Rediscovering an old publication

Believe it or not, I just noticed an article by me, published in an academic journal, has been missing from my CV for over twenty years! In fact, I had to search on the web to find it.

“The Jenkins Paradox: A complex system, yet only a timid step towards PR,” Representation 36:2 (1999).

I thought of it when wanting to link to it in my previous note about the Quebec proposal. And then I could not find the link because it was not on my CV (or website)!

My personal favorite passage from my forgotten article, after commenting on the Jenkins Commission proposal for the UK and its flaws:

It would seem, therefore, preferable to use MMP with a small percentage of PR seats, or MMP with multiple regional PR compensation regions, or straightforward alternative vote, but not some combination of all three!

The other thing I realized in searching for this is just how dreadfully bad the interface of the Taylor and Francis journals website is.

Meanwhile in the UK…

I think I’ve said this a time or two before… but things in the UK seem to be getting pretty interesting this week, and in the weeks to come.

Strong and stable, and all that.

So, any predictions, comments, etc.? Here’s the place.

Electoral reform’s comeback in the United Kingdom

About two years ago, I wrote a piece for this blog in which I argued that the increased vote shares for the two major parties in the United Kingdom at the 2017 election, and the relatively low levels of disproportionality that this had created, meant that no political party would be able to have both the incentive and ability to change the electoral system.

Since then, things have changed somewhat.

The inability of Theresa May’s government to propose a Brexit deal which would satisfy parliament and the reluctance of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party to express its full-throated opposition to Brexit has led to former UKIP leader Nigel Farage forming the new Brexit Party, and the Liberal Democrats and Greens making considerable headway. At European Parliament elections held in May of this year, the Conservatives and Labour won just 22% of the vote between them, with the Brexit Party finishing in a comfortable first and the Liberal Democrats coming second. Since then, the Conservatives and Labour have also plummeted in polling for Commons elections, with only a few percentage points seperating them and the Brexit Party and Liberal Democrats.

Now, the Brexit Party have joined the Liberal Democrats, regionalist parties, and Greens, long advocates for the cause of electoral reform, in calling for the replacement of first-past-the-post with an as-yet unspecified proportional electoral system. While it may seem slightly unusual for Farage’s party to be promoting an idea that is more often associated with the left wing of politics in the United Kingdom, it can be explained with reference to the potential uncertainty that the party has about the number of seats they could win under FPTP given that current estimates of their support are around 20%. While all such predictions should be taken with a grain of salt given the dramatic changes in party support, one analysis of opinion polling suggests that 20% of the vote for the Brexit Party could translate into just 68 seats, while the Conservatives’ 23% would translate into 193 seats and Labour’s 25% would secure them 257 seats.

In such circumstances, the Brexit Party may well see it as wiser to argue for an electoral system that guarantees them a stable share of seats, rather than entering into the potential lottery of a near four-way tie under FPTP. However, does this logic apply to the ‘major’ Labour and Conservative parties? After all, they lead the Brexit and Liberal Democrats only narrowly, and this lead could be erased by a weak campaign, leaving them with a potentially disastrous seat haul.

Would either of these two major parties be willing to change their positions on electoral reform? Labour may appear to have a more substantial ideological committment to electoral reform: after all, then-leader Ed Miliband backed the Alternative Vote in the 2011 referendum and a Labour government introduced list PR for European elections, MMP for devolved assemblies, and the Supplementary Vote for directly elected mayoralties. The Conservatives opposed AV, and promised to roll back MMP for the London assembly and the Supplementary Vote in their 2017 manifesto.

However, in this case the political logic of the electoral system may run the other way. The histograms below show the share of the vote cast for the Labour and Conservative parties at the 2017 election, in seats where each party won. As can be seen, Labour have more winners with higher majorities than the Conservatives, who won virtually all of their seats with less than 62.5% of the vote.

labourtory

(data from Constituency Level Election Archive)

This suggests that the Conservative seat total may be more vulnerable to a dramatic drop in the party’s vote share than Labour, which has more seats in which they can afford to lose a large share of their vote. This is reflected in the aforementioned Electoral Calculus analysis, which gives the Conservatives 64 fewer seats than Labour for a vote share slightly less than two percentage points lower. As such, a switch to PR may make more political sense for the Conservatives, despite their long ideological committment to FPTP.

At this stage, talk of electoral reform is somewhat theoretical: as wrangling over Brexit continues, Parliament is unlikely to be able to find time to dedicate to the complicated exercise of changing the electoral systen, and the currently pro-PR parties have only derisory representation in this Parliament. However, if the next Prime Minister is unable to deal with their slim majority in this Parliament, a new election may bring these issues to a head, and bring the problems of the FPTP system in a four-party system out of the realm of the theoretical.

So now where for Brexit?

I spent far too much of my spring break listening to debates from the UK House of Commons. And even though I heard almost everything that was said today, I am still not sure what happened. Or, rather, what it means for next week and beyond.

What do folks around the virtual orchard think is going to happen?

UK MPs “plot” to do their job

As the expected “meaningful vote” on the EU-UK withdrawal agreement looms, and the legally mandated Brexit day (29 March) draws closer, it is worth thinking clearly about what the relationship is between the House of Commons and the executive in the UK system. As it happens, this is the week in my Ph.D. seminar on party and legislative organization in which we read a couple of items specifically about this relationship. Understanding the relationship is important if for no other reason than to inoculate oneself against headlines like this one in the Sunday Times yesterday:

Revealed: Commons plot to seize control from Theresa May ahead of Brexit vote

The print version even had a headline about a “coup”. It is bad enough when the newspapers and talking heads refer to a vote within a party on the continuance (or not) if its leader as a “coup”. It is just that much worse when the possibility of elected representatives taking back power from the executive is so branded.

