Fixed term parliaments to be revisited?

Democratic Audit UK has a good discussion of the issue of fixed terms for the UK House of Commons, which were legislated by the current coalition government that took power following the 2010 election. A group of Tory backbenchers has proposed doing away with the 2011 Fixed Term Parliaments Act.

With a single-party majority in 2015 looking unlikely, it is not surprising that many Conservatives would prefer a return to the old pattern whereby a minority single-party government would just bide its time till things looked promising for going to the polls and potentially securing a parliamentary majority. (As I have noted in the recent past, there are such attitudes present in Labour Party quarters, as well.)

Arguments given by supporters of repeal are that MPs are more accountable when elections could come at any time and (predictably, given the source) that fixed terms give the junior partner in a coalition too much power. In the event of a future coalition, the supporters of repeal suggest there could be a “gentleman’s agreement” that the coalition should end only when both parties wish it to end. (Isn’t that precisely that the Fixed Term Parliaments Act was for? To make sure the “gentlemen” could mutually police their agreement?)

Democratic Audit’s editorial offers a series of reasons why keeping fixed terms is preferable. This was a matter that was discussed in a couple of threads here (#1, #2) at the time. What do readers think now?

Scottish referendum on independence

The Scottish referendum on independence from the UK is this Thursday. I offer this space as a place to discuss, and also include some links I have seen recently and found interesting.

Stephen Fisher at Elections Etc. cautions that the polls could be overestimating the “yes” vote. (That would be bad news for the separatists, as only a few polls in the entire campaign have put them ahead.)

John Curtice at What Scotland Thinks probes the question of whether the ‘Missing Million’ could swing the vote to yes.

At Politics Upside Down, Robert Ford, Will Jennings, Mark Pickup and Christopher Wlezien look into the polling trends in great detail and consider what we can learn from them.

MMP and dual candidacy in Wales

The question of dual candidacy in the Welsh Assembly mixed-member proportional (MMP)* system is being debated again. “Dual candidacy” refers to a provision permitting candidates to run simultaneously in a nominal (district) race and on their party’s list for the proportional component of the system.

Roger Scully offers an overview of the history and debate.

Wales permitted dual candidacy in 1999 and 2003 and banned it for elections of 2007 and 2011. Now a bill is in the House of Commons (yes, this decision is taken in London) to ban dual candidacy again.

Scully mentions various other reforms that have been debated, including an increase in the size of the assembly, from 60 to 80 or 100. As he notes, such an increase would have an impact on the proportionality of the system (independent of dual candidacy).

For instance: the easiest way to change from 60 to 80 AMs would be to raise the number of list AMs in each region (from 4 to 8). But with list AMs now comprising half of the Assembly’s membership, rather than one-third, the proportionality of the electoral system would be changed substantially. An 80-seat Assembly where 40 members came each from the constituency and list ballots would be more-or-less a fully proportional system, rather than the semi-proportional system we have at present.

This is an important point. Because the compensation in the Welsh MMP is carried out in regions instead of Wales-wide, and because the number of seats per region is relatively low, the proportionality is indeed modest. Michael Gallagher‘s Election Indices shows values on the Least Squares (Gallagher) index of disproportionality in the four elections of 8.61, 10.39, 11.36, and 10.47. By contrast, New Zealand, with nationwide proportionality in its MMP system and a 5% threshold, has had index values ranging from 1.13 to 3.84. The UK, with only single-seat districts, has averaged 16.53 on the index over the elections of the same period.

Alternatively, the number of constituencies for the nominal tier could be increased. To keep the same ratio between tiers as is current practice would require 53 constituencies, which “would require the drawing of new constituency boundaries, and losing ‘co-terminosity’ between Westminster and Assembly constituencies.”**

Scully’s preference is for STV, which would resolve the dual candidacy question by reverting to a single tier, while keeping the level of proportionality about the same (potentially). A commission proposed STV a decade ago. Scully notes that there have been two main proposals: grouping the current 40 constituencies into 20 pairs that each elect 4 assembly members or using local authority boundaries as districts (which, I assume, would mean district magnitude varying by municipality population).

