Coalition’s first 100 days: Reforming politics

In the fourth of’s week-long series of features on the coalition government, we look at the frenzied pace of constitutional reform.

By Ian Dunt

Britain is a baffling country of contradictions, and nowhere is this more evident than its capacity for change. One the one hand, it has a fast-moving service economy, a multicultural metropolis at its heart and a forward-looking approach to the world and technology. On the other, its political and constitutional arrangements are achingly slow and anaemic, even when their inconsistencies have been accepted by everyone.

Case in point: House of Lords reform. For nearly a century it has stood as a testament to the enduring inability of the British political system to adapt. Back in 1911, the Parliament Act introduced by the Liberal government aimed to “substitute for the House of Lords as it at present exists a Second Chamber constituted on a popular instead of hereditary basis, but such substitution cannot be immediately brought into operation”.

‘Not immediately’ turned into ‘not for a hundred years’, but the coalition government aims to get the job done in five. Aware of the flak he would get from his own supporters for joining a coalition with the Tories, Nick Clegg has been desperate to show solid results from a Lib Dem presence in government. By the time he goes to the country again he needs House of Lords reform set in stone and civil liberties reinstalled, with AV acting as the electoral system used to judge his achievements. For some, this represents a breath of fresh air after the glacial pace of change under Labour. Others believe the speed with which the government is pursuing its aims has led to badly constructed legislation, a needless loss of cross-party agreement and the real possibility of failure. Nowhere is this more evident than with fixed-term parliaments.

Fixed term parliaments

The coalition agreement contained plans for fixed parliamentary terms – a Labour and Lib Dem manifesto commitment but not a Tory one – along with details of the emergency procedure for getting a government out if it had lost support. But the coalition partners were keen to make sure they could not just walk out the coalition at any time. The driving motivation was a need to reassure the public and the markets that this would not be a brief torrid affair, but a five-year marriage lasting until 2015. Ministers formulated a plan whereby the government could only be thrown out with the votes of 55% of the Commons (358 MPs). The threshold was above either party individually, but there were problems. The plan, which would for instance have prevented Labour being brought down during the Winter of Discontent, meant the combined force of all other parties would still not bring the Tories down, even if they could no longer enact legislation.

The very idea of a separate threshold for the no-confidence and dissolution procedures upset some analysts, like Robert Hazell, head of the Constitution Unit at University College London (UCL). But there was also concern at the proposal to set the fixed term at five, rather than four years.

“Both by reference to our own past history at Westminster, but also if you look around the world, those who go for fixed term go for a four-year term,” Hazell says. “In Europe the norm is four years, not five. There are only three countries I’ve been able to find -Italy, France and Luxembourg – which have five-year terms. The legislation has been prepared much too quickly, and they’ve missed an opportunity to do this in a cross-party way. There’s no need for it to be rushed.”

The five-year-term remains, but the government backed down on its threshold plans. The move was intended to relieve concerns that a government would turn zombie – without enough support to enact legislation but impossible to remove from office. There are other worries, however. According to current legislation, a vote of no confidence sends the prime minister straight to the Queen. The new rules would offer the prime minister two weeks to try and form a stable government. Critics say this is a licence for bribery, with the PM likely to offer small parties like the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) legislative gifts in exchange for their support.

This is what it’s like when you start discussing constitutional reform. You quickly get wrapped up in strange probabilistic games about possible futures. James Graham, campaigns manager at Unlock Democracy, thinks the complaints are overblown. “In practise you won’t really get to that stage,” he says. “The PM would be in a fairly serious situation. If he could easily buy off a small party and come back that’s one thing but he’d be very wounded, and the expectation would be for him to stand down. It’s fantasy land stuff. What’s politically possible is always different from what’s constitutionally possible.”

House of Lords

It isn’t just images of the future haunting the coalition, it’s images of the past as well – notably that century-long unfulfilled Liberal promise to reform the Lords. It’s been so long now that peers act as if it will never happen. But something is different this time: most of the legwork is done. “Pretty much every aspect of Lords reform you care to mention has been reviewed and consulted to death – all in minute detail,” Graham says. The voting system for the second chamber was the last real stumbling block, and the coalition agreement settled that debate by deciding on proportional representation. The political will is there as well. This is one of the areas Clegg must deliver on, especially given the Lib Dem slide in the polls.

The Lords, however, can fight back, by repeatedly throwing the bill back to the Commons. There is a mechanism to stop this called the Parliament Act (another one). The last time it was used was to ban hunting with dogs, but a legal challenge by the Countryside Alliance prompted the law lords to judge that the Act itself was only suitable for general legislation. The more something looks like constitutional law, the less it would apply. But such a detailed legal bid to prevent reform would see popular sentiment turn decisively against the Lords. “Any prime minister worth their salt would start reading their biography of Lloyd George if they clung on like that,” Graham suggests.