To be clear, when a collective body to whom a leader (or other collective body) is responsible seeks to replace or diminish the authority of the latter, it is not a coup.

The specific potential actions that got the Times and “one senior figure” quoted therein so worked up is summarized as:

At least two groups of rebel MPs are plotting to change Commons rules so motions proposed by backbenchers take precedence over government business, upending the centuries-old relationship between executive and legislature.

Let’s be clear about something, shall we? The executive in a parliamentary democracy is an agent of the assembly, not vice versa. Thus if a majority of the House of Commons seeks to clip the wings of its agent, this is a principal acting as it should.

It is a separate question as to whether existing statutory law permits a change in control over the order of business, or whether statute first would have to be changed. That is, parliament may already have delegated away some of its rights to make day-to-day changes in business. If that is the case, these “rebel MPs” may be out of luck in the short term, and given the press of time (the Brexit deadline), the short term is rather important. Yet clearly they would have the right, under the structure of the political system, to make an effort to take back powers currently given to the executive.

A second critical point here is that the claim of a “centuries-old relationship” is just plain wrong. On this point, it is indeed helpful that I have just re-read Gary W. Cox’s masterful The Efficient Secret (1987), wherein the author traces exactly the process by which backbenchers relinquished their capacity for legislative initiative (and the emergence of an electoral connection between voters and the executive). The timeline provided by Cox makes clear that there was no single watershed date on which parliamentary power of initiative was abolished. More to the point of the preceding quote from the Times, Cox shows that this process of delegation took place in the middle of the 19th century. Thus we have something less that a “centuries-old” precedent, even if it is undoubtedly true that the executive generally has dominated the agenda of the House for quite a long time.

Cox also makes clear that this relinquishing of initiative did not take place without a fight–MPs regularly resisted efforts to centralize agenda power, but ultimately gave in because it served their own collective interests.

Of course, if a delegation of authority ceases at some moment to serve the collective interests of parliament, what has been delegated can be taken back. At least in principle, as again, if it requires statutory change rather than a procedural motion, it is somewhat more difficult to pull off.

Nonetheless, the governing Conservative Party (which is in a minority in the House) is evidently worried. Today in the House proceedings, there was a series of Points of Order, including several raised by Conservative MPs about scenarios like those sketched by the Times. The exchange is worth watching, at least for those of us interested in parliamentary procedure and executive-legisaltive relations. The exchanges run just over 16 minutes, from around 18:11 (when Prime Minister May answers her last question about her earlier statement to the House) to 18:27 (the last response by the Speaker to the various Points or Order).

The Speaker indicates in one of his responses (to Charlie Elphicke) that it is indeed his understanding that a “statutory instrument” currently can be raised only by a Minister of the Crown. Nonetheless, the next MP to raise a Point of Order (Nigel Huddleston) asks the Speaker to clarify whether MPs are indeed equal, with full access to information about any changes of procedure. (This is a pretty remarkable question!) Then in response to the final Point of Order of the exchange (Matt Warman, who says his constituents have raised doubts about the role of the Speaker), the Speaker says he will defend the rights of the House against “agents of the executive branch”.

Today’s discussion comes against a backdrop of a claim by hardline Brexiteer Tories that the Speaker upended some precedent on procedures in December and again just last week. The issues in question concern what the House can do if, as widely expected, the meaningful vote results in parliamentary defeat of the withdrawal agreement.

The upshot of all this is that the House is not quite as weak as it is often portrayed, and it may be prepared to reassert itself. As Ed Miliband stated in an intervention in today’s debates, the executive works on behalf of the parliament. It may be something that gets forgotten at times, especially by journalists and taking heads. But it is a basic fact of parliamentary democracy.

It is not only journalists and taking heads who forget about the importance of parliament. It is also academics, as another book on my seminar reading list for this week notes. Meg Russel and Daniel Gover’s Legislation at Westminster (2017) offers a much welcome corrective to the mainstream understanding. They push against the “parliamentary decline thesis” and offer a rich analysis, both quantitative and qualitative, of how parliament (both chambers) actually has substantial influence on legislative output. Some of this influence is due to relatively recent changes in parliamentary organization (e.g., changes in the 1970s to institutionalize the select committee system). Again, this serves as a reminder that “precedent” that gives a dominant role to the executive comes with all sorts of caveats, and is subject to occasional rebalancing. In any case, it is not a “centuries-old” precedent, but rather more recent. And it could be that Brexit is showing that it is rather fragile, too.

We may be witnessing a reassertion by the House of its rightful role in determining what course of action its agent, the executive, shall follow.

UK politics: Now what?

To say it has been an interesting, even tumultuous, week in UK politics would be an understatement. As readers of this blog are quite likely aware, earlier this week the PM, Theresa May, called off the “meaningful vote” on the Brexit deal her government and the EU had negotiated. A day later she survived an internal party no-confidence vote, which revealed that those who want her not to remain Conservative Party leader amount to 37% of the caucus.

So, what happens next, both for her government and for the Brexit process?

I am interested in the expectations and assessments of readers of this blog.

As an aide, I was just looking at what I said when the results of May’s snap election in 2017 were known.

What will it mean for policy, especially Brexit? I can’t claim to know! But the DUP does not want a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland, and that implies a “softer” Brexit. On the other hand, if the main motivation May had in calling the election was to boost her standing against restive members of her own caucus who want a harder Brexit, she failed. It will not be easy governance or policy-making for May or an intraparty successor.

I guess that much still stands as of this week. Especially the first two sentences.