Category Archives: UK elections

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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Filed under Conservatives, Legislation, Lib Dems, Referendums, UK elections, Westminster

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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Filed under Labour, UK elections, Westminster

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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Filed under Conservatives, Lib Dems, Northern Ireland, Scotland, UK elections, Wales, Westminster

Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the new peers

I’ve been looking at the lists of new peers, announced by 10 Downing Street last week.  (The news release naming them is available here.)

Taking the two lists together (both the dissolution list of Gordon Brown, and the list of new working peers), there are six with Scottish connections and two with Welsh ones.  Of the Scottish ones, three are former Scottish Secretaries (Helen Liddell, Des Browne and John Reid), one a former First Minister (Jack McConnell).   The other two – Tommy McAvoy and John McFall – are long-standing Westminster politicians with Scottish seats.  All come from the Labour Party.  Only McConnell was not previously an MP.

The two Welsh figures are Don Touhig, a former Labour MP, and Mike German, a former Lib Dem Assembly Member and Deputy First Minister.

The Northern Ireland interest is, of course, the peerage for Rev Ian Paisley; a former MP, MLA and First Minister.

That’s 9 new peers out of 58 with connections with devolved parts of the UK – quite high on population basis (about 16 per cent), if only slightly higher than the proportions of the population living in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.  But the bulk are on the dissolution list, prepared by the outgoing prime minister and traditionally used to reward friends and allies Continue reading

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

The coalition’s Programme for Government

The coalition UK Government has published its full coalition agreement today.  Called, imaginatively, The Coalition: our programme for government, it’s available here.

On a quick read, it has two notable features.  One is that it contains no clearly-set-out procedures for managing the coalition or handling differences between the parties.  This contrasts with many other similar agreements, which hinge on setting out such procedures (see, for example, the ‘Working Together’ section of the 2003 agreement between Labour and the Lib Dems in Scotland, available here).  Clear agreed procedures for these matters have been considered key to the smooth running of the coalitions like this.  If this omission hasn’t been dealt with shortly, it may bode ill for the longer term success of the new government.

The other is its devolution commitments.  The three commitments made in the early policy agreement – a commission to consider the West Lothian question, implementation of the Continue reading

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Filed under Calman Commission/Scotland bill, Conservatives, Devolution finance, Northern Ireland, Referendums, Scotland, UK elections, Wales, Whitehall

Some thoughts about the Westminster coalition negotiations

I usually forbear from discussing mainstream Westminster politics here.  I’m going to do so now out of frustration at some of the twaddle that is being talked about the negotiations between the various parties about the future government, and at the failure of those who are commenting to talk about some important points.

First, although some seem frustrated with the speed of events, these events are actually happening at breakneck speed.  Coalition formation, and similar negotiations in other systems commonly take a month or six weeks.  That’s about how long it took in Wales in 2007, and how long the Germans usually take.  Doing such processes in a few days to meet newspaper deadlines or the concerns of the financial markets is in fact very rushed.  As the decisions involve significant strategic concerns for all the parties, and huge ones for the Liberal Democrats, it’s little wonder that they take longer than those with journalistic deadlines might like.

Second, those of us interested in devolution will be struck by the parallels between the position of the Lib Dems now and of Plaid Cymru in 2007.  Like the Lib Dems, Plaid had two options for government; it negotiated with both sides, and in the course of doing so appeared Continue reading

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Filed under Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems, UK elections, Westminster

Scottish and Welsh Secretaries in a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition

The complexion of the new UK Government may well soon become clear.  But it’s already evident that a Conservative-Lib Dem alliance would have significant difficulties on territorial matters, with modest numbers of MPs from either Scotland or Wales, and having to deal with governments of different political parties as well.  (The alternative arrangement would also have problems, but of a different sort.)

That limited mandate increases the need for the UK Government to tread carefully and have a coherent overall view of how it proposes to manage relations between the various parts of the UK.  That increases the case for a single Secretary of State, whether based in his or her own department (as I argued earlier HERE), or attached to the Cabinet Office (as recommended just before the election by the Commons Welsh Affairs Committee).

If the current negotiations result in a coalition, there will be questions of which party gets which Cabinet posts, as well as the terms of the coalition agreement.  If that happens, there will be strong argument for that post to go to a Lib Dem rather than a Conservative.  This would be a win for both parties.  Devolution is a cause the Lib Dems (and before their creation, the Liberal Party) embraced long before it was fashionable.  It would enable the Lib Dems to show that they had a key role to play on constitutional matters, helping them advance their programme for a federal UK.  It would also enable the Conservatives to minimise the scope for party-political tensions fuelling territorial confrontation, in circumstances which are bound to be fraught and where the SNP has already clearly signalled its hostility toward the Conservatives.  This might also get round some of the personnel issues that the Conservatives are said to have.  It’s an area where a Lib Dem minister would positively serve both parties’ interests.

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Filed under Conservatives, Intergovernmental relations, Lib Dems, Scotland, UK elections, Wales, Whitehall