A letter on Constitutional Reform

When I was at my most radical, I wrote this letter on Constitutional Reform. I now look back on it with little bit of mingled embarrassment and amusement, and also with the critical enjoyment that comes with re-reading, and correcting, one’s earlier arguments.

(IE: I do not still agree with much of this, but still find much of it interests me. Hopefully, not just me!)

[Preamble: when I call this a letter, I actually mean it was a letter (:-o), to a friend of mine. For this reason, a very few things have been edited. I have also made a few edits designed to provide clarity of what I meant, as I wrote this fairly late into the night.]

Constitutional… REFORM

1. Assemblies, Parliaments and devolved powers

As you may have noticed, democracy in this country is in a bit of a mess. Currently less than 60% of people turn out to vote, and roughly 37% of those hold almost all the cards in a small minority of regions countrywide. The net effect of this at present is that the weight of elections swings almost always on the not inconsiderable girth of what is known, somewhat derogatorily, as “Middle England”.

I say “almost all the cards” because other than of course the occasional off-chance that a government might lose a constituency with a 13,700 majority – almost a rotten borough in democratic standards – we have a second chamber, and one which has exercised considerably more power of late than it has throughout much of its history, due to a not ineffective programme of reform put through by the Labour government. It can even be argued to be more representative despite being unelected, as no party holds a majority – like the popular vote – and there exist such things as cross-benchers and independents – like individual voters nationwide. So it is clear that, ridiculously, despite being unelected, the House of Lords complements the Commons when it comes to democracy rather than limiting what already limited democracy there is; notwithstanding doing stupid things like wasting Parliamentary time by forcing the Commons to vote on a completely neutered fox-hunting ban on three separate occasions.

Thus the first principle of reform is that bicameralism can, and does, enhance democracy by offering what aspects are inevitably lacking in one specific form. With greater bicameralism, we could see from the Lords an effect similar to that of devolution, with the most stupid excesses of one governing body being checked by a smaller body, inferior in powers but superior in powers of scrutiny. Which leads me on to…

Having seen the effectiveness of the devolution experiments almost in every way and on every level, there is clearly one deficit remaining to address: England. The lack of devolved democracy to England has served to further strain the Union‘s support within England and, indirectly, Scotland. It is clear, therefore, that an English parliament is needed, what is also clear, however, is that a) as the devolution experiment in the Greater London Assembly has indisputably succeeded, further devolution to the remaining regional assemblies is desirable, and this ties in with b) England is a far larger and culturally varied constituent country than either Scotland or Wales, and that the North of the country can, clumsily, be argued to be as different to the South of the country as many parts of Wales are. Thus it would be an idea to have the English parliament comprised of the individual members of the 9 assemblies (all democratically reformed), and operate on the basis that to pass a motion, a majority of both members and Assemblies must be required.

It is also fair to suggest that Wales and Northern Ireland should have the same devolved powers as Scotland.

The second principle is thus that devolution works, and should be more equal.

To get back to bicameralism and Parliamentary reform, as I hadn’t reached my conclusions; and to get away from federalism (as devolution will probably ultimately become known as, if irrational fear of the term is not too great) as it has a reputation of boring nearly everyone; it is clear that a second chamber can be used to democratically complement (note: not “check” or “react against” or anything else so American) a first. And it is clear that the Lords needs to be reformed to do so far more effectively than it does so now; but to maximise on the type of work it does now, not to react against it. (For all the talk of “Tony’s cronies” the House of Lords has probably operated since Blair’s reforms better and more independently than in any other period of its history.) Before I can expand on this, however, I would like to look at the strengths of the House of Commons, after slandering it so much in the beginning paragraphs.

The strengths, having been gone into by countless others can, in my so humble estimation, be summarised as:

· A tendency to produce strong governments

· Having flexible powers of holding the executive to account, such as being capable of forcing elections, despite the dominance of the executive that stems from the merging of the two powers

· An encouragement, on paper, of local, delegate-type, democracy, which would in theory add an individualist touch to our democracy (though it patently doesn’t in practice).

