Category Archives: UK elections

Devolution, territorial politics and the general election

This post also appears on the Constitution Unit’s blog, here. Constitution-unit.com has a number of other election-related posts which are well worth reading.

It is hard to think of a general election that has ever been so freighted with questions about the UK’s territorial constitution. It is hardly an overstatement to say that the outcome of the 2015 election, and actions of the government that takes office after it, will either reshape the UK significantly or ease the way to its breakup. This post considers what the manifestos tell us about what the various parties propose to do and how they propose to do it, when it comes to the reshaping of devolution arrangements across the UK, and then discusses some of the issues that will loom larger after 7 May.

The pro-UK parties

The 2015 manifestos contain a welter of devolution-related commitments. Those in the three pro-UK parties (Conservative, Liberal Democrats and Labour) are all strikingly similar, though not identical. For Scotland, all commit to implementing the Smith Commission’s recommendations, and to retaining the Barnett formula. (Interestingly, they do not commit to the UK Government’s white paper Scotland in the United Kingdom: An enduring settlement, raising the possibility they could scrape off some of the barnacles that paper puts on the Smith proposals). Labour want to go further in a ‘Home Rule bill’ in unspecified ways, though it appears that wider scope for the Scottish Parliament to legislate on welfare matters is key to it. These commitments rather resemble those made by the same three parties in 2010 about the implementation of the Calman Commission’s recommendations, though with Labour somewhat breaking ranks with the two governing parties.

There is also similarity when it comes to Northern Ireland: endorsement of the peace process and commitments to support it, along with the economic rebalancing package agreed as part of December’s Stormont House Agreement. For Conservatives and Lib Dems, this includes support for sustainable public finances, welfare reform and corporation tax devolution subject to adequate progress being made on financial matters. Labour’s commitments appear to embrace similar policies, but are confusingly worded. They say they will: Continue reading

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Filed under Conservatives, English questions, Labour, Lib Dems, Northern Ireland, Plaid Cymru, Scotland, SNP, UK elections, Wales, Westminster

Minority nationalist parties and their leverage in a national parliament: Canada and Spain

With all the speculation about what impact a large contingent of SNP MPs (or other regionally-based minor parties like the DUP) might have at Westminster after 7 May, it is worth looking at experience in some other countries. This situation may not be something the UK is used to, though it was key to how British politics worked in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century once the Parnell/Redmond Irish Party became the dominant electoral party in Ireland. There are more recent parallels from two other parliamentary systems with minority nationalities: Canada (and the Bloc Québecois), and Spain, particularly with Convergència i Unió but also other parties from Catalonia, and indeed the Basque Country and Galicia.

Canada
To make sense of what has happened in Canada, it’s necessary to know a bit how Canadian politics works. Federal and provincial party organisations are quite separate there, except for the New Democrats. The main party of Quebec ‘sovereignism’*, the Parti Québecois, has limited itself to Quebec provincial elections (as has the federalist Parti Libéral du Québec). Its counterpart for federal elections, the Bloc Québecois, was established in 1991, between the 1980 and 1995 referendums and after the failure of the Meech Lake process that was expected in Quebec to lead to a renewed form of federalism including a special status for Quebec. Its first leader, Lucien Bouchard, had been a minister in Brian Mulroney’s cabinet and an advocate for the Meech Lake deal. The Bloc was highly successful in its first election in 1993, winning 54 of 75 Quebec seats, and with the implosion of the Progressive Conservative Party it found itself forming the official opposition to the Liberals in the 1993-97 Parliament. It remained the dominant player in Quebec federal politics until 2011, winning over 40 seats in each election (and usually over 50) except for 2000, when it won 38.

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New ‘page’ on the West Lothian question

I’ve just added a page explaining the West Lothian question to those on the blog.  It can be accessed through the links at the top of the page, or HERE.

