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Negotiations on political reform: mission impossible?

7 May 2010


Polling station sign ucl.ac.uk/constitution-unit/research/" target="_self">UCL Constitution Unit General Election guide

"The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats may seem far apart on their ideas for political reform, but they are not impossibly so," said UCL's Professor Robert Hazell.

"Now that negotiations between the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats are underway, the Director of the UCL Constitution Unit commented: "The hardest issue is electoral reform.  If the Conservatives can move some way on that, they can readily agree the rest."

Electoral reform

The Liberal Democrats want STV (a single transferable voting system) and to reduce the House of Commons to 500 MPs. The Conservatives also want to reduce the size of the Commons, to 585, but to retain first-past-the-post. To reduce the size of the House of Commons requires a wholesale boundary review of all constituency boundaries.  That is difficult to achieve in one Parliament; but not impossible, if the boundary review process is drastically streamlined. The difficulty of adding electoral reform is the risk of delaying the whole process beyond this Parliament. To persuade the Tories the Liberal Democrats might propose:

- a quick (six-month) commission to investigate why first-past-the post operates so unfairly

- a referendum in which Liberal Democrats and the Tories are free to campaign on opposite sides

- hardball negotiation: no electoral reform, no deal.

Lords reform

The Liberal Democrats want a fully elected second chamber, while the Conservatives want to 'build a consensus' for a mainly elected second chamber. The Liberal Democrats will want a clear timetable, with a plan for legislation in this Parliament leading to the first elections in 2014 or 2015. The Tories may offer Lords reform in place of electoral reform for the Commons. There is some logic in that: the electoral system for one House needs to be resolved before deciding on the other.

Fixed-term Parliaments

The Liberal Democrats support fixed-term parliaments. David Cameron has mentioned the possibility in the past, and might be persuaded. Legislation could be introduced in the first or second session, and would set the date of the next general election, and elections after that.

EU (Referendums) and Sovereignty Bill

The Conservatives are committed to legislate to require compulsory referendums on future EU treaties, and to restate the sovereignty of the Westminster Parliament. Both bills are problematic, in terms of their legal effect, and signals they would send to Europe. The Conservative leadership might be relieved if the Liberal Democrats insisted they were dropped; their backbenchers will not be.

British bill of rights

Up until the election the Liberal Democrats supported a British bill of rights, as part of a written constitution. Faced by the Conservative threat to repeal the Human Rights Act (HRA), they have now pledged to protect it. They might be willing to discuss what a British bill of rights would add to the HRA, on the clear understanding that it would have to be European Court of Human Rights-plus.

Party funding

The Liberal Democrats will want to revive Hayden Phillips' 2007 review into party funding, which came close to reaching agreement. Both parties could agree a cap of £50,000 on donations, which would also apply to trade union contributions. The Conservatives will not be happy with any increase in state funding.

Right of recall

Both parties are agreed on a power to recall MPs found guilty of serious wrongdoing. 

Image: Polling station sign courtesy of secretlondon123, Flickr.com

UCL Context

The Constitution Unit at UCL is the UK's foremost independent research body on constitutional change. 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. 

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