Concentrating on the Lords may be presumptuous. Some analysts believe the bill might even struggle in the Commons. “All the parties are internally divided on Lords
reform, with strong defenders of an elected or appointed House to be found spread across all parties,” says Hazell, who has serious concerns that the bill might not be accepted by the majority of MPs. “A second difficulty is the degree of ignorance in the Commons about the House of Lords. The cross-party group achieved a broad consensus because they were forced to think hard about the second chamber for over a year. Most MPs never think about the Lords, and never go there: in parliamentary language it really is ‘the other place’. When they are forced to think about it, many find the idea of an elected second chamber a threat to their own sense of legitimacy, and primacy.”

Constituency sizes

If the Lords will cause a problem in the Commons, it’s nothing compared the fierce passions dredged up by the parliamentary voting system and constituencies bill. The legislation is intended to set the referendum on the Alternative Vote (AV) system in stone but it had a separate, seemingly academic, measure tagged onto it: equalising the size of constituencies. In fact, that may turn out to be a game changer.

The coalition is concerned that British constituencies are so radically unequal, with some containing a much higher population than others but all returning one MP. Unfortunately, the decision to equalise constituency sizes on the back of the current electoral roll prompted an angry response from Labour, which said black people and the young would be disproportionately affected. This is true, in that those groups are underrepresented on the electoral register. But the Labour government is at fault for failing to sort it out in all its long 13 years in power, the coalition argued.

In the background is another, more revealing aspect to the debate. Labour’s support is largely centred in major urban centres, while Tory support is more spread out. Equalising the constituencies would counter what many Tories view as the in-built bias towards Labour in the electoral system. There are also suspicions that David Cameron used the idea to buy off Tory concerns about a referendum on AV.

Reformers are bemused by the passion with which MPs argue the case, when there are so many glaring deficiencies in the British electoral system. “All it is arguing about is how overrepresented the Tories should be and how overrepresented Labour should be,” James says. “That excites them, but it’s not an argument the general public has any sympathy for. If it were up to me it would all go away, because it makes the AV vote harder to win by pissing off the Labour party.”

And that’s exactly what it did. As things stand Labour, which campaigned at the election on holding a referendum on AV, is not going to support the bill because of what it sees as gerrymandering.

AV referendum

Does that mean the referendum won’t take place? It’s unlikely to get that bad. The bill’s defeat would involve Tory rebels showing up in such big numbers that it beats the government’s majority. They would instantly be blamed for bringing down the coalition.

But just because the bill reaches the statute book doesn’t mean the ‘yes’ camp will win the referendum. A YouGov poll published this week shows support has, for the first time, tipped in the ‘no’ camp’s favour, although by a tiny margin of 38% to 37%.

“No-one can take for granted that this referendum is a done deal,” says Ashley De, head of communications at the Electoral Reform Society. “Opponents on the left and the right have been coming out over the last month. There’s been a lot of sabotage dressed up as principles. The campaign proper hasn’t begun and the decisive group are the undecideds. Every poll we’ve seen shows the undecideds could swing each way. And the starting gun hasn’t even been fired.”

It’s possible the inclusion of constituency sizes in the bill might come back to haunt the Lib Dems. Some observers believe Labour will be so upset it won’t even campaign for a ‘yes’ vote at the referendum, or will simply leave MPs to their own devises. The Tories, as per the coalition agreement, will be campaigning for a ‘no’ vote.

“I think it’s going to be lost, because it has been so rushed,” Hazell says. “There’s been no green paper, no white paper, no consultation of any kind. It’s likely the Labour party will divide come the referendum. Campaigners naively suppose people will vote for it because AV is seen as a better system. The public know nothing about electoral reform, and it requires a big campaign. I’ve spoken to several international experts about the timescale and their reaction is: ‘You must be joking’.”

By and large, voters are moved by their wallets, not their constitutional arrangements. Newspaper editors know that and so do party strategists. But the frenzied activity on the government benches marks the greatest sustained attempt at wholesale reform of the British political system since women were given the vote. In the future, historians may well come to look at the 2010 parliament as a remarkably eventful and radical period in Westminster’s history. Or perhaps the frenzied speed of reform will ultimately prove a stumbling block, preventing consensus and raising passions to the point where little is achieved.

This is Clegg’s baby. For now, the weight of this work lies on his shoulders alone. If he fails to show results, the game’s up. If he manages it, he could find his place in the history books secured, no matter what the election result in 2015.