Monday, 4 May 2015

The Great Reform Act 2016

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland could be in for a fairly significant constitutional crisis following this week’s General Election. Based on all available polls, it seems as though we are in for another hung parliament but one where there is no obvious outcome in terms of who could form a government. As I understand it, the largest party following the election is invited to try and form a government. Now, if they have an overall majority (326 seats or more), this is a fairly simple task. However, if the largest party has not reached this amount, as the Conservative Party did not in 2010, then they face two options – go it alone and try and form a minority government (historically these are weak and the amount of business they get done is minimal) or form a coalition government. If they are unable to form a government of any sort, the second largest party is invited to try and form a government. Forming a minority government surely cannot be an option without some sort of “supply and demand” agreement with another party in parliament as they will without doubt lose their first key vote and will then likely face a vote of no confidence. Following the passing of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, it becomes even more complicated as there needs to be approval from 2/3rds of the House of Commons to call an early general election.

The polls are changing on a daily basis at the moment but they are not changing enough to suggest that there will be anything other than another hung parliament. It is quite possible the Conservative Party will be replaced as the largest party in the House by the Labour Party, but with their vote seemingly due to collapse in Scotland (with some reports suggesting they will be completely wiped out), they also will not have enough seats to form an overall majority. The most likely outcome from this election as it stands is some form of arrangement to be reached between the Labour Party and the Scottish National Party so that Labour can form a government with their leader, Ed Miliband, as the new Prime Minister (despite his constant declarations that this will not happen). This will be an interesting situation from a constitutional standpoint for a number of reasons. One of these reasons is that it would be the first time that a coalition would be formed where a national party limited to one of the four nations which make up the United Kingdom would be a part of the government in Westminster. Another reason why this will be interesting is that the party leader of the Scottish National Party is the First Minister in Scotland, and is not standing for a seat in Westminster. I could go on discussing possible outcomes of this election but the fact is, there are quite a lot to discuss and there are other places in which that has been done if that is the sort of information you require.

One thing which to me is becoming clear is that there needs to be a fundamental change in the way the United Kingdom is governed. What I believe I am about to propose would make the system more democratic but more importantly, it would make it more fair. It seems to me that since the referendum on Scottish Independence, the political landscape has changed significantly. I will discuss Scotland and the issue of independence later on. What I suggest needs to be done is that following Thursday’s General Election will not win any popularity points, but it will address a lot of the issues that I feel exist in this country when thinking of potential constitutional issues. These things generally take time, and so I would call this The Great Reform Act 2016. Given that I have already mentioned it, in the changes I would suggest, I would not recommend repealing the Fixed-term Parliament Act 2011 for the simple reason it prevents Prime Minister’s from being able to call snap general elections for political reasons, and I think that is a good thing. However…

Reinstate 7 Year Parliaments – I hear you ask “….why?” Well, is 5 years really enough time to complete an entire manifesto? I would argue not. I would imagine the current government would argue not. It would be better to have longer for work to actually be completed than worrying about a general election. A fixed 5 year term pretty much announces you will have no more than 4 actual years of work completed and a year campaigning to be elected again. Make the length of time we have a government longer and allow them more time to try and complete the job in their vision. Bring this change in to come in following the 2020 General Election (assuming there isn’t one before then). I imagine this would be the most unpopular of the changes I have suggested because people have been so used to parliaments of 5 years or less in recent times. If a party you don’t support is in office, 7 years is a very long time in politics.

House of Lords reform – There has been discussion for quite a while about the United Kingdom’s Houses of Parliament. What do we do with the House of Lords? Should it be allowed to continue as it is, or should it be fully elected? I have come to the conclusion that it should be. However, it needs to be significantly smaller than it currently is. There are currently 781 Lords (with another 50+ on leave or disqualified from sitting). That is really far too many when you consider that the House of Lords is the secondary House of Parliament. I propose that we have 172 Lords (2 per County of the UK). These new Lords will continue to do the same role as the Lords currently do and be paid in the same way (attendance allowance and expenses). You are unable to stand to be elected to be a Lord whilst a member of the Commons and have to declare your intention to stand down as an MP before standing to be a Lord. These 172 Lords will be elected via Alternative Vote. You rank all the candidates you wish to vote for, and parties can have up to 2 candidates per county (allowing them to fill both vacancies assuming they get enough votes). Independent candidates can stand and if elected, will take their place on the cross benches. It will no longer be possible to award seats in the House of Lords as the entire system will be elected, making it more democratic. Elections to the Lords will take place in line with General Elections and the term of the Parliament would be the same length. New Lords can serve a maximum of 2 terms (up to 14 years) before retiring.

