A change in direction?

The results of the referendum were remarkable.  For the No vote to triumph over the Yes vote by a margin of more than two to one was a staggering success for the ‘No to AV’ campaign.  Survey data revealed that the more AV was explained to electors, the more they disliked it. 

Not only was the referendum result remarkable but so too was the outcome of the elections to the Scottish parliament.  Scottish devolution was enacted by a Labour Government essentially to take the wind out of the sails of the Scottish National Party (its principal opponent in Scotland) and an electoral system developed to ensure that the SNP stood no chance of gaining power.  Clearly, things have not worked out as intended.  The SNP has run rings around Labour and achieved a remarkable victory.

The results of the referendum and the Scottish elections suggest that the UK Government needs to refocus its interest in constitutional affairs.  The referendum result indicates that the electorate have no great interest in constitutional reform.  The coalition agreement is based on the premise that our political system is broken.  It is not clear that electors believe that it is.  I have argued that there is indeed a crisis of confidence, but it is not a crisis of confidence in the political system, it is a crisis of confidence in politicians.  Trying to change the system is not going to resolve anything when it is the people advocating the change that constitute the problem. 

Given that, there is little point in the Government pursuing proposals to replace the House of Lords with a chamber of elected politicians.  There is no clear popular appetite for change and, indeed, the referendum has created a powerful argument against proceeding with the Government’s proposed Bill.   One can hardly hold a referendum to determine whether there should be some adjustment to the method of electing the members of one chamber, but not hold a referendum to determine the actual method of electing the members of the other.  The appetite for holding such a referendum is, I suspect, rather low, if not non existent, on the part of Government.

In any event, pursuing a measure to elect the second chamber would not only be time consuming and illogical, given the outcome of the referendum on AV, it would also be a massive distraction in relation to what should now be occupying the Goverment’s attention and that is the preservation of the Union.  There is no great appetite for independence on the part of Scots, but Alex Salmond will exploit the new situation to generate conflict with the Westminster Government.  The Government needs to have a clear strategy as to how to handle the new situation.  What happens in Scotland has implications for the whole of the United Kingdom.  The UK Government needs to devote its time and energies to enhancing the ties that bind the different parts of the Union.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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30 Responses to A change in direction?

  1. Carl.H says:

    Not a lot I can say to that but agree wholeheartedly.

  2. Frank W. Summers III says:

    Lord Norton,

    I reckon the SNP majority Holyrood is caused by the little observed migration of separatists from Quebec. Who would have expected that?

    • Lord Norton says:

      Frank W. Summers III: That could explain it! Plus the fact that the SNP played an effective political game, whereas the other parties did not.

      • Frank W. Summers III says:


        The latter may be more likely. But look for BQ t-shirts just the same. They have to have gone somewhere…

  3. Jonathan says:

    The trouble is, Salmond will manipulate the referendum through both the wording of the question and the timing. A few years ago, the SNP announced the question would be something about the Scottish Government negotiating with the British Government so that Scotland becomes an independent country. Independence is hidden away at the end after a load of waffle. What the question should be is, “Should Scotland become an independent country?” Yes or No. At least the AV referendum was honest in this respect.

    Perhaps David Cameron should call Salmond’s bluff by announcing a referendum on his own terms, with a clear question and at a time of his – not the SNP’s – choosing.

    While I agree that the public has no appetite for constitutional reform or an elected Lords, I do think that a referendum on the latter could well come out in favour of election. People don’t really care about this issue, but I suspect if the question was actually put in front of them, many would plump for the elected option.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Jonathan: The issue of whether the UK Government should call the SNP’s bluff and call an early referendum is being much discussed; there is a case for doing so, for the reason you give, though there are also huge dangers: it could be counter-productive if seen to be Westminster trying to determine the outcome.

      I am against referendums but if one were to be held on the Lords I suspect we may get a result similar to AV: when people have the consequences of an elected chamber explained to them they swing against it.

      • Teithiwr says:

        If you are opposed to referendums for the reasons you have outlined, perhaps you would advise the SNP move a motion in the Parliament and make a unilateral declaration of independence? Kosovo of course is precedent of the UK government accepting the right of elected regional bodies in making such a decision.

      • Lord Norton says:

        Teithiwr: It could try, but defence is at least a reserved matter!

  4. Carl.H says:

    “many would plump for the elected option.”

    Which takes us back to the case against referendums ! I honestly do not believe, and certainly know at my level of society, that people understand what it is the House of Lords does. To most of the electorate it would, in my opinion, be a blind choice of X or Y and again could be possible that characters rather than knowledge resolve the issue.

  5. Alex Ingram says:

    You make one very good point and several bad ones. I’ll agree with you first, it is important that the politicians change and not just the system. The best and most democratic system in the world can be failed by poor politicians (and indeed parties).

    However, to make any assumptions that the results of the AV referendum are a sign that further reform of any other institution are therefore unpopular and/or wrong is a mis-step. The AV referendum tells us that AV has not passed a popular vote. No more, and no less. As AV was only in the manifesto of Labour if it was to be brought in by the coalition a referendum seems sensible. Reform of the house of lords, however, was in the manifesto of one of the parties in the coalition and therefore is as legitimate as any other act they may take.