One point often overlooked, which I discuss there, is the extent to which the anomaly of the West Lothian question is made worse by problems of mis-representation, which are fuelled by using the First-past-the-post electoral system.  The result is that Labour is disproportionately strong (compared to its share of the vote) in Scotland and Wales, as are both Conservatives and (somewhat less so) Labour in England.  The Lib Dems in England, the SNP and Conservatives in Scotland, and Plaid Cymru and the Lib Dems in Wales are the main losers.

There are arguments on both sides of the question of proportional representation, but its absence creates these anomalies that mean Labour has far more Scottish and Welsh MPs than its share of the vote justifies, and the Conservatives more English MPs.  A more equitable electoral system would reduce that disparity, and the degree to which the West Lothian question is played up or down for party advantage.

I’ll be saying something further about the possible solutions to the West Lothian question in the next few days.

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After a Scottish independence referendum Yes vote

There has been remarkably little public discussion of what would happen if there were a Yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum.  The widespread assumption seems to be that negotiations would be swift and straightforward, and Scotland would readily become an independent state.  The Scottish Government’s position (previously set out in the February 2013 paper Scotland’s Future: from the Referendum to Independence and a Written Constitution, but repeated in the independence white paper) remains that May 2016 would be when Scotland would become independent.  That is a very simplistic approach; negotiations would be complex, possibly protracted, and gravely complicated by the May 2015 UK general election.  Considerations about timing, and the impact of the referendum vote would affect the strength of the various negotiating positions, as well.

Nick Barber of Oxford University has now written an exceptionally good post about the implications of Yes vote.  I don’t wholly agree with it, but it should be read by anyone thinking seriously about these issues.  It can be found on the UK Constitutional Law Association’s blog, here.

In a separate but related development, the Lords Constitution Committee at Westminster has announced an inquiry into the implications of a Yes vote.  There’s news coverage from the BBC here, and details of the inquiry and its call for evidence here.  The closing date for submissions is 28 February 2014.

UPDATE, 27 January: There’s also a Lords debate on Thursday about ‘The implications for the UK of the forthcoming Scottish independence referendum’.  Details are here.

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Filed under Implications of Scottish independence, Referendums, Scotland, Scottish independence, SNP, UK elections, Westminster, Whitehall

The territorial dimensions of Ed Miliband’s front bench

The full list of Labour’s front bench is published today (and is available here).  It’s quite interesting in how it handles territorial representation.  The big ‘territorial’ story in this was the replacement of Ann McKechin by Margaret Curran as shadow Scottish Secretary (see coverage from the Scotsman here and BBC News here).  McKechin is now on the back benches.  Curran is of course a former MSP and Minister in the Scottish Executive, though only an MP since 2010.  The interesting question will be whether she takes a different approach to McKechin when it comes to the constitutional debates.

Statistically, the front bench has 100 MPs on it (plus 29 peers), out of a total of 258 Labour MPs.  Forty-one of Labour’s MPs (16 per cent) sit for Scottish seats, and 26 (10 per cent) for Welsh ones.  Of the shadow portfolios given to MPs, 9 have gone to Welsh members and 11 Continue reading

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UKIP digs itself into another hole over an English Parliament

UKIP’s attempts to turn itself into more than a single-issue party have led them into choppy waters in the past, with their proposals to impose a very southern-English-looking form of ‘Britishness’ across the UK, and constituting the devolved legislatures with MPs who would sit in Edinburgh, Cardiff or Belfast for part of the week and London for the rest.  In his speech to his party’s conference on Friday, reported here by the BBC, Nigel Farage restated support for the idea of an English parliament.  The policy seems to originate with one of UKIP’s MEPs, Paul Nuttall; there’s a more detailed exposition of it here and the full policy document is here.