Reforms to the House of Commons:

Number of Members – Reduce the number of MPs. There are 650 Members of Parliament, of whom 645 take their seat following the election (members of Sein Fein do not sit in the Commons as they do not swear allegiance to the Monarch). Currently we have an uneven system where on average, there are about 99,000 constituents per member. However, the Isle of Wight has a population of just over 138,000 people and is represented by 1 MP, Portsmouth has a population of just over 200,000 and is represented by 2 MPs. The average in England is 99,460; Scotland is 90,300 people per MP, in Wales it is 76,586 and in Northern Ireland it is 102,625. How can it be that this is fair? The simple answer is that it is not. The best way to handle this is to simply balance it up. If we were to set the bar so that the current largest constituency is in line with all the others. It doesn’t make sense from a geographical stand point to have people who live on the Isle of Wight vote for a representative from another constituency, so in the spirit of creating a level playing field, I propose reducing the number of constituencies and MPs they return to 460, an average of just over 140,000 people per constituency. This would mean we would have 387 MPs in England (down from 553), 38 in Scotland (down from 59), 22 in Wales (down from 40) and 13 in Northern Ireland (down from 18). I would have a total number of Members be 510 – I will discuss these extra 50 members when I get to the voting system. The population statistics used for these sums were taken from the 2014 census (2015 in Northern Ireland). Reducing the number of MPs will save the country a decent amount of money in future salaries, expenses and pensions. Members would be expected to attend a minimum of 50% of debates, or provide valid evidence for why they did not (completing parliamentary business in their own constituency would be acceptable). If they cannot prove this, their pay would be docked as they would not be fulfilling their obligations. Members can be recalled by their constituents if they are failing to perform their duties (not for political reasons) or if they have been convicted of a criminal offence.

Boundary Changes – Regardless of whether or not we reduce the number of MPs, something has to be done about the boundaries. The average based on the 2014 census is 99,248 people represented per seat. As was previously discussed, some seats have far more people represented than others. I would level these out and then redraw the boundaries so that all constituencies are as level as can be. This would be a much easier task with fewer MPs and setting the level to be that of the Isle of Wight (as previously said, it really doesn’t make sense making it lower as you will continue with uneven constituencies or having people who live on the Isle of Wight voting for a random constituency like Portsmouth South and Ryde. That to me is just silly. Level out all the constituencies so the population is level. This does not take into account people moving around the country, and of course changes in the population (due to birth, death, migration etc) so this would need to be reviewed after every 2 completed censuses.

Voting System – In the UK at the general election, we use a voting system called First Past The Post (FPTP). In a nutshell, how it works is people vote per constituency for their candidates. Once a political party is passed the post of 326 MPs, they can form a government. If no party gets past the post, we end up in the situation we are in now. The one major positive of this system is that until 2010, it pretty much lead to a decisive government. We have had very few coalition governments in this country and that has to be attributed to FPTP. The major negative aspect of the system is that it is not truly reflective of the way the country has voted. I have a number of examples to back this point up. In 1997, a party called the Referendum Party stood for election and received 811,849 votes, 2.6% of all votes cast but did not win a seat in parliament as they were spread thinly across the country. At that election, Labour won 43.2% of the vote compared to the Conservatives getting 30.7% votes – however Labour ended up with 63.4% of the seats compared to the Conservatives 25%. Comparing elections for a moment – in 2005, Labour won the election (and 55.2% of the seats) with 35.2% of the vote (just over 9.5m votes). In 2010, the Conservatives won the most seats but did not win enough to form an overall majority, yet they won over 10.8 million votes. FPTP is supposed to create stable government, it didn’t in 2010 and it looks likely it won’t this time. Is it time for a change?

One thing that has been said about proportional representation systems is that it always leads to weak coalition governments and a lot of government time is wasted by coalitions breaking up and needing to be rebuilt. The elections which take place for the Scottish Parliament were designed with a version of proportional representation in mind that would make it very difficult for one party to have an overall majority. At the last election to the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish National Party achieved an overall majority, so that plan clearly failed.

