The Con Lib coalition are pledging to complete by 2015 the programme of political reform that faltered under Labour. So promised yesterday the deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, in charge of the reforms. It is a jumbo programme, taking in the big ticket items of the Alternative Vote to elect MPs to a Commons smaller perhaps by 100, more power to the Commons itself, an elected Upper House to replace the Lords first promised a full century ago, a British Bill of Rights, and reform of how devolution for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is financed.
Clegg will need fallbacks to avoid failure, warns the Constitution Unit. The Conservatives and Lib Dems are split over AV, though the arguments of self interest run against the Tories clinging to first-past-the-post. A smaller Commons is far from a done deal. Jack Straw, the overcautious sponsor of Labour’s constitutional renewal, is against
Voter confusion and indifference means that a referendum on AV alone is likely to be lost. But with the legacy of the expenses scandal still able to strike down a minister, public interest might be won if AV and a smaller Commons were wrapped in a single question. That idea is controversial already. It might be thought unfair to put two different elements in one package. But the two elements are conceived in parallel and there are precedents. The devolution referendums in Scotland, Wales and especially Northern Ireland were huge and complex packages.
What are the direct effects for Northern Ireland? How many fewer than the present 18 seats? 16, or if there is to be an added devolution deficit, back to 12? There may be changes in the sectarian balance and claims of weakening the Union. Most Northern Ireland parties are unlikely to welcome any such move.
Another election is to be added to an already formidable list, if Lords reform goes through. Some juggling with dates may be necessary to avoid a clash with the Assembly election after next, if a fixed five year term for Parliament passes.
The pledge that Scotland will get Calman and the right to raise 10p in the £ income tax makes more insistent the growing pressure to reform the Barnett formula for allocating the block grant. So far NI has played little part in this debate. The government has pledged to look again at a lower corporation tax regime for NI only , rubbished by Verney. In his election whistle-stop in NI, David Cameron mentioned an enterprise zone. Pressed on what was meant by that, Peter Robinson said he hadn’t the faintest idea. He should find out.
Read the Constitution Unit’s press statement
The coalition’s ambitious political reform programme needs fallbacks to avoid failure, says Constitution Unit
The new coalition government needs to create fallbacks and alternatives to avert the risk of failure in key aspects of its political reform programme, says the Constitution Unit. The warning comes in a major report analysing the Conservative-Lib Dem agenda for constitutional and political reform by the Unit’s director Professor Robert Hazell.
“The risk of failure lies not only in differences between and within the parties or in tight timetables, but in the fact that many of these issues are incredibly difficult, as the previous government found,” said Prof Hazell.
“The government must be willing to compromise, and have fallback positions. The coalition agreement does not allow much room for that” Prof Hazell added. “One good example is the referendum on AV. As it stands, it is likely to be lost. But if combined with other issues, such as reducing the size of the House of Commons, it could be won”.
Clegg’s “parallel issues,” the AV Referendum and a smaller Commons
Public confusion means the referendum on the Alternative Vote for the Commons is likely to be lost as the parties are split over it. Ways to attract interest in the referendum could be to combine AV with the parallel issue of reducing the size of the Commons: or AV for the Commons with PR for an elected Upper House. The Conservatives should realise that a smaller Commons could only eliminate about a third of the current bias against them in the voting system. If they’re serious about eliminating the bias, they should consider PR.
Towards an elected second chamber
Although on the surface all parties support an elected Upper House, deep divisions within all parties make agreement extremely difficult. The government should build on work already done in the previous Parliament. AV for the Commons and PR for an 80% elected, 20% appointed Lords is one option. Another is the fallback of more modest reforms for the mainly appointed House including retirement provisions and setting the principle of proportionality in line with the Commons in a government statement or code.
A Fixed term Parliament
To avoid a clash with Conservative backbenchers, the government’s 55% threshold belongs better in the coalition agreement and the new cabinet manual rather than in legislation, making it clear that the normal threshold for confidence motions remains at 50%.
More thought is needed on how fixed terms for Westminster fit with the electoral cycles of the Scottish Parliament, the Assemblies of Wales and Northern Ireland, the European Parliament and elections to the second chamber. If the government wished to avoid any clash between UK general and other elections, it could move general elections to October, with the next election to be held in October 2014. This would reduce the coalition’s term to just over four years, which might in any case make it easier to manage.
Commission on the West Lothian Question
The government must decide in the terms of reference, whether this commission is simply to work up a scheme for English votes on English laws, or look at wider solutions to the West Lothian Question, such as PR.
Independent reviews and consultation
On major reforms, reviews by government departments only, making them judge and jury in their own case, are inadvisable. Independent commissions should conduct reviews for a replacement of the Barnett formula for financial devolution and on the terms of a British Bill of Rights.
It is difficult to entrench a referendum requirement for future EU treaties, because a future Parliament could repeal it. At most the requirement would be politically entrenched. The courts would hold it to be non-justiciable.
Regulation of political parties
The Conservatives are much stronger financially than Labour or the Liberal Democrats, and have less interest in reaching agreement on party funding. The Lib Dems have lost their Short money (paid only to opposition parties) and will want an increase in state funding. This will be hard to justify at a time of public spending cuts.
Managing the coalition
The programme for government needs a mid term review to allow the coalition to drop policies that aren’t working, and to add new ones. The Deputy PM needs additional resources to support him in the joint consultation and signing off arrangements, or there will be bottlenecks at the centre.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London