Cameron pushes his own reforms


Following on from potential Labour leader Alan Johnson’s call for the implementation of proportional representation in the House of Commons, Conservative leader David Cameron has proposed his own raft of reforms:

  • Limit the power of the prime minister by giving serious consideration to introducing fixed-term parliaments, ending the right of Downing Street to control the timing of general elections.
  • End the “pliant” role of parliament by giving MPs free votes during the consideration of bills at committee stage. MPs would also be handed the crucial power of deciding the timetable of bills.
  • Boost the power of backbench MPs – and limit the powers of the executive – by allowing MPs to choose the chairs and members of Commons select committees.
  • Open up the legislative process to outsiders by sending out text alerts on the progress of parliamentary bills and by posting proceedings on YouTube.
  • Curb the power of the executive by limiting the use of the royal prerogative which allows the prime minister, in the name of the monarch, to make major ­decisions. Gordon Brown is making sweeping changes in this area in the constitutional renewal bill, but Cameron says he would go further.
  • Publish the expenses claims of all public servants earning more than £150,000.
  • Strengthen local government by giving councils the power of “competence”. This would allow councils to reverse Whitehall decisions to close popular services, such as a local post office or a railway station, by giving them the power to raise money to keep them open.

I think some of these ideas are genuinely very good. Fixed term parliaments is a good step towards improving democracy, particularly if it entrenched the recent reality that most governments choose to go to the polls after four years. Other changes to the role of local government and the power of the executive likewise are a good step.

Some of them, however, seem gimmicky or impossible to maintain. The idea that sending out text messages and posting Parliament on Youtube is a major reform seems just silly. While I like the idea of MPs having a free vote when amending legislation and allowing backbench MPs to elect chairmen of their committees, they seem completely at odds with the current electoral system, apart from really being the responsibility of party leaders rather than the Prime Minister. A Conservative PM can’t force a Labour Opposition to allow its members a free vote.

Any future Conservative government will hold a majority in Parliament and will need to maintain it to stay in power. While it may be easy in his early days to grant his MPs this freedom, as soon as Labour begins to threaten him, and the day-to-day battle of winners and losers returns, pressure will come to bear on MPs with theoretical independence to not rock the boat and be a team player. Such a system would not be very different from the current reality. Likewise, a Conservative government faced with the embarassment of a party opponent winning the chair of a major committee could easily put pressure on its MPs.

You can’t create an independent legislature in a political system where a government is part of the legislature and the electoral system gives the party of government a majority. If you want to give MPs independence from the executive, you have two options:

  • Separate the executive from the legislature, as the US does. This would remove the close connection between the votes of MPs and the existence of their government. It would also reduce the ability of the executive to control MPs through the giving away of government offices and reduce their incentive to devote energy to maintaining rigid party discipline.
  • Change the electoral system so that most elections do not result in a government majority. Even if a significant minority of MPs are members of the government party and even ministers, a hung parliament is independent of government. Even a loose coalition or a minority government with agreements with minor parties produce vastly more accountability than a majority government.

There is actually a compromise option. I would argue that we have effectively created a hybrid model in Australia, with a separation of powers between the executive and the legislature, if you consider the legislature to be the Senate. Effectively the House of Representatives’ only real role in government now is as an electoral college and a pool of potential ministers.

In contrast, the Senate functions as an independent body in two ways. Firstly, it is proportional, and thus is usually independent of the government. Even though a large minority are loyal to the government, the body as a whole is independent. Of course, like any independent legislature, a dominant government can occasionally take control of the legislature (as, you could argue, the Nationals have effectively now done in New Zealand). In addition to that, even though ministers sit in the Senate, the government is not responsible to the Senate, thus Senators are elected without consideration of whether they will make or break the government, although, like any legislature, in extreme cases they can undermine the government beyond simply blocking legislation (think 1975, or Bill Clinton’s budget crisis in 1995).

Of course, it doesn’t deal with the issue that governments still hold power with minority support, and it doesn’t deal with the major issue that you have a chamber with so much of the power and resources reduced to an echo chamber and electoral college. But it could be a first step in the UK, by replacing the House of Lords with an elected Senate, along the same lines as the Australian Senate, or possibly the way that the UK elects it’s Members of the European Parliament.

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  1. I’m a bit worried about the last suggestion from Cameron because an economic rationalist government could essentially force the upkeep of public services on to local councils.

    PR; yes. Fixed terms; yes. Reforming the committee system; yes. An elected upper house; yes.

  2. Regarding an elected Lords along the lines of the Senate – I’m hoping you aren’t meaning a federated system, and just the PR version. However, with 738 members you’d only need 0.13% to elect. I suspect that it would switch to one based on the EU system, but even that would entail some regions (like the South East) having somewhere around 100 Lords (or Senators, or whatever…), so the only feasible way would be to cut the numbers dramatically, including getting rid of the Lords – Spiritual altogether.

    However, I would suggest that without bi-partisan support it will be difficult to establish an elected Lords, just as it would be difficult to get PR, Alternative Vote or other systems introduced for the Commons. While the Conservative Party continue (like some Liberals here) to see it in their advantage, they will continue to support FFP.