I think for the UK, we need to have a system which incorporates both FPTP and proportional representation. What I envision is an election ballot where people can vote once or twice. One vote for candidate and one for party. Allow me to explain how this would work with my proposed system of 460 constituency MPs and 50 representative MPs. The vote for candidates in constituencies takes place as it ever would, under the FPTP system. However, you also have the option to vote for a political party underneath. So if for example, you wanted to vote for Labour in both, you would. If you wanted to vote for a Lib Dem candidate for the constituency, but another party in the other vote, you could. What this would do is create a group of 50 MPs that were in their jobs and reflected the exact way the country voted. So, if we use the 1997 example, the Referendum Party received 2.6% of the vote. They would then have a MP to show for their vote share. Everyone who votes has the right to feel as though they are being represented in the country. If you live in a safe seat, and your party cannot win, you would have a reason to vote as you would contribute to your parties national vote share. There would need to be a minimum set of how many constituencies a party was standing in before they could be added to this list. It is not a perfect system, but all it takes is gaining 2% of the vote nationwide to get representation in the House of Commons. I would also add an option to vote for “none of the above” as people who feel disenfranchised deserve to have their voice heard as well. I would propose no change to the age at which you have to be to vote. People who are above the age of 18 but are in prison at the time of an election would be unable to vote.

Coalitions – I imagine that coalitions are going to be more likely in this country from here on out. Instead of pretending this won’t happen and burying our heads in the sand, we should instead be proactive (perhaps too late one might say). One argument I have heard a lot is that people did not get to vote on the current governments program. It was a program developed behind the scenes and things were changed as the life of the parliament went on. It would not be possible nor sensible to have a referendum after every coalition government had been formed for the whole electorate to vote on whether they agree with the coalition governments plan. It would be a simple free vote of both Houses of Parliament to approve the plan that a coalition government would propose so that the argument that people didn’t vote for a coalition would be defeated by the fact the people they had chosen to represent them had voted for or against it.

Who can vote? – I have addressed how the new slim-line House of Commons would be made up. Assuming that the four countries that make up the United Kingdom remain united, I would propose a change to the system whereby if the vote in the Commons was on an issue that affected the whole of the UK, then all MPs would be eligible to vote. However, if it was an issue that only affected England, then MPs who represent constituencies in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland would not be able to vote. Each of these countries has their own parliament or assembly that votes on issues that relate to their country. I believe this is a more sensible system than creating a separate English parliament for English issues and on top of everything else, will not cause needless expense (I bet building a new building to be the English Parliament wouldn’t be cheap). Doing this would remove some of the powers from the central government but would be more democratic in doing so.

Independence Referenda – Like I said earlier, the political landscape appears to have changed since the referendum on Independence in Scotland. The result was quite definitive in the end, but I wonder if the reason it was quite so definitive is that the leaders of the major UK parties promised a lot more powers to Scotland to run more of their own affairs. Furthermore, I wonder if the failure to do this has caused the surge in popularity for the Scottish National Party. It seems this week they will go from 6 MPs to potentially taking all 59 in Scotland. There has been some stories saying that the rise of the Scottish National Party could lead to more referenda taking place. I believe it is better to let people do have what they want when it comes to this. These changes would take place at different times but they would all be in place by 2020 in time for the next general election. I would include a proposal to allow each of the other countries that make up the United Kingdom the chance to have another referendum. It would be voted on by their own parliament/assembly and if they had a referendum, and voted to leave, they would be completely independent countries. No currency unions. The NHS that is currently in these countries would no longer be funded by the central government in England as it would be the responsibility of these countries to pay for the health service they wanted to offer. I would hope countries would vote to remain a part of the United Kingdom, but why insist on being united with countries that no longer wish to be in the Union. As an aside, I believe that if the Scottish National Party continue to be as popular as they are now, there will be a referendum on independence within 10 years in which, the people of Scotland will vote to be an independent country.

These are the changes I would recommend need to take place in the United Kingdom to improve democracy and make the composition of the government of the United Kingdom fairer. I have written this piece with as little bias as possible. I genuinely believe we could be in for a period of instability coming up after Thursday, and instead of months of squabbling before another inevitable general election (will a second or even a third one produce a conclusive result?), the chance could be taken to reform the system. I believe what I have suggested would be a fundamental change to the way we the people in the United Kingdom are governed, and I for one believe this change is overdue. It is only now that we are faced with a potential crisis that people are talking about different ways to resolve it. 

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