British Politics

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An exceptionally high turnout is predicted in Scotland’s independence referendum next week. Voter registration is at record levels and the Chief Counting Officer has been urging people to avoid the busy times at the polling stations to beat the queues. But how high does turnout need to be to be exceptional? What are the records that could be broken? Alan Renwick here provides the definitive guide.

Will Scotland set any turnout records when voters go to the polls next Thursday? In order to find out, we need to investigate some points of comparison. Let’s start with UK general elections. Figure 1 shows turnout across the UK at all general elections since the arrival of universal male suffrage and something approaching universal female suffrage in 1918. The high-point came in 1950, when 84.0 per cent of eligible voters – the highest proportion in any poll in UK democratic history – made their mark. The low-point – aside from the unusual post-war election of December 1918 – was in 2001, when only 59.1 per cent of registered voters turned up.

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Alan Renwick

There is much justified indignation in the newspapers this morning about yesterday’s announcement of thirty new members of the House of Lords.  Yet such indignation is curious when it comes from papers that campaigned vociferously against the government’s proposals for reforming the Lords last year.  The new appointments highlight again the fact that the current make-up of our second chamber is indefensible.  A gradual process of change to something more credible is badly needed.

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Alan Renwick

The parliamentary select committee that has been examining the government’s proposals for reform of the House of Lords will be publishing its report in a couple of weeks’ time.  Rumour has it that they want an electoral system different from the one proposed by the government.  Nick Clegg and colleagues argue that the Single Transferable Vote (STV) form of proportional representation should be used.  But the committee has been interested in finding a system that will give voters a choice between voting for individual candidates and for a single party ticket (see the transcript of their oral evidence session last December, when the quizzed Iain McLean and me on this subject).  According to the Guardian, the committee is going to recommend the form of STV used in many Australian elections, where voters can vote ‘above the line’ for a party or ‘below the line’ for individual candidates.

The Electoral Reform Society is crying foul over this.  Calling the proposals a ‘dog’s breakfast’, they say that STV with above-the-line voting will return power to the parties, rather than allowing voters to determine who gets elected.

What should dispassionate observers make of this?  I think three questions need to be considered.  First, how much power would the inclusion of a party voting option give to parties and to voters?  Second, how much power should parties and voters have in determining which candidates are elected?  Third, are there any other considerations that we should take into account before deciding whether we think that possibility of above-the-line voting should be welcomed?  Most of this rather lengthy (sorry) post will focus on the first of these questions; I’ll say a little about the other two at the end.

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Alan Renwick

 

The UK government has launched a consultation on the framework for a referendum on Scottish independence.  Unfortunately, this is a consultation where the government apparently thinks it already knows most of the answers.  Worse still, the answers it has reached are the wrong ones.  They would deny the people of Scotland the chance to make an informed and considered decision.

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Richard Wood, who graduated with first-class honours in Politics and International Relations from Reading last summer, is now working as a research assistant on Alan Renwick’s project looking at changing patterns of debate over political reform.  In this post, he reflects on some striking findings regarding the rise of talk about human rights in British political discourse.

“Human rights” is a term we hear often when listening to our politicians. It’s now used when discussing almost any political subject: international relations, immigration, crime, healthcare and the legal system, to name just a few. The Human Rights Act, in force since 2000, is now a cornerstone of our legal system, though some would like to abolish or replace it.

But new research shows the extent to which this level of debate is a fairly recent phenomenon. As part of Alan Renwick’s wider research project into changing patterns of debate about political reform in the UK, I have been looking through Hansard records of parliamentary debates since the Second World War.  From analysis of all bills, debates, questions and statements in the House of Commons and the House of Lords from 1945 to 2005, a remarkably clear and consistent trend towards talk about human rights emerges. In the 1940s, the terms “human right” and “human rights” were used in Parliament around 15–40 times every year. As the graph below shows, by the 2000s, this had increased to 400–600 times – a huge change.

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Alan Renwick

With the publication yesterday of the Scottish Boundary Commission’s proposals for Scotland’s 52 new Westminster constituencies, we have had a fresh round of speculation as to who is in and who is out, and which sitting MPs will need to fight against each other for their party’s nomination.  This adds to all the similar talk that followed publication of the English Boundary Commission’s initial recommendations last month.

Such tittle-tattle is all very interesting for MPs and the gossips of the Westminster village, but it hides two much more fundamental points.

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The riots of recent days in London and elsewhere have wrecked many lives and shocked the nation.  They have reignited the long-standing debate over whether the actions of rioters such as these should straightforwardly be “condemned” or whether our primary task is to engage with their underlying causes.  In this personal reflection, Ben Whitham, one of our PhD students, makes the case for the latter.  The views he expresses are his own, and many – including at the University of Reading – will disagree with them.  But he offers a perspective that should play an important part in the coming debates.

Earlier this year I delivered a paper at the ‘Taking Control’ conference at SOAS in which I discussed the need to understand, explain and indeed justify the student riot at Millbank as a meaningful political act. Against those elements of the liberal media who would have us understand such violence as illegitimate – the hijacking of a ‘peaceful protest’ by a ‘small violent minority’ – I argued that we should view the Millbank Riot as a counterpunch: an outburst of ‘direct’ violence which erupted as a result of the deeper ‘structural’ or ‘systemic’ violence to which we are subjected by the neo-liberal state. Read the rest of this entry »

Alan Renwick

Peter Hain, the Shadow Welsh Secretary, has proposed today that the electoral system for the Welsh Assembly should be changed from the current proportional system to a plurality system using two-member constituencies.  This comes in the wake of rumours over the weekend that the government at Westminster would like to move in the other direction, making the current system more proportional.

So what are the options being discussed, and what are the issues we should be considering? Read the rest of this entry »

Alan Renwick

The Political Studies Association’s new briefing paper on House of Lords Reform, which I have written, was published on the Association’s website this morning.  Like the previous briefing paper on the Alternative Vote electoral system, it seeks dispassionately to set out evidence that can ground serious debate on the government’s reform proposals.

The need for evidence is one of the paper’s key themes.  As I argued in more detail in my previous post on this blog, both sides in the debate so far have been making grand claims without offering any serious evidence to support them.  That’s not entirely their fault: the House of Lords is a unique institution and predicting with perfect accuracy how it would react to reforms is impossible.  But there is much evidence out there that helps us make good progress in working out what expectations are more or less plausible. Read the rest of this entry »

Alan Renwick

My new briefing paper on House of Lords reform will be published by the Political Studies Association on Monday.  I will be writing here shortly after that on some of its core conclusions.  But for now I’d like to say why such a paper is necessary.  In short, it’s because the standard of debate about reform of the second chamber is currently far too low.

The main problem is that all sorts of claims are made without any evidence to back them up.  Take the two-day debate on the government’s reform proposals held in the House of Lords last month.  The former Commons Speaker, Baroness Boothroyd, made a barnstorming and widely cheered speech in which she declared: Read the rest of this entry »

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