The Coalition’s constitutional squabbles

By Babak Moussavi

Plus ça change.

I am going to say to every MP: ‘Look, the House of Commons ought to be smaller, less expensive and we ought to have seats which are exactly the same size’. I think everyone should come forward and vote for that proposal because it is a very sensible proposal and it will be put forward. – David Cameron

David Cameron’s call to Nick Clegg, telling him that he couldn’t muster the necessary support in the Conservative Party for Lords reform must have come as a bitter blow for the Deputy Prime Minister who has staked much of his reputation – and purpose – on constitutional reform. Rather than roll over, as the Lib Dems have frequently done in the name of coalition compromise and ‘national interest’, as with NHS reform and tuition fees, Mr Clegg this time retaliated, asserting that he would instruct his MPs not to vote for the boundary reforms that the government wishes to have enacted by the time of the next election.

Mr Clegg may well have acted through partisan interests, knowing full well that the proposed boundary reforms would hurt his party disproportionately at the next election. His nominal agreement to them was nonetheless made in the spirit of coalition compromise. As part of that compromise, however, he expected Lords reform from the Conservatives in return. He also expected the Tories to conduct a more gentlemanly AV campaign. This may have reflected Mr Clegg’s naivety, however. When making a gentleman’s agreement, first make sure you are making it with a gentleman.

No-one doubts that Mr Clegg’s proposed constitutional reforms would have helped the Lib Dems. The Lords reform proposals were far from perfect (the 15-year terms for senators did not seem particularly wise), but given the plan to use a proportional system to elect the main bulk of that house, the Lib Dems would have ensured that they would retain a moderately large presence in British democracy, regardless of their current unpopularity (which will hurt them especially badly under the First-Past-the-Post system in the House of Commons). The Alternative Vote too may well have given them a greater presence in the House of Commons, if the assumption still holds that the average Labour and Lib Dem voter has more in common with each other than with a Conservative counterpart.

But even though both reforms were in the Lib Dems’ self-interest, this doesn’t rule them out as an improvement on the status quo. Indeed, AV was certainly a superior system compared with FPTP, as it would have allowed voters to reveal their true preferences (although some right-wing newspapers doubted that the electorate would be able to count to three – a necessary prerequisite). It would also to a large extent have eliminated tactical voting, and would have emasculated the charge by fringe extremists that they are disenfranchised – a fundamental problem for democracy – as the threshold would be that they would need to be wanted by 50% of each constituency. This accusation is difficult to ignore under FPTP, as UKIP, the fourth biggest party in terms of votes, can claim the electoral system locks them out, given that with just under one million votes they do not have a single seat.

Lords reform may also have been an improvement, although it may have been better to adjust some of the specific proposals. Some have argued for ensuring the deliberative role of the House of Lords, by making sure it can continue its forensic scrutiny of bills, and that it allows genuine experts to voice their opinions on relevant topics. If members were elected, it may be that we would witness more whipping by party leaders and more partisan posturing, which would not necessarily be an improvement for democracy. It may also try to assert itself and curtail the primacy of the Commons. The principle that those who rule the country should be elected is right, and democratic, but the procedural problems should not be ignored. There are incremental steps that can easily be taken that would improve the functioning of the Lords (such as halting its ever-swelling numbers), but it seems even those won’t go through, as the Lib Dems want reform to contain an obviously democratising element.

Mr Clegg’s two flagship reforms have failed in any case though, so debating them for much longer may seem superfluous. Right now, the constitutional change that matters is the boundary reform, which Mr Cameron’s party wants to push through. Once again, there are partisan explanations for this, since it is estimated that the Conservatives would stand to gain a majority at the next election if they were to acquire the same share of the vote as last time. But there is also the argument that this is a “sensible” reform, as it would increase ‘fairness’ by eliminating a bias that favours Labour, as well as making the House of Commons “less expensive”.

As I have written elsewhere though, the fairness argument is fatuous. While adjusting the size of constituencies sounds good in principle, it needs to be complemented with electoral reform, which is at the root of the problem. The reason there is a perceived bias in the current system is because of geographical concentrations of voters, as well as voter behaviour across the country. Labour wins more efficiently than the Conservatives, because the latter often win their countryside constituencies with landslides, whereas Labour wins by ‘enough’. The Conservatives are thus slightly over-concentrated, whereas Labour’s distribution is optimal. This gives the impression of bias. But the Conservatives are actually massive beneficiaries of this biased system: they win seats with roughly 35,000 voters – just 1,500 more than Labour requires. The Lib Dems by contrast need over 100,000 votes to win a seat, and UKIP can reach nearly 1 million and still won’t have any. Boundary reform is not the solution to this problem. Electoral reform is.

Had AV – or even proportional representation – been combined with a reconfiguring of the boundaries, it may well have made for a much better system than we have now. But boundary reform by itself is a pro-Conservative device that hurts the Lib Dems disproportionately and does nothing to address the concerns of smaller parties that still receive substantial numbers of votes. Furthermore, there seems no good reason to shrink the size of the Commons. If anything, this further weakens the link between voters and their MP, as each constituency becomes larger, meaning the representative has a greater workload and even more concerns to address. At £65,738, the cost of an MP (before expenses…) is not much compared to running other parts of the country, and is surely worthwhile given the importance of having a functioning, representative democracy.

Supporting boundary reform without the concession of Lords reform (or AV) would have been virtual suicide for Mr Clegg. He is therefore right to have toughened up and told his Coalition partners that his party would not support it. Mr Cameron can call his bluff and see what happens in Parliament: but he certainly won’t be getting support from the Opposition benches.

Up until this point, it has been laughable to hear Conservative backbenchers claim that Mr Clegg is dictating what the government does and does not do. Ironically, then, it may only be because of his repeated failure that he can finally offer some evidence to support their claims – for once.

  1. senex72 said:

    Perhaps we need to stand back a bit on this one.
    If we go back to the original discussions of democracy in Classical times, elections were always seen as evidence of lack of democracy and the triumph of oligarchy, because of the power of gifts and influence. Of course there is a role for a Parliament, perhaps as an executive body – the Athenian Assembly could not make law, for example, but issued decrees, and there were very strict scrutiny systems . Referendums have their place too but it can cost £millions to collect signatures or present arguments as the recent AV flop ardently demonstrates.

    Methods of representation and unease about elections have long been a liberal and democratic topic of debate. Can I suggest we now take a wider and more elevated look at these problems? Deliberative Polling, for example, Fishkin’s article in The European is a live debate. Also the possibility of making bureaucracies (private ones like banks as well as government bureaucracy) more efficient and responsive can be investigated by considering randomising promotions: “The Peter principle revisited: A computational study” in Physica A: Statistical Mechanics and its Applications Volume 389, Issue 3, 1 February 2010, Pages 467–472 sees this as a viable way of loosening-up hierarchies that are currently promoting members up to their level if incompetence. so that senior office-holders are generally duds.

    Reform proposals for the House of Lords generated a number of suggestions for selection by lot, and this has also been discussed for MP’s by Marc Abrahams, (16 April 2012). “Improbable research: why random selection of MPs may be best”. The Guardian (London).

    In short, are not our debates not becoming disappointingly stodgy in our reform discussions? Citizens at present are rationally indifferent to the political process because they can initiate so little and are never able to be directly involved in the generation and implementation of policy.

    • Thanks again. I believe this is a similar comment to the one you placed on my book review of Peter Riddell’s book? Please see my response there, and request that you write an article to flesh out your ideas further.

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