Monday, May 03, 2010

Constitutional change in the UK?

Sandy Levinson

Simon Schama has an interesting leader in the current New Yorker about the upcoming election in the UK and the threat it poses to the current version of the parliamentary system dominated by two parties. If there is a "hung parliament," with neither Tories nor Labour getting a majority (and either would be able to get a majority of seats only because of the vagaries of the first-past-the-post single-member-district syndrome that allows parties to claim handsome "mandates" with distinctly less than a majority of the popular vote], then the price of coalition with the Liberal Democrats would be to dump that in favor of some version of proportional representation. Schama concludes as follows:

we will find out whether Clegg—whose party, under the current system, will be awarded proportionately far fewer seats than either of the others—has the stuff of the revolutionary parliamentarian Oliver Cromwell in him (minus the disagreeable beheading of the monarch). Cameron has recently been hedging his responses when asked if, to get to Downing Street, he would pay Clegg’s price of a referendum on electoral reforms. That’s because if such reforms—which have already been adopted in elections for the Scottish and Welsh legislatures—were extended to Westminster it would almost certainly mean the end of the two-party system. The really shocking, really thrilling thing is that many Britons, faced with this prospect, seem ready to say, Goodbye. And good riddance.

I confess this is a good enough reason for me to be rooting for just such a hung parliament. The "mother of parliaments" is increasingly sclerotic, and it's just possible that the Brits will actually be forced to confront at least some of their "constitutional" problems. And perhaps California and even New York will do so as well (not to mention Maryland, which, under its state constitution, will be voting this year, I believe, whether or not to have a new convention). If only the US Constitution would be subject to similar scrutiny.... No doubt this is wishful thinking, but, hey, on a lovely spring day, a guy can dream.... (Perhaps someone in Florida will take cognizance of the fact that their next senator will, almost undoubtedly, have been rejected by around 60% of the electorate and ask whether an alternative to first-past-the-post might make some sense. This is actually the perfect time for such a debate in Florida, since everyone is effectively behind a "veil of ignorance" in terms of who would be helped or hurt by moving to a runoff or my preferred Alternative Transferrable Vote. Either one would guarantee that more Floridians would feel "represented" by their senator than is likely to be the case if one of the threesome wins with, say, 37% of the total vote (which, by coincidence, is exactly the %age of the vote received by Texas Governor Rick Perry in 2006, in a four-way race. This is one reason why Bill White shouldn't be counted out of the race, since Perry certainly isn't any more admirable now than he was in 2006, when he was rejected by 63% of the electorate). But I digress....


If the price for Lib-Dem support is proportional representation, then you will have continual hung parliaments and very likely an ongoing Lib/Dem & Conservative alliance.

Given that the Lib/Dems are the closest to American libertarian conservatism while the Conservatives more closely resemble RINOs like Specter ever since the Iron Lady retired, the names of these Brit parties can be more than a little confusing to Yanks.

The US would be better served with a runoff system rather than proportional representation and all of its minority party government hostage taking.

Reluctant as I am to contradict dear Bart, I fear that he has not read the Liberal Democrat Manifesto for the election which will take place this Thursday.

Were he to trouble to do so, I think he would find Lib-Dem principles and policies to be very different from what I understand him to mean by the expression American libertarian conservatism. Liberal Democrats are most certainly concerned to preserve and enhance our civil liberties, but Lib-Dem policies are the antithesis of conservative thinking - this is a party which is resolutely progressive. More so than either the Conservatives or Labour.

As of today, 4th May 2010, the average of polls puts the Conservatives on 34%, the Lib-Dems on 29%, Labour on 28% and the others on 9%. On first past the post, that would notionally gives the Tories and Labour around 260 seats each with the Lib-Dems getting only around 90 seats but holding the balance of power.

The Daily Telegraph reports a poll of marginal seats here which suggests that in Con-Lab marginals, the undecided are breaking for the Conservatives, but that the Lib-Dems are winning in the Con-Lib-Dem marginals. Interestingly the poll reports that 46% of people would prefer a hung parliament to a Tory win (44%).

So we may at long last see electoral reform. But I think that Bart would be very much mistaken to think reform would lead to a succession of Conservative-Lib-Dem alliances.

The years since New Labour came to power in 1997 have seen changes to the British institutions of political power on an unprecedented scale. The reforms have been widespread, ranging from devolution of power in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, to the reform of the House of Lords and the changing role of the Monarchy. This book is the first to examine these changes collectively and in detail, placing each in its historical context, analysing problems, solutions and what the future holds for this ambitious period of reforms.

The book is comprehensive in coverage, and accessibly written. As such it should be the ideal resource for undergraduate students of British Politics seeking to make sense of this complex subject.Law

Just for amusement This local paper headline prompted the Conservative Guido Fawkes' Blog to comment that this wasn't exactly the headline Labour would want 45 hours before the polls open.