It is worth, of course, noting the fact that two of those are certainly true on paper, but almost certainly not the case in practice – well, the second true in times of incomplete political change, but the third almost never. It is for this reason that I do not support proposals to introduce closed or open list Proportional Representation to the House of Lords. As the Commons does not encourage individualism in politics even with a system that centres around individual constituencies, how much less so would a House of Lords controlled by parties who decide who goes on the list? This does bring me to a third principle of reform, after the democratic strengths of greater bicameralism and more equal devolution: there needs to be greater individualism in politics: IE individual representation and contribution.

To address the practical problems with the democracy of the Commons, one must look towards the prime villain, the way constituencies elect their MPs, in other words: First Past the Post.

People often make the mistake of assuming First Past the Post as the most obvious individual constituency system: it is not. The most obvious one is one which recognises the existence of the principle of anyone being able to stand for election; First Past the Post does not. It assumes that only two will stand – an absurd assumption.

First Past the Post does not require that a majority of the constituency supports the winner, another absurdity, allowing candidates to represent an entire set of people with only the backing of a minority – the more candidates standing the smaller the minority likely to be.

The most obvious system is actually one which gives people the power to truly choose between the candidates and ensures that the winning candidate captures majority support of the candidate. The way many parties achieve this is by knock-out elections, taking ballot after ballot with the person with the lowest support being eliminated, until a person gains a majority of the vote. This, however, is lengthy and expensive, but can be replicated simply by having people vote in order of preference, and having their choices redistributed as each losing candidate is “knocked out”. Of course, this would massively increase the workload of those counting the ballots, but let’s face it: determining the will of the people should not be an easy job.

This would, therefore, give minority candidates at least a positive “voice” in elections even if their chances of gaining actual representative status remain slim. “Big” candidates, IE major party ones would logically be far more receptive of what minority candidates stand for, as they would usually (except for the case of “rotten boroughs” like Bill Wiggin’s constituency) be relying in preference votes. It would certainly remove the negative influence of minority candidates on elections: IE the hated phenomenon of vote-splitting.

This system is actually called single transferable vote as well as preferential vote and numerous other names, but it often gets confused with STV multi-member – which is far more complicated.

STV multi-member has the advantage, however, of ensuring roughly proportional results and favouring independents far more than any single-member system tends to, roughly the strengths of the makeup of the House of Lords at present. Thus I propose reforming the voting system to have the commons elected by STV-single member, and that the first stage of reform of the House of Lords is to introduce elections in the form of STV-multi-member.

Another of the House of Lords’ strengths has often been argued, sometimes by myself, often by others, to be its immunity to the problem of populism, in the fact that Peers are appointed for life. For a long while I struggled with this, and until recently favoured Peers being elected for Life (before that, in fact, I favoured an entirely appointed chamber, though I have always remained firm on the subject of hereditaries); until upon realising the indisputable advantages of greater bicameralism to democracy, I realised that such a state of affairs would do little to help voting apathy and popular involvement in politics, effectively limiting the democracy of the Lords to bi-elections in the event of death (even in STV-multi-member, though that would have the amusing effect of forcing by-elections for other regional MPs in the event of a death, thus making their lives more endangered by the desire to remove a whole section at once). My attention then turned to term-limits. Now it would be unfair not to mention the problems that term limits have often created (particularly as I used to rail against them with regard to American politics, and indeed did so in A level exams), not least the removal of accountability they often result in. But it is a limited problem in a second chamber with inferior powers, in any case (I would not support equal powers for both chambers, having the Commons dominant removes the risk of excessive gridlock), and particularly one intended to address the deficits of the Commons’ democracy, one of which is excessive “populism” or “re-electioneering” at the expense of both efficient government and of true representation of the people’s interests. Until recently I favoured some kind of clumsy “contract” for Peers’ manifestos, where Peers could be taken to court of they truly did violate specific pledges (a negative system, where they could only be legally challenged on the basis of violating pledges rather than simply not pursuing them). But what struck me as far more interesting and far less clumsy – particularly if the Lords’ is to be the “more representative chamber” – was a “description” (I use the word generously; it was more of a loving tribute) of Swiss democracy that I read:

“Citizens have the right to demand that any Parliamentary measure be put to popular vote. For a vote to be triggered, 50,000 signatures are needed … while all constitutional amendments proposed by Parliament must be put to a popular vote.”

