The Liberal-Democrat Accession and the English Parliament

You should always be careful what you wish for and be wary of the law of unintended consequences. Although I will probably be voting Lib Dem this time round – unless my Tory MP astounds me by previously unsuspected support for an English parliament – a Lib-Dem break-through could have far-reaching ramifications for the prospects and nature of any future English parliament.

For a start, as they made clear yesterday, the Lib Dems will make their support for a minority Labour- or Conservative-led government conditional on introducing proportional representation. One imagines this would involve a referendum on changing to the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system for UK-parliamentary elections.

Many supporters of PR see it as a way to mitigate (i.e. ignore) the West Lothian Question. The logic behind this position is simple, though flawed in my view. For example, under STV, if the actual vote on 6 May exactly followed yesterday’s ICM opinion-poll ratings (Con 33%, Lib Dem 30% and Lab 28%), then the Conservatives would be the largest party both in England and the UK as a whole; and in any coalition of the parties to form a government, the UK majority thus constituted would also be consistent with the parties’ shares of seats in England. Therefore, on one level, it would no longer matter if non-English MPs voted on English laws, as the same laws would be passed if only English MPs voted.

On the other hand, the reverse logic could also apply: if the votes of non-English MPs were no longer needed to pass English bills, why let them vote at all? The only real justification for non-English MPs voting on English legislation presently is when there is a link to spending in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland via the Barnett Formula. But presumably, the days of that formula itself might well be numbered under a Con-LibDem coalition, as the Lib Dems favour scrapping it and even the Tories talk in their manifesto of greater fiscal autonomy for Scotland.

Indeed, in a proportionally elected House of Commons, the situation of non-English MPs voting on English laws would come to appear blatantly, if not scandalously, anomalous. Under First Past the Post, by contrast, the fact that Labour’s Scottish MPs have occasionally been required to pass the government’s England-only legislation against the will of a majority of English MPs did not on one level seem that outrageous in that the government majority procured in this way was no more disproportionate than the normal majority of English MPs only it would expect to command, as both majorities were merely the product of the absurd FPTP electoral system rather than of the way English people actually voted at the 2005 general election.

In other words, in a situation in which voting majorities in the Commons bear little relation to the way the public actually voted at the election, the misuse of non-English MPs to inflate those majorities even further does not stand out too obviously. By contrast, in a proportionally elected House where the parties’ shares of the seats are meant to reflect the way people voted, and where MPs are meant to be more accountable to their electorates, distorting those shares by allowing MPs not accountable to the people affected by bills to vote on them would be completely inconsistent and unacceptable.

Accordingly, I tend to think that, rather than mitigating the WLQ, PR would render it inoperable. But then if you do not allow non-English MPs to make England’s laws, what arrangements would be made for that little matter of how to govern England? Do you go down the route of an English Grand Committee: English laws debated and voted on by separate sessions of English MPs only? Do you draw the logical conclusion and say that Parliament needs to evolve into an English parliament to deal with English matters, with a separate set of representatives elected from across the UK to deal with reserved matters? Or do you just try to ignore the problem by pretending that England does not exist and that the West Lothian Question simply does not arise, let alone require a solution – the Labour government’s approach?

In this way, by insisting on introducing PR before dealing with the English Question, the Lib Dems might find that question comes and bites them in the bum: they could create a constitutional mess in which the very legitimacy and function of the parliament for which they had finally secured PR was called into question – a British parliament without a valid democratic role and status in most of what it did, i.e. in English matters.

To be fair to the Lib Dems, their manifesto does state that they want to hold a citizens’ convention to help draw up a written constitution, and the English Question would be dealt with as part of this process. But the Lib Dems are not going to be in a position to carry out this commitment in full as part of a coalition government. All they’ve actually said is that they’d make electoral reform a minimal precondition of any deal to support a minority government, not the whole constitutional-reform programme; and neither Labour nor the Tories have any appetite to address the English Question. But as I say, the English Question may impose itself as unavoidable if the Lib Dems do succeed in introducing STV.

There are two possible scenarios that follow on logically from this. Firstly, if the Lib Dems do secure STV (and if, as I argue, this would lead to an urgent need to address the English Question because of the crisis of governance it would bring about), then any English parliament would also be based on STV. Having gone to the trouble and expense of introducing STV, which would require the re-drawing of constituency boundaries and the amalgamation of constituencies into multi-member seats, there is no way the English parliament could then revert to the pre-STV single member-constituency system. Having finally achieved their goal of a proper proportional system, the Lib Dems would never accept an inferior system for England; nor – I think – would the English people.

However – scenario two – what if the British public did not endorse STV in the initial referendum required to adopt it as the system for UK elections? For instance, Gordon Brown favours the Alternative Vote (AV) single-member system, and if the Lib Dems’ referendum were held under a putative Lab-LibDem coalition, it could be a multi-option referendum with AV as one of the systems on offer. Labour could be expected to argue strongly for AV, which is in reality merely a mitigated form of FPTP and would preserve the unfair advantage the present system gives to the party. Who knows, voters might prefer to retain single-member constituencies and the winner-takes-all aspect of the present system, albeit in a slightly fairer form. Under this second scenario, the West Lothian Question could remain in place for much longer, as AV would perpetuate the disproportionality of the present system from which the very ability of Labour to form any kind of government depends and which also disguises the outrageously unfair extra advantage Labour obtains from the WLQ.

In this context, the Lib Dems could find themselves in the unenviable position of propping up an unfairly elected Labour government that exploits its stronger base of support in Scotland and Wales to secure its power in England. Would it not then be both more effective tactically, and give greater moral credibility to their demands for constitutional reform, if the Lib Dems declared now – ahead of 6 May – that they would not exploit the West Lothian Question in the new parliament, even if to do so were the only way in which a coalition of which they were a part could actually form a working majority?

After all, how can the English people believe in the Lib Dems’ advocacy of greater democratic fairness and proportional representation if they are in theory willing to exploit one of the most egregiously unfair and disproportional aspects of the present system simply to have a share in government? If they want England to back them on 6 May and support STV in a referendum, then surely they should back ‘building a fairer Britain’ in the forthcoming parliament, too – including fairness for England.

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One Response

  1. […] reforms of the constitution, parliament and voting system are enacted – which is highly convenient if they actually need the votes of Scottish Labour MPs to pass English legislation in the event of a […]

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