in most English speaking countries, is a badly-flawed form of democracy. Also known as FPTP, for ‘first past the post’, choose-one almost inevitably leads to spoiled elections, dishonest strategic voting, or both. My support of voting reform is what led me to join the board of the Center for Election Science, a non-profit that advocates for better voting systems.

As my previous post mentioned, I was one of the primary organisers of the BC Symposium on Proportional Representation. Though many of the experts and activists attending that symposium were, like me, advocates for reform, the symposium itself remained neutral on whether changing to pro-rep was a good idea. Our role was to impartially lay out the evidence regarding the relative advantages and disadvantages of various options.

The functions of representative democracy

In order to argue that pro-rep is a better option for BC, I’m going to be explicit about what I mean by ‘better’; that is, what representative democracy is for. I believe that representative democracy serves three basic functions:

  1. Provides a format for regular, orderly, non-violent transitions of power. If you’re dissatisfied with the current government, you don’t have to pick up a gun; if you’re currently in power, you avoid excessive corruption, because you know the next government would investigate. Any voting method can fulfill this function, as long as it’s seen as legitimate; so I won’t discuss this further.
  2. Helps make relatively good decisions. Diverse groups in society get to have input, and all in all the wisdom of these diverse points of view can, at least sometimes, add up to more than the sum of its parts. We all know that democratic decisions can still sometimes be terrible, but as far as I can tell, any other government structure is more often worse.
  3. Is relatively efficient at making decisions. Unlike direct democracy, where everybody has to weigh in on every argument, representative democracy keeps that task to a relatively small group of professionals. Ideally, the voting method should make voters’ task easy, while choosing representatives who are both well-qualified for their jobs and reflective of the community from which they are elected.

Any well-designed pro-rep method—which all three of the options on the BC referendum are or could be—is clearly superior to the current choose-one method on the latter two points: each would give outcomes that are more representative without being more divisive (point 2), all the while remaining comparably simple for voters (point 3). Continue reading

Choosing a new voting method for British Columbia: the 2018 referendum and the choices on offer

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As British Columbia prepares for a referendum on the voting method for provincial elections, Jameson Quinn (in the first of two posts on the subject) discusses the historical background to the vote, analyses the options on the ballot, and sets out the rules the campaigns will have to follow. 

From October 22nd to November 30th, British Columbia (BC) will be carrying out a vote-by-mail referendum on changing the voting method for provincial elections from choose-one (aka First Past the Post, or FPTP) to some form of proportional representation (which I’ll abbreviate as pro-rep, since the initialism PR has too many other meanings to work well in the age of Google).

In this post, I’ll discuss the context and structure of this referendum, from a largely neutral point of view. I’ll save opinionated advocacy for a separate follow-up post.

This will be the third time the province votes on such a change. The first of BC’s voting reform referendums traces its roots back to the 1996 provincial election. Then, the NDP (center-left New Democratic Party) got 52% of seats despite having 39% of votes, less than the Liberals’ 42% (the province’s rightmost major party). This ‘wrong winner’ election (the province’s first since 1954) motivated Liberals to put voting reform (without specifics) on their platform. Continue reading

How Italy experienced (yet another) electoral system and why it may soon change it again

download.000lp (1)ap (1)This year saw the Italian electorate vote under a new electoral system for the first time. However, this is the fourth time in 25 years that legislative reform has been passed by the Italian parliament. Gianfranco Baldini, Andrea Pedrazzani and Luca Pinto discuss how the new law came about and analyse how it operated in practice. 

On 4 March 2018, Italy went to the polls using the fourth new electoral law (the Rosato law) approved since 1993, when Italy created a mixed-member majoritarian system selecting 75% of MPs in single-member constituencies, and the remaining 25% via proportional representation. The Mattarella Law, named after Sergio Mattarella, who now serves as President of the Republic, helped to bring about a bi-polarization of the party system along two main centre-right and centre-left coalitions. This year, no coalition or party obtained an absolute majority of seats in parliament. More than two months has passed since the vote and no government has yet been formed. If and when one emerges, a possible consensus could rise on a new electoral law, before calling fresh elections to break the deadlock.

Matthew Shugart has assessed the first effects of the new electoral law and here we analyse the main reasons behind this continuous change of provisions, some of the effects with regard to party system fragmentation, and two controversial aspects of the Rosato law, namely the provision for multiple candidacies and gender parity.

Why so many reforms?

The record number of electoral reforms over the last quarter of a century is due both to partisan reasons and to some Italian peculiarities. Among the latter, two (intertwined) factors stand out: the uncertain path of institutional reforms over the same period and the lack of institutionalisation of the party system that emerged after the 1994 election. Continue reading