Replicating this for our country would be clumsy and liable to abuse: turnout for referenda would be likely to be low with many unaffected or uninterested – or merely not having the time for each of the many referenda that would be called with such a system simply not bothering to turn out, thus the point of such referenda would be nullified, as they could not be said to be truly representative.

Why not, however, have regional mechanisms for such a thing as a check against Peers’ abuse of their lack of re-election accountability? It would fit a system of STV-multi-member far better than a single-member system: the number of signatures needed to trigger a vote need only be the droop quota for the most recent election: the proportion of votes of the people for/against the proposition are then rounded up to the nearest proportion of the seats that region elects: (say, in a 6-seat constituency, 5-1, 4-2, 3-3, etc., etc..); if more than the droop quota out of eligible voters fail to turn out, these “seat-votes” are treated in addition to those of the members for that region, if it is over this turnout quota, then they replace the parliamentary votes of the members of that region.

This gives the people a way of holding their Peers to account, hopefully protected enough to prevent a single faction of a region from dominating and nullifying the votes of their Peer representatives. It is fairly complex, to say the least, but it hopefully has the potential of working in some way similar to the intention.

Thus, after all this, I would say the fourth principle of reform is both of greater involvement with politics and also in breaking down the boundaries between indirect and direct democracy.

The last point concerning the strengthening of democracy by greater bicameralism is regarding legislative abilities – and ties in, incidentally, with both greater direct democratic involvement and greater individualism in politics. The Lords are clearly even now in a position to offer just as “valuable” legislative contributions as the Commons – and hopefully, in a reformed Parliament, such contributions would be far more valuable to the nation than they are at present. Though I support the Commons being the superior chamber in powers, I also support greater independence of the Lords from the commons, and whilst I’m perfectly happy with the Parliament act as it stands, I would suggest one final addition:

If the Lords introduce and pass a bill, and the Commons block it, give the Lords the right to vote whether or not to hold a referendum, which would have the power to override the Commons. This referendum, however, would require 50% of the electorate to be in support, thus in practice requiring a greater majority the fewer turn out, and have no chance of success if the turnout was below 50%, even in the event of a unanimous vote in support of the Lords – this would prevent the Lords from voting for referenda on uninteresting things such as the fox-hunting ban.

Therefore, to summarise (phew), we have:

The four principles of reform:

Greater bicameralism can strengthen and add to democracy, with each chamber making up for the democratic deficits in the other.

Devolution can and has been shown to work, and should be equal to be truly democratic and in the interests of each constituent nation in the Union.

Greater individualism within politics is needed, to weaken the death-grip on power of political parties, both to grant greater power to the people to elect independent delegates, and to grant greater contribution to elected individuals on the legislative agenda.

Greater involvement in politics is needed, not just in elections but in holding their representatives to account for individual pieces of legislation and thus breaking down the barriers that exist between our indirect democracy and direct democracy.

The House of Commons would be reformed thus:

  1. Elected by preferential vote (IE STV-single member).
  2. Greater (IE at least doubled) resources for individual legislation (IE Private Members’ Bills)

The House of Lords would be reformed thus:

  1. Made elected by Single Transferable Vote for multi-member constituencies using the Droop quota.
  2. Members elected for Single Terms.
  3. Voters for each region given the power to trigger a popular regional vote: the number of signatures required being the droop quota for the most recent election. The vote is rounded proportionally onto the number of seats: if the turnout deficit is higher than the droop quota, these “seat-votes” are treated in addition to the vote of the peers representing the region, if the turnout deficit is lower than this, they replace the votes of the peers for the region.
  4. The House of Lords has the right to override the House of Commons via popular vote, but the number supporting the Lords must be over 50% of the electorate.

Devolution would be completed thus:

  1. An English Parliament would be created, comprised of each of the regional assemblies: each themselves reformed to be democratic in the same way as the devolution to London. The English Parliament would require a majority of both members and constituencies to pass a motion.
  2. Wales, Northern Ireland and England would have equal devolved powers, though how such powers would be distributed among the regional and English Parliament level in England would be up for discussion.

I hope this begins to satisfy the demands of interest. : – )


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