Reforming the constitution: process matters

Andrew Blick

Policies impacting significantly on the UK constitution were central to the programme underpinning the formation of the Conservative/Liberal Democrat Coalition in May 2010. They include fixed-term parliaments; a reduction in the number of MPs combined with an equalisation in the population size of parliamentary constituencies; a referendum on AV; and a requirement for referendums on ‘transfers of powers’ from the UK to the European Union. Because of the centrality of these reforms to the coalition agreement reached between the two parties it was deemed politically necessary that they be implemented swiftly and altered as little as possible by outside influences or institutions. Continue reading

The EU Bill is flawed, but could it open up other options for democratic reform?

Guest author: Dr Mike Gordon, University of Liverpool

Referendums have become an increasingly important part of the process of constitutional change in the UK.  In a constitution historically unreceptive to such devices, referendums have been used to gauge the public’s appetite for continuing membership of the EEC, devolution, changes to the structure of regional and local government, and now, electoral reform.

The European Union Bill presently before Parliament purports to use referendums in a different way.  If enacted, the EU Bill would make referendums a necessary part of the future legislative process for the authorisation of further transfers of power or competence from the UK to the EU.  A referendum would not be required in relation to every prospective transfer, but the breadth of situations in which recourse to the electorate would be necessary is striking, ranging from a decision to adopt the euro, to an attempt to remove the UK’s veto in an array of specified areas. Continue reading

Talking sense on Lords reform: why the PSA’s new Briefing fills a crucial gap

Stuart Wilks-Heeg

On 19 May 2010, just weeks after the General Election, the new Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, promised that the incoming coalition government would preside over ‘a wholesale, big bang approach to political reform’, amounting to ‘the biggest shake up of our democracy since 1832’. It scarcely needs pointing out that, following the decisive ‘no’ vote in the AV referendum, the bang very quickly became a whimper, and that the DPM no longer seeks to invoke comparisons with the Great Reform Act of 1832.

Liberal Democrat hopes for major constitutional change now rest with House of Lords reform – a proposition which many commentators assume is not only dead in the water, but also risks holding up other aspects of political reform, such as changes to party funding arrangements.  Meanwhile, proponents of reform ranging from the Electoral Reform Society, to Unlock Democracy and Take Back Parliament are engaged in some much-needed, honest reflection on the lessons to be drawn from the AV referendum and on the future priorities for the reform movement.

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Do referendums ever resolve constitutional debates?

Stuart Wilks-Heeg

The result of the AV referendum has been widely argued, most obviously by opponents of change, to have ‘settled the issue’ of electoral reform. With a few notable exceptions, includingChris Huhne, prominent supporters of a ‘Yes’ vote have done relatively little to challenge this argument. The consensus appears to be that the issue of electoral reform will not be returned to again ‘for at least a generation’.

Yet, past experience tells us that referendums are, in fact, remarkably ineffectual in drawing major constitutional debates to a close. The table below summarises the results of the 11 referendums held in the UK to date on UK constitutional issues (excluding local referendums). With the possible exception of the vote on the creation of a Greater London Assembly and Office of the Mayor of London, few of these matters would now be considered ‘settled’. Take the subject of the only previous UK-wide referendum, on the UK’s membership of the EEC. Would anyone seriously want to suggest that this has resolved the question of the UK’s relationship to the process of European integration? Continue reading

Are public school boys still running Britain?

Stephen Crone: an edited version of this post was first published on the LSE British Politics and Policy Blog on 11 March 2011

When it was broadcast in January, Andrew Neil’s documentary,Posh and Posher: Why Public School Boys Run Britain, received an almost universally positive reception – both on the left and theright. Many apparently agreed with its main proposition: that after a period of political meritocracy during which we enjoyed thirty-three consecutive years of state-educated prime ministers, Britain has now re-entered an age of elitism in which “old Etonians are ruling the country once more.”

The documentary offered some unsettling facts and trends to support this theory, informing us that the number of MPs educated at public schools is on the rise, and that the upper echelons of the major political parties are now beholden to Oxbridge graduates; but its message was perhaps best captured by its indelicate yet effective imagery – with old footage of Harold Wilson and Edward Heath (set to T. Rex’s Children of the Revolution) juxtaposed with an interview between Neil and that redoubtable Etonian caricature, Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, in which the latter ironically declared “I’m a man of the people. Vox populi, vox Dei.” Continue reading

What would be the constitutional consequences of Lords reform?

Andrew Blick, 24th May 2011

The details of the government’s new proposals for House of Lords reform are certain to generate much discussion over the coming months, if not years. In the short-term, we can expect hundreds of hours of Parliamentary time to be devoted to discussing issues such as: the choice of electoral system; the balance of elected to appointed members; the timing of elections; and the length of terms of members.

But looking beyond the immediate plans, what might be the broader and longer-term democratic implications of these reforms, if they are implemented? Continue reading