As for the dual-candidacy issue, many readers of this blog will know my position. Dual candidacy is an essential feature of mixed-member systems, especially MMP systems, without which many of the main benefits of the system are unrealized. Sure, it does not affect proportionality, but the system also delivers benefits on the intra-party dimension, by encouraging more constituency focus of members elected from party lists than would be the case under pure PR.*** This benefit is likely lost if parties refrain from nominating their best personnel in districts where they are unsure of victory and instead nominate them only on the list. Thus the “legitimacy” problem of list members that underlies the charge against dual candidacy (“entering through the back door,” “zombies”, etc.) is actually made worse by eliminating dual candidacy and thus severing the constituency link of list candidates. The MMP Review in New Zealand extensively commented on this issue and came clearly down in favor of retaining the right to dual candidacy. Wales should do the same–if it retains MMP.

* In Wales it is called the Additional Member System (AMS). I very much dislike this name, as it treats the list-elected members as mere add-ons, rather than an integral (in fact, the decisive) component of the system. In fact, the name would fit better for the other main category, MMM (mixed-member majoritarian).

** I think “co-terminosity” is a new word for me. I like it.

*** And also without the direct intra-party competition of STV or OLPR, or the partisan incentive for “vote management” and “friends and family” voting/clientelism concerns that STV is especially prone to.

Coalition vs. minority

The next UK general election is just over a year away, and the three biggest (as of now) parties are clearly positioning themselves for the likelihood that there will be no party with a majority of seats.

In such a situation, there would be two basic options: a single-party minority government of either Labour or the Conservatives, or a coalition of one of the big parties and a smaller one, which in this case means the Liberal Democrats.* The usual pattern in the UK, and also Canada, has been the former: a minority government that serves until it either is defeated by the combined opposition, or calls an early election (which results in either its defeat or its becoming a majority government). Until 2010, that is, when Conservative leader David Cameron opted to bring in the LibDems as a formal governing partner.

Len McCluskey, the leader of Unite, a large union with deep influence within the Labour Party, left no doubt as to where he stands. He said that, in the event Labour is the largest party but short of a majority, it should be “bold enough to form a minority government, set out its programme and dare MPs from the failed coalition parties to vote it down”.

That is, of course, the classic adversarial strategy expected in a fundamentally majoritarian system: treat the minority as an aberration, a temporary inconvenience that will be overcome as soon as swing voters see that the opposition is “obstructing” the largest party’s “right” to put its policies in place. It also is a majoritarian attitude in the sense of saying it is better to have absolute power for a while than to have shared power for a potentially longer time.

But what if minority situations are no longer an aberration? If voters do not trust either party with full power, McCluskey’s preferred strategy could be a dead end–ensuring frequent elections and alternating minorities. Or at least increased uncertainty about whether an early election would result in a majority. Not surprisingly, Nick Clegg, LibDem leader and Deputy PM, offers an alternative norm in a video interview. In it, he decries the “preposterous assertion” that each of the two big parties–including his current coalition partner, the Conservatives–feels it has a right to govern alone, even if it does not win a majority. He further calls the attitude of the big parties so “tribal” that they’d deprive the British people of the more “stable government” of a coalition.

Is Britain ready for this norm shift? Clegg’s message seems like the right one in light of ongoing trends in British politics–away from the near-certainty of single-party majorities. But Clegg may no longer be the right messenger for this alternative norm to the majoritarian, adversarial one.

Partly, the answer may come down to how the upcoming campaign shapes the voters’ verdict on how this first experience with coalition government has worked. A recent example of framing from the Labour side is offered by Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor. He argues, essentially, that coalition government has failed because the smaller party has not been a an important enough player in the cabinet.

I look at what the Liberal Democrats have done the last two or three years – these guys have not restrained the Conservatives; they have in many ways amplified and encouraged the Conservatives in things that they’ve done.

None of us want to be in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, partly because it’s hard to know what’s more unpopular at the moment – the Liberal Democrats or the idea of a coalition government.

Will the 2010-15 experience prove to have set back the development of a coalition-friendly norm of how British politics works, or will it prove to be just growing pains of a new model?

* This does not exhaust the options. For example, a minority coalition is also possible. This is what the mooted Labour-LibDem coalition after the last election would have been. These two parties did not have a majority combined, and would have needed support from the Green MP, Scottish Nationalists, a Northern Ireland party or two, etc. None of these smaller parties was, to my knowledge, proposed to obtain ministerial portfolios, so they would not have been partners in the cabinet coalition.

UK executive veto?

At least 39 bills have been subject to Royal approval, with the senior royals using their power to consent or block new laws in areas such as higher education, paternity pay and child maintenance.

Internal Whitehall papers prepared by Cabinet Office lawyers show that on one occasion the Queen vetoed the Military Actions Against Iraq Bill in 1999, which aimed to transfer the power to authorise military strikes against Iraq from the monarch to parliament.