    I draw a parallel to the first referendum for devolution in Scotland, which helped set up the movement that made devolution all but inevitable when Labour returned to power in 1997. It was that groundswell of civic and political Scotland that drove devolution, not some arbitrary decision by Labour to try and contain the nationalists who actually appeared to be on the way out in the late 90s. As an ardent fan of political reform I am optimistic that we will see PR in Westminster within about 20 years, which will be good news for England, Wales and Northern Ireland…

    As to how to handle the SNP victory? Well, enhancing the ties that bind is perhaps somewhat provocative language. I hope that you mean finding ways for communicating between the governments and parliaments that would perhaps make federalism more of an option. The United Kingdom has never been a set of equally governed and organised nations, devolution merely changed the democratic status of that inequality. It is probably too late now to enforce equality onto that situation and likely undesirable. We have already established that the Welsh can endorse their assembly into a law making body by a referendum and we have a process in train for enhancing the powers of both Scotland and Northern Ireland. There is a problem that enhancing the democracy of any nation in the union in accordance with the will of their people or their representatives may produce a more unequal democracy across the UK but so long as politicians embrace and encourage the conservative views of the populace on a UK basis such as we saw in the AV referendum there will be no solution.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Alex Ingram: The vote on AV cannot be seen in a vacuum. We have survey data so we have a fairly clear idea of why people voted as they did in the referendum: it was not just a vote against AV but a vote for existing system. There was a preference for the simplicity of the existing system over a more complex system. That has implications for any further demand for electoral reform. Reform of the House of Lords appeared in party manifestos in different forms. Neither Labour or the Conservatives are committed to legislation. On the general issue of constitutional reform, the survey evidence is quite clear. There is no groundswell of support or anything approaching it. Ask people for their views on constitutional issues and they will express a view; ask them how important they rate constitutional reform and the positive responses are usually so few in number as not to register on the table.

      It is also important to note that the reason we shall not see electoral reform in the foreseeable future is not only because of the outcome of the referendum but also because the referendum was the result of exceptional circumstances (a third party holding the balance of power). If Labour or the Conservatives are in power on their own, the issue will not be pursued. It is only if there are again exceptional circumstances is it likely to come back on the political agenda.

      Each part of the UK is different and there has never been an attempt to impose unifomity. We are not so much as unitary state as a union state. The structures reflect the unusual nature of the UK. It is not akin to other nation states where there are multiple parts (states, provinces etc) and one alone cannot dominate or not usually dominate the others. In a federal system, England will necessarily be dominant.

      • Alex Ingram says:

        Lord Norton, thanks for the reply. I will base my response purely on my knowledge of the recent history of Scottish Politics, as I feel that even ignoring the changes that have been seen there since devolution are instructive.

        Firstly, the AV referendum. It has shown that there are a committed group who do want reform, and I think actually it’s hard to argue that it is a group that is smaller than that which has come before. I see the future of electoral and more radical parliamentary reform as coming the same way as devolution. Some of those who then remain statically out of power will unite with those in the populace who support it and a more coherent persuasive movement will be formed. In time, far better and more popular proposals will come.

        It is worth noting that in Scotland there was electoral reform in local government and that since then there have been a number of corrupt and unsuccessful councils that have been brought round. This change did not come from a groundswell of public opinion but has been of enormous benefit to the public. I think it is urgent that local councils in England are made more democratic as they are often the worst symbols of the disconnect between citizen (well, subject) and state. Is it reasonable behaviour of the parties to walk away from reforming the institutions that govern them when they reject a single proposal for a particular area? I think not.

        We clearly agree a lot about the issues of the union even though we see them from different viewpoints. If federalism isn’t the solution though, we are on a progression as powers move into Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that there are ever more clear English issues, and ultimately I cannot see a path that doesn’t entail an English Parliament in some form, at some stage.

        I read you as believing that no one country can dominate the others in the union today. The reality is that the self same parties who faired so badly with the Scottish electorate are better connected to the English electorate (and the Welsh), none of them connect much with those in Northern Ireland. The political debate remains centred around England, especially in the media, there in particular England dominates which harms the interests of all involved either seeking an informed debate on improving the union.

      • Lord Norton says:

        Alex Ingram: I have long advocated pushing power down as far as it will go to the locality. The more people are in control of decisions affecting them locally, the better. We are a long way off reaching a desirable state of affairs.

  6. Carl.H says:

    If the noble Lord will indulge me I should like to make a short video questionaire of people I know including business owners, wives and others of the electorate on the subject of the House.

    I should like to ask people on camera what it is they think the House of Lords does .

    If your Lordship thinks this maybe useful in someway I will attempt it, I should like you to phrase the question if the above seems too simple, remembering that the people I know may not ALL be educated to a high standard. I shall of course include people I know who should know the answer including Lord Beechams brother if willing.

