UCL News


Coalition government and constitutional reform

13 May 2010


Nick Clegg and David Cameron ucl.ac.uk/drupal/site_news/sites/news/files/84.pdf" target="_self">Coalition Government in Britain: Lessons from Overseas (pdf)
  • The Guardian: Meg Russell explains how to square the electoral reform circle
  • Meg Russell on government defeats in the House of Lords and the Lib Dems' pivotal votes
  • Constitution Unit guide: fixed-term parliaments (pdf)
  • "So, we have a hung Parliament and a Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition government. The UCL Constitution Unit has been planning for this moment for a long time," said Professor Robert Hazell.

    Professor Hazell, Director of the Constitution Unit in UCL Political Science, has been at the forefront of commentary on the workings and implications of a hung Parliament. Here he outlines the path ahead in terms of electoral reform, the costs of merged manifestos and other issues that the coalition will have to handle.

    "In 2002 we published Ben Seyd's 'Coalition Government in Britain: Lessons from Overseas', now to be republished with the Institute for Government. And last year we published (also with the Institute) 'Making Minority Government Work: Hung Parliaments and the Challenges for Westminster and Whitehall'. Both reports provide essential guidance for the months and years to come.

    The new Cabinet Manual

    The 2009 report led to the Cabinet Office deciding to produce a new Cabinet Manual, and to publish before the election the key chapter on elections and government formation.

    That made clear that the Queen has no discretion in deciding whom to appoint as Prime Minister. It is up to the parties first to work out who can command confidence in the new House of Commons, and the Queen then invites that person to form a government.

    That helped avert any press speculation that it might be up to the Queen to decide. The new guidance also made clear that in the meantime Gordon Brown remained in office as the incumbent Prime Minister. But - under a new convention proposed in our report - he led a caretaker government, which could not take decisions which might tie the hands of future governments.

    The coalition agreement

    The other new development was that the civil service supported the political parties in their negotiations, drawing on practice in Scotland and New Zealand. Small teams of civil servants were assigned to each of the parties, and could draw upon policy advice from senior officials all around Whitehall.

    Had the media and the markets given the negotiators more time, the coalition agreement could have been costed by Whitehall and subjected to some minimum feasibility testing. But the external pressure for an early announcement was intense, and the initial coalition agreement of 12 May is an uncosted merger of the two manifestos. After asserting the overriding importance of reducing the deficit, it contains a list of policy commitments which mostly involve increased public spending.

    The Cabinet Manual should also provide essential guidance on how to make the coalition arrangements work in day-to-day practice. Ben Seyd's report shows that this depends crucially on mutual trust and understanding, but also on agreed procedures for information sharing and consultation between the coalition partners.

    These include procedures for joint signing-off on policy proposals; additional resources for the Deputy Prime Minister, who is central to such arrangements; the need to decentralise coalition coordination as much as possible, to avoid bottlenecks at the centre; formal and informal dispute resolution procedures; and a pool of trusted special advisers to help resolve coalition management issues.

    Constitutional reform remains high on the agenda. Nick Clegg is in overall charge of political reforms, and will plan and introduce the legislation on electoral reform and fixed-term parliaments and all the other constitutional changes. These political reforms with their minimal budgetary costs have a better chance of being implemented than other more expensive policies.

    Top priority for the Liberal Democrats was electoral reform. Both Labour and Conservatives offered a referendum on the alternative vote system (AV). It is not a proportional system, and so a disappointment for the Lib Dems; but if set alongside a second chamber elected by proportional representation (PR), it could make a lot of sense.

    Electoral reform and Lords reform

    The new government needs to bring together thinking on the electoral system for the House of Commons and the Lords. Bicameralism works best when the two chambers complement each other, with a different composition. The Lib Dems need not feel too disappointed that AV is not a proportional system. As Meg Russell has argued (see link above), an AV elected Commons and PR elected Lords could be an attractive and sensible compromise.

    The coalition government may have an effective majority in both Houses, because of the Lib Dems' pivotal votes in the second chamber. That could make it easier for the government to get legislation through the Lords than under the previous government, because the Lib Dem peers will be expected to support the government. Rebalancing of Conservative peers to reflect their new share of the vote will also help. (See Meg Russell's article on government defeats in the House of Lords and the Lib Dems' pivotal votes above.)

    Fixed-term parliaments and mid-term dissolution

    Fixed-term parliaments will strengthen the stability of the coalition, by creating an expectation that a parliament will run to full term. A five-year term is long by comparison with other Westminster systems.

    The 55% threshold for dissolution is intended to strengthen the hand of the Lib Dems: Cameron could not call an early election without the consent of his coalition partners. On confidence motions tabled by the opposition parties, the normal 50% threshold should continue to apply. (See the link above for the Constitution Unit guide to fixed-term parliaments.)

    Reducing the size of Parliament

    Both parties are committed to reducing the size of the House of Commons: the Conservatives to 585 MPs, the Lib Dems to 500. That will be considered alongside electoral reform, and should be part of the referendum package.

    It will require a wholesale boundary review, and early legislation to streamline the boundary review process. There will be accusations of gerrymandering, but radical streamlining is supported by all the electoral experts (see chapter 5.1 of the Constitution Unit report 'The Conservative Agenda for Constitutional Reform').

    Europe, and British bill of rights

    The Conservative proposal for a Sovereignty Bill has been modified to examining the case for such a bill. But the commitment remains to legislate for a mandatory referendum on any future EU treaty that transferred competences.

    Plans for a British bill of rights seem to have gone. If revived, and if the policy lead goes to Dominic Grieve as Attorney General, human rights groups can rest assured that it will be European Court if Human Rights (ECHR) plus, not ECHR minus."

    Image: Nick Clegg and David Cameron, courtesy of The Prime Minister's Office, Flickr. Some rights reserved

    UCL context

    The Constitution Unit is an independent and non-partisan research centre based at UCL. It is part of the UCL School of Public Policy.The Unit has been providing guides, forecasts and analysis on the General Election 2010 since April.

    Related news

    How to make a coalition government work

    Negotiations on political reform: mission impossible?

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