(Telegraph, 15 January)

UK bill on EU referendum

From the 8 January Guardian, “Labour and Lib Dem whips discuss how to block Tory-backed EU referendum“. Two points of particular interest:

Clerks have controversially told ministers that the Parliament Act can be used on a private member’s bill, so allowing the Commons to enforce their will against unelected peers.

The Parliament Act is the law by which a bill that has been rejected by the House of Lords can be forced through on a second majority vote, thereby overriding the Lords, after a year’s delay. Normally it is applied only to important government bills. However, the government has not formally made the proposal for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU one of its own. Hence it is a “private member’s” bill.


The Commons Speaker will have to decide whether the bill can be given extra time to be debated, but this could then lead to a timetable motion being tabled with one part of the coalition – the Conservatives – calling for extra government time in the Commons and the other opposing extra time.

It remains a constitutional grey area whether one part of a coalition government can table a government timetable motion.

UK legislative practice continues to evolve.

And, of course, the entire story is of interest because while the Conservatives are divided over the EU, their Liberal Democratic coalition partners are pro-EU (and against a referendum that they once favored, when they thought they’d get the definitive pro-EU result they wanted). As the headline indicates, the LibDems will work with the Labour opposition to try to derail the bill from passing before the 2015 election. The issue is just one of many on which the current coalition partners will differentiate themselves in the run-up to that election, with a possible eye to a Labour-LibDem coalition or other cooperation thereafter.

Interesting times in UK politics.

British MPs say no to Syria attack

Earlier in the day I was listening to much of the UK Commons debate on whether to attack Syria. I could not help but feel it buttressed the general consensus among most of us in political science who study executive-legislative politics that a parliamentary system is just so vastly superior to America’s presidential one.

And I thought that even when I assumed Cameron would get his wish at the end. Wow, this is a stunning development. In the Guardian’s running commentary on the debate and vote, there is a statement from Philip Cowley (who studies parliamentary revolts) via Twitter in which he says:

Not seen division lists, but that gvt rebellion must be bigger than the one that brought down Chamberlain in 1940

And I am not sure folks will continue calling Ed Miliband (Opposition leader) politically weak anymore! He forced Cameron to consider amendments, and, combined with considerable lack of support for attacking Syria even within the PM’s Conservative Party, Cameron lost a big one.

See also Steven Taylor.

Do UK elections now allow fusion candidacies?

Nadine Dorries, Conservative MP, says she is considering running as a joint Conservative-Ukip candidate in the 2015 general election. She claims others might do the same, as a means to avoid a split on the right as the UK Independence Party eats away at the Tories’ right flank.

Dorries claimed having two logos on the ballot paper had been made possible by legislation passed by the coalition government, and seeking a Ukip endorsement was “something that I know MPs are looking forward and considering now”

I had missed any piece of the Conservative-LibDem coalition’s political reform program including this ballot provision. If Dorries is correct in her interpretation, does this imply that the coalition partners were trying to make it more feasible for their candidates to run jointly, back in the coalition’s rose-garden days?

Ukip and Eastleigh

As most readers of this blog likely know by now, there was a by-election in the UK last week. In the constituency of Eastleigh, the two governing partners, Conservative and Liberal Democrat went head to head. Except they didn’t. The UK Independence Party candidate finished in between them, in a close second. The LibDems held the seat, despite more than a 14-point swing against them.

The Labour candidate finished a distant fourth.

I see a couple of comments already have appeared at an earlier UK thread.

I will have more to say (I think) later on, but for now, here is an official discussion opportunity…

“Ceremonial” heads of state and veto power: The case of the UK

Do I need to revise those lecture points about “fusion of powers” and “ceremonial head of state”?

Papers prepared by the Cabinet Office and recently made public shed light on the UK monarch’s employment of the veto (Guardian, 14 Jan.).

Most of the cases cited involve bills that directly affect crown interests, although one bill vetoed in 1999 was a private member’s bill concerning military actions against Iraq, and others have been on agricultural and housing bills.

The withholding of consent is on “advice” of ministers, so it would be misleading to see this as a runaway unaccountable monarchy blocking the normal functioning of parliamentary government. On the other hand, it seems a significant curtailment of “parliamentary sovereignty” if executive ministers can “advise” the monarch to veto bills duly passed by parliament.

Moreover, it seems that the veto can be to individual provisions of a bill. If so, then maybe I need to add UK to cases of not just veto, but also item veto!

PM Boris?