  3. Oh, when I said federated system, I was thinking about the creation of “states” out of UK counties or somesuch. The EU regional system does at least provide some balance for population densities, something a county based system would have real problems doing. Counties, while having some of the service delivery features of states, don’t have the historical features (or historical baggage, some might say) of states.

    And on the whole “Responsible” Government thing, I actually think it half works in the UK – look at how many MP’s vote against their own party on issues! However, as it has a real tendency to move to a US or Australian style of party government, the theory of responsible government on which the whole Westminster tradition is based begins to break down

  4. Love the limitation of the use of the Royal Prerogative. Straight from Tony Benn’s agenda. But I suspect above all else this is aimed at limiting the power of a government to sign treaties under soveriegn power without having them approved by Parliament, and for that read forcing a government to get parliamentary approval if it goes any further into Europe.

  5. I’m beginning to understand how direct-election republicans felt in the referendum! Alan Johnson has been pushing the party list-style AV which came out of the Jenkins report, giving it a bit of default momentum. Of course being a Tasmanian Hare-Clark fan I love being able to choose my representatives within parties as well as between them. I worry that an AV system would just end up like EU parliament etc with a pile of party hacks filling up the positions (nothing against party hacks, I used to be one!). If there was a referendum on AV+ then I’d be pretty torn deciding whether to accept it or wait for something better. The momentum in the UK is building pretty strongly for ‘something’, but it’s more an opportunity for the electoral reformers to run off the back of the expenses scandal rather than any real desire for reform. So maybe we’ll just have to run with whatever we can get.

  6. Simon, it’s worth noting the AV+ would have a much lower proportion of MPs elected by lists than Germany and New Zealand. So most MPs would still be elected by constituencies. In addition the top-up seats would be decided on relatively local regions (65 in England), so the top-up MPs would be a lot less distant than they are in Germany or New Zealand.

    I see that as a problem, since it means that there is very little proportionality in the system. It would provide a little bit of balance between the major parties, but would ultimately not change massively. Indeed, the preference part of AV+ would have much more impact than the proportional representation part.

  7. While AV+ is far from perfect I’d certainly get behind it. A few reasons: It would avoid the situation where a party with less than 40% can have a thumping majority, as can happen now. While it would not give small parties a fair share of the seats it would mean they could probably get one or two in their strongest areas, giving them a foothold in parliament. If the Greens elected good people they’d build from there. The BNP would probably expose themselves badly and hopefully self destruct. Finally, by getting people used to preferential voting it would make it easier to make further change, rather than being an end in itself.

  8. If 20% of the next House of Commons was the top up then that would be 150 seats. This is 6 seats more than twice the number of MEPs they are electing this year. At these numbers it would be conceivable that they were elected according to the same electorates as the MEPs. On that basis, if the 5% threshold was regional, then the Tories and LibDems would be topped up in the North, Labour and the LibDems in the South, the Greens (and any other region they scrapped over the threshold) in London and SNP/Plaid (if they didn`t crush Labour) and the Tories in Scotland and Wales (respectively). Northern Ireland would probably get an Alliance MP and the other parties would share the other 5 or 6.

    Labour seems to favour supplementary voting (a first and second round of preferences and all eliminations in one go) over the use of numbers.

    The preferencing in England would favour the LibDems. The effect in Scotland and Wales would be harder to determine. In Northern Ireland the unionist parties would get the vast majority of each other`s preferences as would the Nationalist parties with some leaking to the Alliance.

  9. A couple of points, Tom.

    20% of the House of Commons is not 150. If it was, then there would be 750 seats in the House. It’s more like 130.

    The Jenkins Commission did not propose electing top-up seats by EP constituency (although I think that would be a good idea). Instead he proposed breaking up the UK into 80 regions, including 65 in England. Even Northern Ireland would be broken up into 2 regions. In this case, the number of top-up seats ends up being averaged out as 1-2 seats per region (although some areas could conceivably have 3.

    The Jenkins model would not include any ‘overhang’ seats like in NZ and Germany. If you did, there would be a massive number of overhang seats. Using the D’Hondt model, you give the seat to the party who has the most votes when you divide their votes by the number of seats they have already won plus one. The Jenkins model credits parties with the constituency seats they have alread won before the seats are distributed.

    What this means in practice is that the 1 seat in most regions will go to the major party who is underrepresented. In most counties one major party holds the vast majority of seats, while the other is largely locked out. In a few regions where the Liberal Democrats are relatively strong (without many seats) or where the number of constituencies for the major parties are representative of the vote, they would win the seat. I can’t see parties like the Greens winning any. Consider Oxfordshire, where the Greens are relatively strong in the town of Oxford. 4 seats are held by the Conservatives, and one each by the Liberal Democrats and Labour. The one top-up seat for that region would probably go to Labour, with a small chance it would go to the Lib Dems.

  10. If I was designing an AV+ model for the UK, I would reduce the number of constituencies to 500, with 150 top-up seats. I would then distribue top-up seats according to the nine English regions with Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland being their own regions. This would produce much better proportionality while maintaining a large number of constituencies and some local connection for MEPs.

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