In itself, UKIP support for an English Parliament isn’t particularly new (it figured in their manifest for the 2010 UK election, though not in such bald terms).  Nor is this yet adopted formally as their party policy.  However, there is a significant change, as now they’re supporting a wider ‘Englishness’ platform extending to matters such as funding and a separate ‘home rule’ government, as well as separate elections for the English Parliament.  By the same token, Nuttall proposes retaining the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland devolved legislatures in their present form – rather than constituting them with MPs from those parts of the UK, as was their policy at the 2010 election.

There are several flaws with this policy, starting with the fact that the same matters are not devolved in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland (policing, the courts and criminal justice in Wales being the main one, also social security in Northern Ireland).  But the big problem here is a familiar one: a separate English parliament implies something very like a federal division of powers between the UK as a state and its four constituent parts.  England, however, would dwarf the others as it has around 85 per cent of the UK’s population, and that is not a recipe for a lasting or stable union.  No federal system with any comparable imbalance has been able to last for long.  It’s hard to see how unionism and an English parliament are compatible, attractive though it may be at first blush.

For English nationalists, that may not be a problem.  But UKIP have to overcome the relationship between this policy, and their concerns about the EU.  On that score, an awful lot hangs for them on the UK as a unit surviving.  It’s one thing to advocate the UK as a whole distancing itself from, or leaving, the EU.  It’s another to advocate that for England alone.  The difference in population may not be huge, but the wider implications of an independent ‘little England’ outside both the UK and the EU would be tough indeed.  UKIP risk undermining their wider goal of withdrawal from the EU by pursuing the narrower one of winning English votes by adopting the cause of an English Parliament.

UPDATE, 24 January 2014: As UKIP have removed their older policy documents from their website and the link above no longer works, I’ve uploaded their 2011 ‘Union for a Future’ paper so readers can see the document for themselves.  It’s available here.

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Referendum result: Wales said Yes

The results from the referendum on the National Assembly’s legislative powers are now in.  There’s a very clear mandate for the Assembly to have primary law-making powers: the vote is 517,132 votes in favour, and 297,380 votes against (or 63.5 per cent to 36.5 per cent).  There’s news coverage from the BBC here and the official results from the Electoral Commission are here.  Of the local authority areas used for counting, only Monmouthshire voted No – and that by just 320 votes.  While the Yes vote appears to have been weaker in eastern parts of the country, it varied relatively little across the country (and much less than it did in 1997).  There’s a good discussion by Roger Scully of the result on the BBC News website, available here.

Turn out was 35.2 per cent; not high, but higher than in some other referendums, and higher than some predictions.  Given the limited public visibility of the campaign (compounded by True Wales’s decision not to apply to become a designated campaign organisation), the inherent obscurity of the issue and the confusing nature of the question, that has to be regarded as a comparatively strong showing.  Rachel Banner of True Wales has accepted that it’s a clear mandate for an Assembly with legislative powers.  This result suggests strongly that legislative devolution is indeed the settled will of the people of Wales.  Perhaps the shadows created by the defeat in 1979 and narrowest of victories in 1997 will now pass into history.

Ironically, the result comes just as the Boundary Commission for Wales announces how it plans to review the Westminster constituency boundaries, so as to reduce the number of Welsh MPs from 40 to 30 (the same quota as for England or Scotland).  One of the problems that hobbled No campaigners was the prospect of reduced representation at Westminster whatever happened.  If Wales had voted No, it would have faced the double whammy of that combined with limited devolved legislative powers – a sure way to minimise Wales’s overall influence over government.

The next issue is when the Assembly will assume its new powers.  That’s a matter for the Assembly Government to decide, and an early statement about its intentions would be very welcome.

UPDATE: Nick Clegg seems keen to take the wind out of everyone else’s sails.  On arriving in Cardiff for the Welsh Lib Dem conference, he decided to restate the Coalition commitment to establish a commission on financial matters and the prospect of tax powers for the Assembly (see BBC News report here) – seemingly unaware that George Osborne had realised how silly this was and moved beyond it in the Spending Review last November.  The position in the Programme for Government is more daft now than it was in May last year (when the Holtham Report was still in the pipeline).  The question shouldn’t be whether to revisit Holtham, but how to implement it. That’s what Osborne said when he presented the Spending Review – is Clegg now revising that?