London mayor Boris Johnson will attend his Conservative Party’s upcoming conference “to reveal the secret of how to get re-elected against Labour in a time of austerity in what will be seen as fresh evidence of his ambition to succeed David Cameron”, reports the Guardian.

This comes in the wake of a YouGov poll that shows Johnson as Britain’s “most respected” politician.

Is Boris going to replace David Cameron as PM? I would not bet on it, for two reasons that I can draw out of my research on career trajectories of prime ministers, in comparison with presidents.

First, Johnson’s formula for being (re)elected against a Labour Party that is otherwise well positioned–whether in London politics, or in current national polling–is based on direct election of an individual. That is, “presidentialization“. To expect the same effect if Johnson were the PM candidate (and, presumably, sitting PM) at the next election is to fail to understand how direct election, as with the London mayor or a president, is fundamentally different from selection by and dependence on a party organization, as in a parliamentary democracy.

Second, he would be swimming against a pretty strong current of institutional effects here. Let’s look at the broad patterns of executive recruitment in democracies, comparatively. Out of 390 prime ministers in parliamentary systems in the post-WWII era, how many have been former mayors? If you guessed about 10%, you are a bit high. The answer is 34, or 8.7%. Parliamentary parties just do not look to mayors very often for their chief-executive talent.

Twelve of these PMs are from the French Fourth Republic (including Antoine Henrie Queuille, who counts as a newly appointed PM three times). Five more come from Norway (including another three-time appointee, Einar Gerhardsen). In fact, these two countries, France and Norway, account for half the ex-mayor PMs, and two politicians count for almost 18% of them. There is just one British PM in the list, Clement Atlee.

It is worth noting that mayors are far more likely to become president, where there is such an elected executive post, than to become PM in a parliamentary system. About the same number of presidents in the dataset have been former mayors, 37, but this is out of 236 total presidents. This rate among presidents, 15.7%) is significantly greater than the rate among PMs (p=.04). ((It makes no difference to the significance of the finding whether we include presidents in semi-presidential systems, as in the numbers cited here, or look only at pure presidential systems. In the latter, 15.8% are former mayors. How about premiers in semi-presidential systems? Of these 12.81% are former mayors. That rate is statistically different from pure-parliamentary PMs (p=.05), but not from that for semi-presidential presidents. In other words, it is PMs in parliamentary democracies that stand apart from either type of executive in regimes with elected presidents.))

Of course, this pattern is not surprising: mayors in some major cities (including London now) possess a talent that parties in presidential systems desire: proven ability to win a direct election, which often means appealing beyond (and in some carefully chosen ways, against) one’s party. Such skills are not nearly as in demand among parliamentary partisans. What is striking is that the pattern regarding ex-mayors shows up without our having considered whether the politician in question was a directly elected mayor or not. ((It would require additional data collection to determine which of the mayors in the data were elected by the city electorate and which were selected by a city council or appointed by the center, or some other mechanism. I suspect most of those in the data–though certainly not Atlee–were indeed popularly elected.))

None of this means Boris Johnson is not on his way to residing at No. 10. But it does mean he would be a rare case.

Data note. The data reported here come from the data for Chapter 3 of David J. Samuels and Matthew S. Shugart, Presidents, Parties, and Prime Ministers (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

UK Coalition showdown over redistricting?

Deputy PM Nick Clegg, of the Liberal Democrats, has played one of the few cards he has against PM David Cameron and the Conservative Party. After admitting defeat due to Conservative backbench resistance and pulling the plug on the plans for House of Lords reform, he has now said that his party will renege on its prior consent to support reducing the size of the House of Commons by 50 seats. The resulting redistricting, according to most accounts, would hit the LibDems proportionately hardest, and might be the Conservatives’ best hope for a (manufactured) majority in 2015.

Never mind that the LibDems’ support for the reduction-and-redistricting was linked in the Coalition Agreement not to Lords reform but to the referendum on the Alternative Vote. The referendum went ahead, albeit with Cameron leading the charge against the proposed change, and its going down to ignominious defeat.

There just are not many good cards left in Clegg’s hand. It is hard to see how he had any other choice than to do this. Labour is also opposed to the redistricting and presumably will vote with the LibDems on this one out of party interest. So he can inflict a defeat on the Conservatives on this issue and thereby has leverage.

Selected news accounts:

Lords reform (and the proposal for flexible lists)

This week, the UK Coalition submitted its bill for reform of the House of Lords. The sponsor is Deputy PM Nick Clegg; it has has the public backing of PM David Cameron, though he has been warned that 100 or so MPs of his party will defy the whip and vote against, including possibly some quite senior members. ((One example from the linked item:

Conservative aide Conor Burns said: “If I lose my job for something that was a mainstream view within the Conservative party in the last parliament which serving cabinet ministers held, so be it.”

