openDemocracyUK

AV is dead, where now for electoral reform?

Arguing for electoral reform in isolation from a full bloodied constitutional settlement that includes the UK's national question was far too limited and asked to fail.
Gareth Young
8 May 2011

The referendum on AV is lost. It was, we were warned, "a once in a generation opportunity" to change politics. So where now for electoral reform lobby? It seems to me that the best chance of progress is to tie electoral reform into other constitutional reform issues, such as the ushering in of proportional representation on the back of the campaign to Elect the Lords. On the very subject of electing the Lords, Paddy Tipping recently suggested that an upper house elected by PR might have greater democratic legitimacy conferred upon it than the Commons itself.

Let us consider what would happen if there were two classes of Members of Parliament, and certain MPs could not vote and, in particular, speak on certain issues. If there were a rival Chamber up the Corridor, where Members from across the United Kingdom, however they were elected or selected, were able to speak, there would be a case for people to say, "We are the legitimate Chamber of the United Kingdom, and you Commoners down there are a de facto Parliament for England." That is the threat. I do not say that that situation will arise, but we need to explore the issue.

Under the circumstances described by Paddy Tipping we can see how the evolution of the House of Commons into a de facto English parliament, and the House of Lords into a federal de facto British parliament, might begin.

Lord Lamont can hardly be blamed for enquiring as to whether a future Prime Minister might sit in the upper house. So to which other constitutional issue could Commons' electoral reform be harnessed? Paddy Tipping has already given us a clue. The Hansard Audit on Political Engagement discovered that "The constitutional issue that the greatest number of people are dissatisfied with by far is Scottish MPs being able to vote on English issues in the Commons (46%)." By contrast just 21% were dissatisfied with FPTP and 36% were dissatisfied by the way members of the House of Lords were chosen. So rather than support piecemeal and conservative constitutional changes, which is what the referendum on AV was, wouldn't it make more sense for campaigners such as Oliver Huitson and Anthony Barnett to promote wholescale radical changes which tied together the cases for Lords reform, electoral reform and a solution to the West Lothian Question into a cohesive and popular settlement?

If the Lords does become a proportionally elected upper chamber, it is highly likely that it will become viewed as the more representative and - if the Tories strip non-English MPs of their voting rights - the more British of Parliament's two chambers, especially when viewed from outside England. Such a change in public perceptions would have a knock-on effect on how the British government is viewed because if non-English MPs have no right to vote on the majority of Westminster legislation they become second-class members; unfit for Government positions in departments with an English portfolio; unfit to be ministers for departments on whose legislation they cannot vote, and upon which they have no democratic mandate. There is even the argument that it would be difficult for an MP elected outside England to become prime minister under circumstances where suitability for cabinet positions is determined territorially.

The solution is either to ignore the West Lothian Question or create an English parliament. The traditional left-wing/progressive response to such a suggestion is to claim that a democratically elected English parliament and government would be reactionary/right-wing/Conservative, that the 'progressive majority' in Britain is dependent on Scotland and Wales. I do not believe that that is the case. But for those for whom it is a worry then such worries should be assuaged by electing the English parliament under a more proportional electoral system.

Let us suppose that we have an elected upper chamber from which the British Government and British Prime Minister can be drawn. This upper house would be responsible for reserved areas of Government and scrutiny of the national parliaments of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. And let us suppose that the House of Commons becomes an English parliament, elected by AV+, from which the English Government and First Minister can be drawn. What would be the benefits and drawbacks of such a system? Benefits

  • England has a national voice within the Union, a government and first minister
  • The asymmetry of democratic representation in the UK is ended.
  • The House of Lords could be reduced in size from its current 850-appointees to 400 or so democratically elected members with an enhanced constitutional role, and the Commons could be reduced in size to from 650 British MPs to 550 MPs elected wholly in England on an English mandate.
  • The people of England would have a more proportional electoral system but still retain the MP-constituency link that is important for accountability on devolved issues such as health, education and policing. The more proportional system would better reflect the diversity of political opinion in England and mitigate the North-South/Labour-Tory divide.
  • The MPs elected by the AV+ regional list system can form the basis of regional grand committees within the English parliament (as opposed to the unrepresentative regional select committees that Gordon Brown imposed). These grand committees could sit outside Westminster and work with local council leaders and mayors under the aegis of the English parliament.
  • The presence of `regional MPs' anticipates a Barnett Formula reformed on the basis of a new fairer, needs-based funding mechanism (see Holtham) calculated on a regional basis.

Drawbacks

  • Difficult to implement, not least because such a settlement would require the consent of the English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish. There might be opposition to a quasi-federal settlement from newly emboldened separatists in Scotland.

The scale of No2AV's victory will be presented as an overwhelming endorsement of FPTP, and a vote for the Status Quo. It really could put electoral reform off the agenda for a generation.  But our political system may be creaking at the seams. Put your ear to the ground and you can already hear the wagons being circled around Westminster:

Mrs Beckett, a leading No campaigner, said "Ever since I was a teenager I've been listening to people saying: 'The British people demand a change to our political system' - I never believed it and I'm very happy to have been proved right."

It's a real shame because there is a case for electoral reform (FPTP was not endorsed) and people are not happy with the Status Quo. So make the case for electoral reform outside the context of the Status Quo. Electoral reform needs to be put back on the agenda quickly, but in order to do achieve that the electoral reform lobby needs to reach out beyond its core liberal supporters to encompass those who are marginalised by the Status Quo but do not see electoral reform as a panacea. There needs to be a vision of a stable and coherent constitution in which a new electoral system will operate. It was the failure to imagine such a future and make it part of the 'Yes' campaign that left its attempt at electoral reform smacking of rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. It is hardly surprising that the public was not inspired.

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