The thought of a "hung" Parliament calls for a comeback of Monty Python's Flying Circus. Perhaps Guido might prefer a "hanged" Parliament.

BD: Given that the Lib/Dems are the closest to American libertarian conservatism

Mourad: Reluctant as I am to contradict dear Bart, I fear that he has not read the Liberal Democrat Manifesto for the election which will take place this Thursday.

Apart from the silliness about government subsidy for "green energy," the LD platform of tax cuts, budget cuts, written protections of individual liberties, local school power, and making MPs work in the open and under the same laws as the citizenry sounds like the various Tea Party manifestos around the the United States.

Have you read the LD manifesto or are you simply ignorant about what the Tea Party libertarian conservative movement supports?

With regard to " ... the various Tea Party manifestos around the the United States," 5/3/10 features "History's Mad Hatters - The Strange Career of Tea Party Populism" by Steve Fraser and Joshua B. Freeman with a history lesson beginning with the original Boston Tea Party. [Note: "Hatters" is not a typo but with one less "t" it might serve as a better description.]

Have you read the LD manifesto or are you simply ignorant about what the Tea Party libertarian conservative movement supports?
# posted by Bart DePalma : 10:27 AM

The tea-baggers don't appear to support anything. They're just angry that Obama is president.

Perhaps Tea Party-baggers need to go decaf.

Shag from Brookline said...

Perhaps Tea Party-baggers need to go decaf.

Your metaphor would be better applied to the astroturf Coffee Party folks. Apparently, their 2008 Obama campaign operatives have had a falling out and are now fighting over who is in charge.

A: "Both kinds of power [economic and political] have been stripped from ordinary citizens, leaving us with a fragile society marked by inequality, environmental degradation and boombust economics. If government merely tinkers at the edges - the Republican and Democratic approach - America's problems will not be solved. We can change this only with radical action."

B: "We support a return to the free market principles on which this nation was founded and oppose government intervention into the operations of private business."

C: "[Our agenda] emphasizes the strong economic growth, affordable health care for all Americans, retirement security, open, honest and accountable government, and securing our nation while protecting our civil rights and liberties."

D: "Our ideals are those that unify America: Courage in the face of foreign foes. An optimistic patriotism, driven by a passion for freedom. Devotion to the inherent dignity and rights of every person. Faith in the virtues of self-reliance, civic commitment, and concern for one another. Distrust of government’s interference in people’s lives. Dedication to a rule of law that both protects and preserves liberty."

E: "We will rebuild America's economy to secure the recovery and invest in future growth and jobs. We will renew our society to further strengthen the communities that bind our country together. And we will restore trust in politics with greater transparency and accountability in a system battered by scandal."

F: "Only together can we can get rid of this government and, eventually, its debt. Only together can we get the economy moving. Only together can we protect Medicare. Improve our schools. Mend our broken society."

Without resorting to Google (or any other search engine), can you tell me which party is responsible for each of the (slightly modified) statements above?


Unless you know the speakers, which I do not, simply reading the rhetoric will not necessarily reveal the speaker's identity as folks will often tell audiences what they want to hear.

With that caveat, I will take a stab at your name the speaker contest:

a) This is green socialist rhetoric.

b) Return to first principles is pure Tea Party.

c) Dem focus group talking points.

d) GOP focus grouped talking points.

e) Sure sounds like Obama.

f) You got me. I do not recognize this populist rhetoric.

I'm not going to take the bait as it is not clear that the statements are current and contemporaneous, that they may have been made over many campaigns, in another country, in which case all of the statements may be those of a single party. I'm listening for the drum roll when the results are to be announced.

I don't want to spoil the answers, but if the purpose was to make Bart look like a fool for trying to portray the Lib Dems as a conservative party (something he would never be trying to establish if they weren't doing well in the polls) then the mission was accomplished.

To be clear, there certainly are issues on which the Lib Dems are to the right of Labour - they're not some doctrinaire left-wing party - but Bart's attempt to cherry-pick a few handy provisions from the party platform is pretty pathetic.

A) Lib-Dem Party
B) Tea Party
E) Labour Party
F) Conservative Party

Bart, I think you're spot on when you say "simply reading the rhetoric will not necessarily reveal the speaker's identity as folks will often tell audiences what they want to hear." That's the general point I wanted to make with the exercise, and you beat me to the punch, but still played along. Two thumbs up for sportsmanship!

I want to be clear that the previous post wasn't sarcasm--I am impressed that Bart went along gamely, even while stating reservations.

Congratulations to PMS_CC on his cleverly devised quiz. I have to say that the Tea Party Statement rather stood out as an example of the crafting of a statement which rings subconscious associations in the minds of readers but in fact is saying something novel. The founding fathers' concern was to limit government intrusion into the lives of private citizens rather than government intervention into the operations of private business. As I recall, the Bush Administration's speech writers were likewise particularly good at working in allusions to sources such as the hymns of Messrs Moody & Sankey.

