Constitutional reform

On Wednesday, the Constitution Committee in the Lords took evidence on the Government’s constitutional reform programme.  We had a panel of Peter Riddell, Professor Robert Hazell and Professor Robert Blackburn.  It was extremely productive.   We covered fixed-term Parliaments, the referendum on the Alternative Vote and reform of the House of Lords.  All three were concerned by the problems associated with the speed with which major constitutional legislation was being introduced, limiting the capacity for pre-legislative scrutiny. 

On the referendum, there were differing views on whether it should be held on the same day as local elections and elections to the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales.  Robert Hazell thought it was sensible to hold them on the same day, Robert Blackburn had no strong views, and Peter Riddell was opposed, pointing out that there would be a differential turnout as not all parts of England were having local elections.  Living in London, he felt Londoners would miss out.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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3 Responses to Constitutional reform

  1. Carl.H says:

    Thank you for the link to the debate, very enlightening.

    Lot`s of concerns were aired and obviously the prime one was that of timing and scrutiny. I posted in the previous thread that even the other place was concerned at the lack of scrutiny being allowed before recess.

    I am concerned that this fantastically important Bill will be rushed through without inadequate scrutiny much the same as a “wash-up”. It also worries me that a more powerful House, that of the Commons maybe bullying it through on the suggestion that being elected makes one somewhat more capable, this isn`t so.

    There are many, many issues and I hope it receives the scrutiny it deserves as it`s importance is beyond that of most other legislation.

    The referendum I totally disagree with, just 10 weeks ago the electorate had the chance to vote Lib-Dem if they really wanted a change in the voting system. They did not nor do I think the turn out to any referendum on this subject will be great. The question, as I have seen it, will be vague to most who have little understanding of the political process and from a working mans standpoint will hold little interest. The result however will make a significant difference to the Country.

    AV is wrong but where are all the other choices if questions are to be put to the electorate ? The economy is not buoyant, cuts are happening, mistakes will be made with changes to invalidity benefit and people will suffer financially. Yet the Government, who are cutting the peoples services want to spend £82 million asking them a question the general election answered. If they had wanted PR or similar they would have voted Lib-Dem they didn`t……Charging each adult over £2 to walk to the polling station to put a cross in “No”, or the alternate if they really haven`t thought it through, is preposterous after the election.

    AV : Please put these in order of preference :


    Can you imagine how long it would take, the women I know, to vote like that ? Getting the right attire to visit the polls is hard enough !

  2. FinnishCowl says:

    I share Carl.H’s concerns over scrutiny. This is one of the more complicated bills, but I am afraid anxieties about getting this key part of the coalition government through on schedule could lead to a bad bill. It’s not as if an increase in the VAT, which (while controversial) is a more basic decision (and can easily be reversed).

    Concerning the referendum, I must say I fail to see the concerns about the timing of the vote. No one seems to complain that the EU elections in 2004 only coincided with some English local elections or in 2009 with local elections in England and Wales only (but not the Welsh Assembly). Would anyone suggest that MEPs elected in areas without simultaneous local elections (particularly Scotland and NI) do not truly represent their electorate? This brings me to my second point, which is that I doubt that local election turnout warrants this concern. The 2006 local elections (which did not coincide with other elections) had an average turnout of 36% (an average which more or less played out at the few local London elections I unscientifically sampled). Compared to the 60%+ turnout for general elections, I would say it is laughable to think less people will vote in the referendum in London because of a lack of local elections. I would suggest that Londoners would rather vote in a major constitutional referendum than in their local elections.

    That being said, I still detest most referendums, especially on major changes to constitutional or political structure. It is extraordinarily rare for them to ever be reversed. These are permanent decisions often made on the momentary passions of half the people who bother voting. And if the side pushing for change loses the referendum, then they will simply keep calling for another vote until they get enough support (each time claiming that the “mood has changed”). Yet, once they finally win, it would be unthinkable to them to hold corresponding follow-up votes on reversing the decision in the future. I am pleased by discussions of turnout requirements and supermajorities for this referendum, which help ensure that the people really want this long term change. However, I think (in a politically unrealistic world) that referendums should also include: (1) automatic votes to reverse the decision (the number and time of which should mirror the initial referendums which sought the change) and (2) minimum waiting periods before supporters can “try again” (which would need to be sufficiently long––perhaps 20-50 years for some major constitutional reforms––to make supporters only call on voters when there is clear popular support). This is not to say referendums would be automatic after the waiting period, but merely that they can only take place after that time.

  3. Teithiwr says:

    It should also be noted that in Wales there could well be another referendum on the same day. The Secretary of State for Wales is yet to decide the date for a referendum on increasing the powers of the National Assembly for Wales but there is increasing momentum for this vote to take place on the same day as the elections to the National Assembly and the referendum on the AV voting system. There has been much debate on this issue already in Wales mostly revolving around the issue of whether voters have the capacity to understand what they are voting for if there are 3 different votes on the same day (i.e. are Welsh voters more stupid than those in the USA or Switzerland). The other issues which are mentioned less often revolve around the issue of information (i.e. will the UK media coverage of the AV referendum drown out any media coverage on the issue of powers for the Assembly) and political (the Conservatives in Wales are split on the issue of more powers for the National Assembly and will not want to fight an Assembly election at the same time as a referendum on powers).

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