FURTHER UPDATE, 5 March: Regarding commencement of the Assembly’s new powers, the First Minister has suggested that they will probably come into effect following the Assembly elections in May (see WAG news release here).  Apparently Lord Elis-Thomas has said that the order will be laid before the Assembly next week.  The First Minister has also emphasised that there won’t be a rush to legislate, though (see here).  Given the resources the Assembly Government has to support legislative work, that’s no bad thing.

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The Parliamentary Voting etc bill, hybridity and the constitution

Goodness knows there are many flaws with the Coalition UK Government’s Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies bill, to do with both its proposals regarding parliamentary constituencies (see previous post HERE, and also this very useful paper published by the British Academy), and the referendum on the Alternative Vote.   The Lords Constitution Committee has not been idle, and published a highly critical report on it over the weekend, available here.  The report doesn’t limit itself to the working of the bill, but highlights the danger that a smaller House of Commons would be more prone to dominance by the executive.  It also criticises the holding of the AV referendum on the same day as polling in the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland devolved elections, saying

we regard it as regrettable that the Government should have failed to consult appropriately with the devolved institutions on the timing of the referendum (para. 23).

But it’s surprising to see that, in Labour’s eyes, one of the flaws of the bill is its alleged hybridity.  Hybridity arises when a bill deals principally with matters of public law, but also has provisions that affect some members of a class differently to others.  (See here for the summary of hybridity on the Parliament website.)  This usually relates to their private rights, so the most common cases of hybridity (at least in recent years) have been major infrastructure projects such as the Channel Tunnel Rail Link or Crossrail.  Those bills were hybrid because they affected some householders differently to others, because of the compulsory acquisition of parts of their property (or nuisances such as noise).  The result of a bill being hybrid is that it falls subject to special procedures in Parliament, resembling private bill procedures at committee stage.  As a result those affected can submit their petitions to a Select Committee in each House, which sits semi-judicially to consider them.   (I once spent a year working for a firm of parliamentary agents, who promote and oppose private legislation, so acquired a decent grasp of this at the time.)

To judge from what’s being reported of this, Lord Falconer (BBC News report here, Daily Telegraph report here; also interviewed on Radio 4’s ‘Today’ programme) thinks that the way some constituencies are protected from the review makes the bill hybrid.  (He appears to be thinking of Western Isles and Orkney and Shetland, rather than the two mainland Scottish seats.)  With all respect to Lord Falconer, this is at best tendentious.  First, it assumes that the right to vote in a particular size of constituency is the sort of right with the sort of specific effect that makes the legislation involved private in nature.  Second, it assumes that Parliamentary votes and resolutions are the means to determine that.

Treating one area differently to another is the stuff of what Parliament does.  Apart from anything else, treating a bill like this as private for that reason would mean that the sorts of pilot schemes beloved of Labour in office for social security or whatever, which applied in one locality but not another, were similarly private.  Whatever gave rise to them would similarly have been hybrid legislation and subject to the appropriate procedures – which wasn’t the case.

Is the right to vote, or the size of the constituency one votes in, a sufficiently ‘private’ right  in any event?  It’s a difficult question, but it’s hard to say that it is.  It’s never been treated as that in the past.  The extent to which the individual’s right to a numerical value of their vote can be protected is highly problematic.  Votes are always aggregated with those of others, and the impact on an individual of sharing a constituency with ‘only’ 38,000 others rather than 90,000 is limited.  One’s vote is still highly diluted in its individual value, even if it’s accepted as being a private interest not merely a right to participate in a wider public activity.  And those most directly affected by the bill – voters in Orkney and Shetland, and the Western Isles – benefit from this, rather than suffer.  The harm experienced by others elsewhere because of their favourable treatment is pretty slight too.

