British Politics

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Could the results of tomorrow’s general election really lead to change in the electoral system? Many commentators seem to think yes. Alan Renwick here offers some reason for caution.

Lots of people are suddenly talking about electoral reform. Never mind that the British electorate voted by 68 per cent to 32 per cent in a referendum in 2011 against dropping First Past the Post in favour of the Alternative Vote (AV) system, there is a growing feeling among some activists and commentators that change is on the way. First Past the Post, the argument goes, works well in a world of two-party politics. But now that we have seven-party politics, it produces absurd results that no one can defend. Pressure for reform will bubble up and force a shift.

We should not jump to such easy conclusions. Major electoral reform happens very rarely – only one long-standing democracy (New Zealand) has ditched First Past the Post since the Second World War. We need to think, first, about how the election result might strengthen the case for reform, and then, second, about what barriers the reform cause might nevertheless face.

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Alan Renwick, 29 April 2015

 

The prospects for a citizen-led constitutional convention in the UK have been transformed over the past twelve months.  When I wrote a pamphlet last April arguing the case for such a convention, I was frequently told that, much as my analysis was interesting and the idea intriguing, it just wasn’t going to happen.  Politicians care about the institutions that shape their power and they therefore won’t accept processes that give influence over the shape of those institutions to others.

But then came the Scottish referendum – or rather the week of mild panic preceding the referendum, which delivered the ‘vow’ to devolve further powers to Scotland.  As everyone acknowledged, that raised big questions about the future structure of the UK as a whole – questions to which there are no obviously correct answers.  Faced both with this problem and with the remarkable popular engagement around the referendum campaign in Scotland, most of the main political parties committed to holding a citizen-led constitutional convention in some form.  And these commitments are now reflected in the election manifestos.

I welcome these developments very much.  Serious debate about many aspects of our constitutional framework is sorely needed.  Such debate should not be dominated by politicians.  However well-meaning politicians may be – and I do not share the popular cynicism on that point – their personal interests unavoidably skew their approach to constitutional matters.

Furthermore, a successful citizen-led constitutional convention could provide the model for a new way of doing politics.  A debilitating divide now exists between voters and politicians.  That leaves many voters prey to populist voices that make grand promises that don’t stand up to detailed scrutiny.  If we want to restore the health of our democracy, we should be seeking ways of engaging citizens actively and thoughtfully in policy-making processes.  There is considerable evidence that, when citizens are invited to engage in meaningful deliberations about policy – rather than to participate in empty consultations or focus groups – they do very well.  So the citizens’ assembly model could be one that we could use repeatedly to explore options on other issues.

But these good things will happen only if a citizen-led constitutional convention works well – and there is no guarantee that it will.  Such citizens’ assemblies have been tried already in Canada, the Netherlands, and Ireland, and, in most respects, they have been highly successful.  But the UK is much bigger and the agenda of a constitutional convention here is potentially much more complex.  Moreover, features of our political system – not least our adversarial tabloid culture – might generate their own barriers.

That makes it essential that a citizen-led constitutional convention be designed as well as possible.  The statement published today by the Constitution Unit and the Constitution Society – signed by many of the leading academic experts in this area – sets out some of the key requisites.  Speaking personally, my view is that its various recommendations can be summed up in four key points.

First, a constitutional convention needs a focused and manageable agenda.  Many people concerned about the state of our politics would like a root-and-branch review of our constitutional structures.  And the time for such a review may come.  But a comprehensive review would be too much for a single citizens’ assembly on its own.  Furthermore, everything we know about how the UK’s – and other countries’ – political institutions evolve suggests that an overarching reform is very unlikely.  Incremental changes may be unsatisfactory, but they can at least move us in helpful directions.

Second, ordinary citizens should make up the majority of members.  There is a good case for including some politicians in order to ensure that the political elite are connected to the process and take it seriously.  But the majority of the members of any constitutional convention should be ordinary citizens, invited to participate at random from the electoral register.  I find that this idea often alarms people on first hearing: they are deeply sceptical that untrained citizens can be charged with such a complex task.  But the evidence from past citizens’ assemblies is that, if we take citizens seriously, then citizens engage seriously.  Those invited to take part are not obliged to do so – and, indeed, once the commitment that is involved has been explained, the great majority typically choose not to do so.  So citizens who are definitely not interested need not get involved.  But past cases have had no difficulty in obtaining a sample of the population that is representative on criteria such as age, sex, and socio-economic background.  And the quality of the deliberations that these people engage in is impressively high.

By contrast, some politicians have been inclined to include representatives of organized civil society or even – heaven forfend – academics.  This is a thoroughly bad idea.  It is impossible to select such members in a representative way and they would only serve to drown out the ordinary citizens.  In any case, including them misunderstands what a deliberative forum is all about.  Rather, such a forum should be much like a jury: it should comprise people who are not committed to certain views before the start; it then hears from the experts and from all those who wish to express an opinion; and then it reaches its own conclusions based on careful consideration of all the arguments.

That leads on to the third point: the deliberations of a citizen-led constitutional convention must be carefully structured and supported.  High quality deliberation does not happen spontaneously.  It should be structured into three phases: first a learning phase, when the basic options are set out and the state of our knowledge about their advantages and disadvantages outlined; then a consultation phase, when members hear from pressure groups, parties, members of the public, and anyone else who wants to put their view forward; and finally a deliberation phase, when members consider the values that they want to promote and the options that might best advance them.  This needs the support of facilitators, note-takers, academics, and others.  The convention should meet at weekends from time to time so that the members have time to get on with the rest of their lives and also to digest and reflect upon what they hear about.  The people who have run similar exercises in the past emphasize the crucial importance of social activities that help the members get to know each other.  They also highlight the quality of the food and other such practicalities during the weekends as key for oiling the wheels.

Finally, there should be a clear mechanism for following up on the convention’s recommendations.  If convention members suspect that their ideas might just be left to gather dust, they are less likely to treat the process seriously.  And if politicians ignore the carefully developed thoughts of a sample of ordinary citizens, that can only serve to increase the sense of alienation between the regular voter and the political world.  The issues passed to a constitutional convention are likely to be too complex for it be possible to say simply that the convention’s recommendations will be put to a referendum – the mechanism that several past examples have employed.  But government should commit itself to some plausible route forward.

Disillusionment with politics in the UK – and other countries – today reflects a sharp ‘us and them’ divide.  Most voters consider politicians to be an entirely distinct breed from themselves – and anyone who puts him or herself forward for election is placed on the ‘other’ side.  Elected institutions therefore cannot be representative in the important sense that they can contain only those people who, by running for election, have removed themselves from the category of ‘us’.  A citizens’ assembly overcomes this: it comprises not people who have chosen to put themselves forward for election, but people who have accepted an invitation.  Creation of such an assembly thus raises the prospect of narrowing the gap in a meaningful way between ‘us’ and the process of deciding public policy.

That, at least, is the theory.  We know it has worked well elsewhere.  Whether it will work well in the UK we can’t be sure of.  But it is certainly worth a try.  In order to give it the best chance of success, it is essential to get the details in the institutional design right.

 

This post was first published on UCL’s blog ‘The Constitution Unit’.

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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 »

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