First 100 Days - Reforming politics and representation
Dr Daniel Kenealy
Daniel Kenealy is a Lecturer in Social Policy at the University of Edinburgh Academy of Government.
The UK’s first-past-the-post electoral system was designed to produce strong single party government. It failed to do so in 2010 and it seems it will fail again in 2015. In the coming election the UK’s two main parties – Labour and the Conservatives – may once more struggle to secure two-thirds of the popular vote between them. A regional party, the Scottish National Party (SNP), could end up holding as many as 50 seats in the House of Commons after receiving around 4% of all votes cast. The SNP would potentially have more seats than the Liberal Democrats, UKIP and the Greens combined even though those three parties between them may capture up to 25% of the total popular vote. The reality is that the UK’s electoral system is a poor transmission mechanism for the values, preferences, and ideas of its people. This needs to change.
Real political and representative reform will take a long time to enact, but there is much that can be done in the first 100 days of any ‘progressive’ government to start this important process.
Labour has already committed to a serious rethink on how the UK is governed, with their manifesto pledging to establish a “people-led Constitutional Convention” to directly address devolution and to drive political reform¹. This represents a commitment to a specific process of delivering political and representative reform – but what shape might a people-led Constitutional Convention take and what should the substance of those reforms look like?
In terms of substance, Labour want to replace the House of Lords with an elected Senate of the Nations and Regions, devolve more powers to Scotland and Wales and grant the vote to 16 and 17 year olds. Admirable aims certainly. All ought to form part of any package of reforms. But, by convening a people-led Convention a progressive leadership would have to accept that other ideas might be brought forward. These could include the significant reform of the electoral system to make it truly proportional and reflective of the balance of views amongst citizens; a review of constituency boundaries to make them larger and more equal; and a second look at the decision to introduce Individual Electoral Registration, which preliminary research has suggested may reduce voter registration².
Progressive change should be focused on dispersing power, breaking the monopoly of the two ‘main’ parties at Westminster, and breaking the monopoly of Westminster and Whitehall in the overall governance of the UK.
British people certainly have the appetite for constitutional change. I, and colleagues at Edinburgh University, recently conducted a survey of nearly 8,000 respondents across the UK about how the nation is governed, which produced several encouraging findings³. Between 44% and 50% of those with an opinion felt that too little time is spent discussing how the UK is governed. Even more remarkably, more than 60% of respondents with a view on the matter either agree or strongly agree that the UK should launch a Convention⁴. However, this enthusiasm must be balanced⁵ against a widespread lack of faith that ordinary people can actually influence how the UK is governed. That sense of resignation needs to be combatted in an authentic way and the first 100 days of a progressive government should be spent communicating the message that ‘this time it’s different’.
If politicians really are seeking a people-led process, they should not, in fact, do too much reforming within the first 100 days. A progressive government should instead send a clear message that a people-led process will be convened and that expert advice about how best to organise that transparently and inclusively will be sought. Rather than trying to capitalise on any ‘honeymoon’ period and progress reform quickly, the new government should pause and think carefully about the process itself.
The first 100 days should be about both learning and cultivating an atmosphere of trust between politicians and the wider citizenry.
There are a number of examples of people-led conventions elsewhere in Europe and a progressive government in Britain could learn some important lessons from the successes and failures of these approaches. For instance, in Iceland⁶ the 2009 financial crisis triggered a serious rethink of their constitution. A significant positive about this process was the creation of a National Assembly of 950 citizens, drawn randomly from the electoral register, who came together to discuss their views about what should be in the new constitution. This was followed by a national election for 25 representatives to form a Constitutional Assembly, tasked with drafting a new constitution and a draft constitutional bill⁷. The whole process was highly transparent, with weekly drafts of the bill posted on an interactive website enabling the public to view developments and reply to them directly. Hundreds of citizens participated in redesigning their political system. The bill was then put to the public in a referendum. Despite the best efforts of the Icelandic people, the fate of Iceland’s reform effort remains uncertain as for several years the passage of the bill has been thwarted by the Icelandic parliament⁸. In Iceland, it was when the politicians stepped back into the process that the wheels started to come off and this is a clear lesson for any British attempt at people-led reform.
In Ireland⁹ a new effort in participative democracy took place between 2012 and 2014, with 66 randomly selected citizens working alongside 33 parliamentarians to develop proposals to amend the constitution. Combining politicians with citizens proved an effective way of securing greater political buy-in to the reform process. However, similar to the situation in Iceland, the government were dismissive of many of the suggestions and what will ultimately appear on ballot papers in May 2015 is a very tepid¹⁰ version of what the Convention originally proposed.
The examples above reveal the need for political leaders who are serious about people-led change to commit to it firmly, and convince others to do the same. It cannot be just another issue on the government agenda. Senior politicians need to exhibit leadership and commit to the process, making the case for it whatever it ultimately produces. When the people do speak – their voices need to be heard, respected, and acted upon.
There are precedents for organising genuinely people-led Constitutional Conventions. But, in the first 100 days, the emphasis should be less on rapid action and more on purposeful reflection, learning, and planning.
Any progressive government wishing to deliver such a Convention must build confidence in the process and secure the necessary political backing. The biggest obstacle is unlikely to be public unwillingness to get involved. It is, as the examples of Iceland and Ireland make clear, more likely to be politicians either blocking or watering down proposals. It is that culture shift amongst the establishment, that willingness to let go, that is so necessary but so rare.
1 Britain Can Be Better, 2015 Labour Party Manifesto
2 T. James, ‘The Spill-Over and Displacement Effects of Implementing Election Administration Reforms: Introducing Individual Electoral Registration in Britain’, Parliamentary Affairs 67 (2014), pp. 281-305.
3 J. Eichhorn, D. Kenealy, R. Parry, L. Paterson and A. Remond, ‘Public Preferences and the Process of Constitutional Change’, University of Edinburgh Academy of Government briefing paper.
4 D.Kenealy and J. Eichhorn, ‘Miliband’s Constitutional Proposals are more popular than you think’, The New Statesman, 25 March 2015.
5 L. Paterson, J. Eichhorn, D. Kenealy, R. Parry and A. Remond, ‘Democratic Engagement with the Process of Constitutional Change’, University of Edinburgh Academy of Government briefing paper.
6 T. Gylfason, ‘Events in Iceland show that a UK constitutional convention should involve politicians as minimally as possible’, Democratic Audit UK, 28 October 2014.
7 H. Siddique, ‘Mob rule: Iceland crowdsources its next constitution’, The Guardian, 9 June 2011.
8 ‘Iceland’s grassroots constitution on thin ice’, DW, 19 March 2013, at http://www.dw.de/icelands-grassroots-constitution-on-thin-ice/a-16682469.
9 For more details on the Irish Constitutional Convention, see https://www.constitution.ie/.
10 Fintan O’Toole, ‘How hopes raised by the Constitutional Convention were dashed’, The Irish Times, 3 March 2015.