Britain (for once) blazing a trail on political reform

With the British media all dewy-eyed over yesterday’s Rose Garden love fest, some of the more interesting details in the Conservative/LibDem coalition agreement have slipped by largely unnoticed, particularly those relating to electoral and political reform (summarized in an earlier posting on this site) – one or two of which are worth considering here.

The one reform that has received attention, of course, is the proposal to call a referendum on electoral reform with the voters been offered a choice between the existing single member plurality (or ‘first past the post’) system and the alternative vote (AV) – the system used for electing the Irish president and also used in Australia for electing their parliament. Whether this referendum will pass is a moot point: there are many in the ranks (and, indeed, leadership groups) of the Conservatives and Labour who are opposed to any form of electoral reform. For that matter, there are many supporters of electoral reform who will be upset about the missed opportunity that this represents. As discussed in previous postings, AV is not a proportional system, so it will do very little to address the inherent inequities of British electoral politics that results in smaller parties struggling to win seats in the British parliament. What AV would do (if passed) is change the strategic dynamic in British election campaigns, encouraging parties to work closer together to attract vote transfers from other parties, thus helping to foster a spirit of cooperation and accommodation in British politics.

Electoral reform was one of the unfinished matters of the supposed Blairite ‘revolution’; another unfinished matter was replacing the outmoded hereditary principle that determines membership of Britain’s upper house of parliament – the House of Lords. The Conservative/LibDem coalition have committed themselves to replacing the House of Lords with a new directly elected chamber, to be elected using a proportional representation electoral system (probably regional list – the system Britain currently uses to elect MEPs). They’ve yet to determine whether this will be a fully or partially elected chamber (clearly we can only hope it is the former), but in any event this reform has the potential of a profound impact on British national politics in at least two respects: (1) the PR system will ensure that smaller parties win seats in the new upper chamber and thus have a representative voice in British politics; (2) the directly elected members can claim greater legitimacy by virtue of the fact of being elected, thus raising the prospect of the upper chamber muscling in a greater role for itself in British representative politics and threatening the ascendancy of the House of Commons.

There are other political reform proposals that are obvious, but no less significant for that, such as better regulation of party finance, and of lobbyists. In the mix are two proposals that might be worth considering for our political system too. First, the Conservative/LibDem coalition has committed itself to introducing early legislation for a fixed-term parliament, ending the powerful weapon in the armory of the British prime minister who decides on when the election should be called. The coalition government needs this change to reinforce its expressed desire to serve out a full-term. Their proposal will be that an early election can only be called by a super-majority of 55% of MPs. As we saw over the past long number of months in British politics, the uncertainty over when the election is to be called can be corrosive, adding to doubts over future policy directions. There are pros and cons to fixed-term parliaments, of course – an obvious one being that it would make it even more difficult to force an election to unseat a deeply unpopular government (ahem!); but that aside, there are merits to this that are worth considering.

The other interesting reform proposal that might also be worth considering here is ‘voter recall’: the right for voters in a constituency to petition to force a by-election to try and unseat an MP who is ‘found to have engaged in serious wrong doing’. Voter recall is used in a number of states in the USA; the most colourful recent example being the unseating of ultra-grey Gray Davis as governor of California and his replacement by Arnold Schwarzenegger. Given recent cases of political corruption in Ireland, perhaps this is an electoral device we might like here too?

6 thoughts on “Britain (for once) blazing a trail on political reform

  1. Having broken with the habit of a lifetime on 6 May and voted for the Lib Dems (aka, the Really Useless Party) in an attempt to unseat a corpulent Tory incumbent with Churchillian pedigree, I think the appearances of political reform in Britain may be deceptive.

    All of the major parties are coalitions of factions that are glued together by the prospect of gaining or retaining the power of executive dominance over parliament and the people. At the very least, the Tories comprise hard right, Europhobic, Little Englander and more pragmatic, One Nation factions. Labour may be divided into social democratic and collectivist wings. The LDs comprise some residual historical liberalism and an amalgam of Tory One Nationism and Labour’s social democracy. The top level of the LDs that is now in government is entirely comfortable with Cameron’s new brand of Tory One Nationism – and probably would have migrated in this direction sooner had the Tories not veered sharply rightward between 1997 and 2005. Indeed, the presence of the LDs provides Cameron with numerical protection from revolts by the Tory backwoodsmen.

    No serious political reform may be contemplated until these Tory and Labour behemoths are forced to split into their component parts and to reflect the plurality of political opinion in Britain. Smaller parties will have an incentive to agree and implement a more proportional system of voting. And this will only be the first step to reassert the primacy of parliament.