Moreover, it’s odd to put this matter in the hands of Peers or MPs.  It’s traditionally been a matter for senior officials of each House, who together act as the Examiners of Petitions of Private Bills and certify if legislation is hybrid or not.  (They now include legal counsel in each House, as well as clerks of the bill offices.)  It may be that this is being poorly reported and the proposed vote will refer the bill to the Examiners for them to determine its status, as happened earlier this year with the Local Government bill.  In that case, the bid to have the bill declared as hybrid failed, costing the Government about two and a half weeks.  In one other famous case (famous to parliamentary agents, at least), nationalisation legislation proposed by the 1974 Labour government was seriously held up when the bill was found to be hybrid, as certain ship repairers were scheduled for nationalisation while others weren’t.

Nonetheless, it’s fitting that a constitutional mess of a bill should run into constitutional difficulties, even if they’re not those that one might logically expect.  It’s also telling that two parties committed to constitutional propriety, one of which has also shown a serious and long-standing commitment to constitutional reform, have managed to handle constitutional measures in quite such a clumsy fashion.

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Labour’s failure to understand devolution

I was in Portcullis House yesterday, and as I had time between other meetings I went to an event organised by the think-tank Demos as part of its ‘Open Left’ project. Called ‘Memorandum from the Mainstream’ (details here, and the memoranda themselves are here), it consisted largely of short talks presented by six former middle-ranking Labour ministers about what they did wrong in government, and what Labour’s new leader should do about it. There was the expected attempt to find successes in Labour’s record in office, as well as some willingness to admit to failures.

What was most striking, though, was a big omission. That was any talk of constitutional issues at all, and devolution and territorial ones in particular. Given that many consider Labour’s constitutional agenda to have been one of its most successful areas of policy, it’s telling that middle-ranking ministers simply never even noticed this particular part of Labour’s record. But the failure to understand that there is a territorial constitutional dimension to every policy – that talking about ‘equal rights to public services’ begs the question of where that applies, and what that promise might mean in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland where many such functions are devolved. I’d hoped that the Open Left project (which was set up by James Purnell after he resigned from government in June 2009) might mark a change in Labour’s thinking about this, but evidently not.  Equally, what works politically for Labour in England isn’t the same in Scotland or Wales, as political competition in those arenas is very different thanks to the nationalist parties.  I left thinking that these discussions could easily have happened in 1995 – and to a substantial degree even in 1985.

The only person to raise any sort of territorial concern was Nancy Platts, Labour’s unsuccessful candidate in Brighton Pavilion, who has realised that different things work in different parts of ‘the country’ (still not clear whether that’s Britain, the UK or England). She asked whether Labour should have different policies in ‘the north’ and ‘the south’, so it could win more seats. She didn’t get much of an answer, but Labour members in Scotland and Wales who remember the difficulties they had in getting Labour in London to understand the need for different platforms and policies in those nations may smile wryly at the suggestion.

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The new electoral map for Westminster

The UK Government published its Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill last week (available here).  By coincidence Professor Ron Johnston of Bristol University gave a seminar on ‘Reducing the size of the House of Commons and Equalising its Constituencies’ at the Constitution Unit at UCL on Friday.  Details of the seminar are here, and the video of Ron’s presentation should appear there during the week of 26 July.  For those who couldn’t make it, it will be well worth watching; you couldn’t hope for a clearer explanation of how the new bill will change electoral boundaries, and its likely implications.  Ron’s been kind enough to let me put up the Powerpoint slides from his talk, and those are available here.

This legislation is a key part of the coalition UK government’s political and constitutional reform programme, most fully set out in Nick Clegg’s Commons statement of 5 July available here.  (For the Constitution Unit’s comments on their constitutional agenda generally, see the recent press statement here, and the more detailed briefing here.)   The bill accomplishes two things.  One is the provision for a referendum on the alternative vote for Westminster elections, a key Continue reading

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