)) Labour is also divided on the issue.

Despite earlier news items that suggested the reformed body would be called the Senate, it will actually remain the House of Lords. However, members will not be called Lords, though it is left to parliament to decide upon a title.

Highlights from the bill:

At the first election, anticipated with the general election of May, 2015, there would be 120 elected members. By the third electoral period that number would have risen to 360. There would continue to be 30 appointed members at each electoral cycle (thus 90 at steady state), as well as a declining number of Lords Spiritual. There will also be some ministerial members (appointed by the monarch upon nomination by the PM).

An elected member of the House of Lords serves a 15-year term.

The bill makes clear that the Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 will continue to apply. (These allow the Commons to override objection by the Lords after one year; there has been concern that a popularly elected second chamber would be more assertive.)

Elections concurrent for the two chambers, except in the case of a Commons election that happens within two years of the previous one. (The Coalition has already legislated fixed Commons terms, but there are still provisions under which an extraordinary election could be held.)

A list system of proportional representation in Great Britain, but Single Transferable Vote in Northern Ireland. (Earlier drafts had called for all members to be elected by STV.)

The districts will coincide with those used to elect Members of the European Parliament. Their number of elected members will range from 3 (Northern Ireland) to 16 (South East) at any given election (see Schedule 2). This will mean an average district magnitude of 10, and only three districts are set to be below this average. There is a provision for redistribution of magnitudes across districts.

The electoral formula in Great Britain is D’Hondt. Lists are flexible: a candidate can be assured election to an available seat for his or her party only upon obtaining preference votes equal to at least 5% of the list’s total vote; seats not filled via preference votes are assigned in “the order in which they appear on the party list” (see Schedule 3).

Former members of the House of Lords will be unable to stand as candidates for the House of Commons for four years.

STV and above-the-line voting for elected ‘Lords’?

The following is a guest-post by Alan Renwick, Professor at the University of Reading in the UK. It originally appeared at the Reading Politics blog.

I asked Alan if I could reproduce this essay here at F&V, figuring it would be of interest to this community.

All of what follows is by Alan. I will also copy over a comment that I originally posted at Reading Politics.

Electing the House of Lords: Should there be above-the-line voting?
Alan Renwick

The parliamentary select committee that has been examining the government’s proposals for reform of the House of Lords will be publishing its report in a couple of weeks’ time. Rumour has it that they want an electoral system different from the one proposed by the government. Nick Clegg and colleagues argue that the Single Transferable Vote (STV) form of proportional representation should be used. But the committee has been interested in finding a system that will give voters a choice between voting for individual candidates and for a single party ticket (see the transcript of their oral evidence session last December, when the quizzed Iain McLean and me on this subject). According to the Guardian, the committee is going to recommend the form of STV used in many Australian elections, where voters can vote ‘above the line’ for a party or ‘below the line’ for individual candidates.

The Electoral Reform Society is crying foul over this. Calling the proposals a ‘dog’s breakfast’, they say that STV with above-the-line voting will return power to the parties, rather than allowing voters to determine who gets elected.

What should dispassionate observers make of this? I think three questions need to be considered. First, how much power would the inclusion of a party voting option give to parties and to voters? Second, how much power should parties and voters have in determining which candidates are elected? Third, are there any other considerations that we should take into account before deciding whether we think that possibility of above-the-line voting should be welcomed? Most of this rather lengthy (sorry) post will focus on the first of these questions; I’ll say a little about the other two at the end.

Continue reading

Presidentialization in action–in London

Even when embedded in a broader political system that is firmly parliamentary, direct election of an executive matters.

From UK Polling Report’s summary of a recent poll in the London mayoral race:

57% of Londoners say they like Boris Johnson, compared to just 36% who say they like the Conservative party – meaning Boris is outperforming his party by 21 points.

Some folks identify results like this as one major aspect of the phenomenon of “presidentializaton”–where separate election of an executive allows for the building of electoral constituencies that are broader than (or different from) that of the executive candidate’s party.

The election is on 3 May. The electoral formula is the supplementary vote, which is a form of “instant runoff”, but not a good form. Unlike the alternative vote, all but the top two candidates, based on first preference vote, are eliminated. Second preferences are then redistributed–if no candidate had a majority of first preferences–and the winner is the candidate with the most votes after redistribution.