  7. Graham says:

    Lord Norton, is there any particular publication where you have argued that “there is indeed a crisis of confidence, but it is not a crisis of confidence in the political system, it is a crisis of confidence in politicians”? I’d be interested in reading it.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Graham: Tha’t s a good question. I have principally argued the case in speeches in the House, but it is something I shall be dealing with in some forthcoming articles.

  8. Dean B says:

    Apologies for posting off topic, but could I make a request for a blog soon on how likely is the imposition of an elected House of Lords, and what we can do to stop it?

    • Lord Norton says:

      Dean B: We are expecting a statement next week on the Government’s plans to publish a draft Bill on the House of Lords. I shall in due course be organising a meeting for all those who oppose an elected House and would like to take part in the campaign. I shall post details on this site as well as on the Campaign for an Effective Second Chamber website.

  9. ladytizzy says:

    The relationship between politicians and the rest of us is not so much that it need mending but that one needs to be created. Few people will ever meet a politician in the flesh let alone get to know what makes them tick.

    The election leaflets sent to me last year were bland to the point of meaningless and, since all used ‘local’ three times in every sentence, I began to look for other distinguishing marks such as Best Spectacle Wearer. It is quite ridiculous to believe that they have been given a local mandate when most politicians are seen by voters as no more than part of a collective hive.

    One of the frequently trotted out lines from the YESers was that AV kept the link between the constituency and Westminster (even from ardent PR supporters!). In part, this is the crux of the problem since, within Westminster, MPs are primarily UK legislators and their career paths reflect this by dint of ministerial or committee roles. This definition is alien to most of their voters who want them to sort out the drains, dustbins, and dog poo, issues which should never get as far as them in the first place. The debate on the power of recall might well be an opportunity for all to understand the scope of one person’s councillor, mayor, MP, or MEP.

    Shortly after last year’s election I noted that many of the new intake were keen to use their role as backbenchers to keep the gvt on their toes. How’s that working out?

    • Lord Norton says:

      ladytizzy: I believe that the constituency link is very important, but MPs increasingly take on a range of tasks that are best fulfilled by better qualified grievance-chasing agencies. It detracts from Members fulfilling the collective task of scrutinising and calling to account the Government, which only they can do.

  10. Michael Short says:

    I wish people would stop using the AV referendum as an excuse to bury electoral reform, it’s shameless self-interest.

    What the public announced was that it didn’t want AV. Fine. AV wasn’t all that great anyway sure but you jump from a choice of two systems to say the public have categorically denounced ALL other systems? Where is the logic? Where is the evidence?

    I’m dismayed you even dare bring the House of Lords into it, what has the House of Lords got to do with public attitude to AV?

    You’re taking something and running with it because it benefits you to do so. What you’re arguing is that you don’t want to address problems because people aren’t bothered about these problems. That seems like a unhealthy attitude for a politician to take.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Michael Short: The logic is to be found in the survey data. The poll by YouGov showed quite clearly that people opposed AV because it was a complex system and they preferred the simplicity of the existing system. If that was the reason, there is a reasonable read-across in respect of other electoral systems. We also know from regular surveys that people give no priority to the issue of constitutional reform and it would be interesting to know of any poll that suggests people would give any priority to reform of the House of Lords.

  11. tory boy says:

    Very sad news that the Lords Speaker has decided to step down from her position, particularly when she has been first class at the job. Who ever is elected later on in the year has a very hard act to follow.

  12. Princeps Senatus says:

    I agree with Tory Boy and LadyTizzy in their comments.

    Bns Hayman has defined the role of the Lord Speaker as its first holder and she has done it well. I look forward with interest to see who are the candidates for the election, which incidentally will be held under AV.

    With regards to the point raised by LadyTizzy about the MP being expected to deal with everything from the council not fixing myu roof to the bus stop being moved two doors down, I agree that the local link is probably a hindrance as opposed to a benefit. I have worked with a group of MPs and have seen firsthand the amount of time and effort spent by MPs and their staff responding to these issues about which they can do nothing, time and effort which should be spent on scrutinising legislation and policies.

    Perhaps we need to have a look at something like the Petitions Committee in the Bundestag (http://www.bundestag.de/htdocs_e/bundestag/committees/a02/index.html), whom anybody can write to and who can then take the matter up with the government. Perhaps we could trial this in the Lords, as an interim measure until the (hopefully delayed) reform of the Lords. It will improve the profile of the Lords and make people aware of the work that they do and make them more accessible, if not accountable.

    Also, interestingly, Mark D’Arcy in his BBC blog has pointed out that the Coalition Agreement only commits the coalition to “bring forward” plans for Lords reform, not necessarily to enact them. A very interesting inetrpretation of the Coalition agreement.

    • Lord Norton says:

      Princeps Senatus: I agree on all points. I favour a petitions committee. If the Commons is not willing to establish one, I am all for one being established in the Lords.

  13. Teithiwr says:

    “The referendum result indicates that the electorate have no great interest in constitutional reform”.

    As the result of a referendum held in Wales in March this year on increasing the powers of the National Assembly was close to two to one in favour, following this logic it shows that the people of Wales do have a great interest in constitutional reform!

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