    The fixed 5 year parliament and the increase from 50 to 55 per cent of the confidence bar is purely a political calculation. Most Brits are braced for some economic pain and the calculation is that, by securing the government’s existence and by getting this pain out of the way early, Britain will have reached the sunlit uplands by the time of the next election.

    The rather tepid reforms proposed by the Wright Committee will not begin to be implemented until year three of parliament and the other proposed reforms (HoL election and recall of MPs) are merely window-dressing.

    Executive dominance reigns supreme and will continue to do so until enough voters demand more effective representation and more effective parliamentary scrutiny and control of government.

  2. Cameron has also indicated his intention not to reshuffle ministers every 18 months. This was a serious problem in the UK as a minister barely got to grips with the brief before being moved.

    Also the fact that Nick Clegg is in charge of the political reform agenda should mean that it will be given some priority.

  3. @Paul
    Does “Tory One Nationism” = English nationalism, given the constituencies represented by both the Tories and Lib Dems elected to Parliament?

    I presume we are seeing a continuation of the habit of arbitrary power by the executive when it seems that a referendum is
    1) needed to change the elctoral system;
    2) not needed for fixed term parliaments?

  4. @Donal,

    Tory One Nationism has a long and chequered pedigree originating in Disraeli’s efforts to extend Tory popular support beyond the privileged, wealthy and landed in response to the progressive expansion of the franchise during the 19th century. It was a genuinely British phenomenon and it is only in the last half century that Tory support in Scotand and Wales declined – greatly accelerated by the policies pursued by Margaret Thatcher. In my view Cameron presents the latest manifestation of Tory One Nationism and I believe he will attempt to resist the seemingly inexorable electoral and, within his party, reflexive pressure to become a Little Englander party.

    But this is a peculiarly British/English matter.

    I agree with your observations on the exercise of arbitrary executive power. Fixing the term of parliament and raising the bar for confidence motions embeds and extends the duration of executive dominance. Even though this will be whipped easily through the Commons, I expect the Lords will throw it out as it was not in the manifestoes of both parties.

    The big tribal parties seem to fear electoral reform – particularly any reform that would enhance the proportionality of parliamentary representation. Experience in Ireland would seem to suggest they may have little to fear. Ireland has, perhaps, the most proportional voting system of any EU parliamentary democracy, but we still have two catch-all parties straddling the centre. Since these, by definition, are coalitions of factions, one would expect, with a proportional voting system – and, unlike Germany, no threshold to be crossed to secure seats in parliament, the emergence of parties repreesenting the plurality of political opinion. The PDs didn’t last very long and, if I were a tree-hugger, I’d worry about the longevity of the Greens.

    It is an interesting question for the political scientists. Given the plurality of political opinion in the electorate, do proportional voting systems encourage the emergence of smaller parties? Why, in general, has it not happened in Ireland? And would it happen in Britain?

    Despite this, I’m still more concerned about how parliaments may be empowered and resourced to counter executive dominance – which is the root cause of the economic crises in the PIIGS.

  5. Actually, Paul, Ireland has one of the least proportional electoral systems in Europe. The main determinants of proportionality of a system are: the numbers of seats in the constituencies; the number of seats in parliament; and the electoral formula deployed to translate votes into seats. Only on the latter do we score well: the STV-droop quota is seen as reasonably proportional in its outcome. Because of our small population size our Dail membership is inevitably small: there’s nothing we can do about that. The one thing that we could fix is the average number of TDs per constituency. The rule of thumb for a reasonably proportional result is an average of about 5 TDs. I don’t have the current figures to hand, but with so many 3- and 4-seater constituencies, clearly we fall below that. This is easily fixable if we wanted to improve proportionality as there is nothing in the Constitution to stop us increasing average constituency size. But to answer your main question: the principal reason why Ireland has relatively few parties is because our electoral system is not terribly proportional.

  6. Many thanks, David, for taking the time to respond to my query. I stand corrected about the relative proportionality of the outcome of Ireland’s voting system. Perhaps, in the context of this thread, I should have stayed with Britain and Ireland as debate on this topic in Britain often refers to the Irish experience. And much of the debate just looks at the possible outcome of alternatives (AV, AV+, multi-seat PR) to FPTP for the current number of MPs.

    That said, I must confess I remain a little sceptical that a lack of proportionalty is the principal deterrent to the formation of new parties in Ireland. I agree this may deter the formation of parties from scratch, but most new parties emerge from a split within an existing party. Was it Brendan Behan who said: the first item on the agenda of any Irish organisation is the split?

    I suspect the prospect of acquiring and/or retaining virtually untramelled executive power keeps different factions glued together under a convenient party banner. This may prove more of a deterrent than any speculation about the proportionality of a future election result. I also suspect that, were the powers and resources of parliament to be enhanced relative to those of the executive, the factional glue might lose some of its adhesive properties.

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