I think there is no doubt that that in terms of policy it would be easier to craft a coalition agenda between Labour and Lib-Dems than between Conservatives and Lib-Dems.

But we are living in "interesting times". Firstly, with one day's campaigning left until the polls open on Thursday, the aggregate of the 6 reputable polls reports Conservatives 35%, Labour 29%, Lib-Dem 27%, Other 9%. On a uniform swing that would give a result of Conservatives 270, Labour 272, Lib-Dems 79 and Others 29. No party would have 326 seats and that gives us a hung parliament.

Of course, there will not be a uniform swing, what will actually matter are the outcomes in individual constituencies and in particular in the 150 marginal seats. We use paper ballots and they will be counted starting at 10.30 pm when the polls close and the results will come in overnight - by Friday morning we should have a fairly clear picture. Then:-

a) Gordon Brown and the other ministers remain in office. If there is a single party which has 326 seats and it is not Labour, by convention, Brown must go to the Palace, advise the Queen to send for the leader of that party and resign his office. The Queen will then invite the leader of that party to form a government.

b) But if there is no outright winner, Brown gets the first chance to see if he can either (i) form a coalition with an agreed programme for government; or (ii) obtain assurances of support for a minority government (which is technically known as "Queen's Speech and Supply").

c) It is only if Brown fails in either endeavour, that he becomes obliged to advise the Queen that he cannot form a government which will have the support of the House, and that she send for the leader of another party to attempt the task of forming a coalition or getting support for a minority government. He remains in office until that attempt succeeds.

In practical terms, one then gets into issues of personalities, the dictates of party constitutions on leadership elections and pacts with other parties. For example, Brown could resign as party leader and allow an interim leader to take over to work out a pact with the Lib-Dems so as to keep the Tories out.

My personal thought is that in such a situation there will be a sufficient number of centre-left individual MP's in Parliament who will want to find some way to prevent the Conservatives from embarking on the wrecking of what's left of our economy. We shall see - but it all depends on the contents of the ballot boxes on Thursday evening.

The world of the Atlantic may be a Bizarro one. Here in the Colonies (MA Bay) a few months ago a Brown (Scott) upset the Senate (and thus Congress and the Executive) political power structure with an upset victory. Now, across the Pond another Brown (Gordon) seeks to upset the Brits political power structure by remaining in power despite the rise of the Tories following Tony Blair's debacle of Labour that Brown (Gordon) succeeded to. Back to our side of the Pond, we have had the anti-Obama-on-everything Tea Party helping along our Brown's (Scott) upset. Perhaps, going along with the Bizarro World concept, the historical tea drinkers on the other side of the Pond will rely upon the Starbucks Party to assist Brown (Gordon)aided with the pouring by the Lib-Dems. So "Doing It Up Brown" may succeed on both shores.

10 pm UK - Polls have closed. Exit poll based on 18k sample predicts a hung parliament with the Conservatives as the largest party.

6am Friday - with 543 of 650 seats declared, Conservatives 268, Labour 210, Lib-Dems 40 - the prediction is still that there will be a hug parliament.

The Foreign Affairs website has just sent out Email that includes "Labour Pains" by Mark Blyth and Jonathan Hopkin. Perhaps a reading should be deferred until more results are in and actions are taken.

Mourad, while I had a lot of difficulty envisioning a "hung parliament," now I have even more with your suggestion of a "hug parliament." Here on our side of the Pond in 2000, we had a two-way with Bush v. Gore, whereas today on your side of the Pond you have a three-way, all because of the dem-libs who are to the left of Labour on most issues despite the efforts of our former backpacker to equate them with his "Hot Water" party (bring your own tea bags, please).

Shag: I'm sorry about the "hug" parliament - in fact knives in the back are more the parliamentary style than hugs. It was a slip of the keyboard - excusable, I hope, after an all night session before the idiot's latntern watching the elections results.

As of now, with 634 of 650 seats declared (and one will not be seen till later in the month because a candidate died between close of nominations and the election, we are definitively in a "hung parliament" - i.e., no one party has an absolute majority.

The process of negotiations to see whether a sufficient common platform can be agreed between 2 or more parties is in progress. Since we have a parliamentary rather than a presidential system, the executive must have the confidence of the parliament to survive.

Remember, it is not a simple Tory-Lab-Lib-Dem process, there are the smaller parties:-

1. There are 4 Sein Fein members from Northern Ireland. They will not take their seats - take away 4 from 650.

2. There are 3 SDLP members from Northern Ireland - they will take the Labour whip

3. There is one Alliance member from Northern Ireland - she will align with the Lib-Dems

4. There is 1 Northern Ireland Independent - she may align with the Conservatives

5. There are 6 Scot Nats and 3 Welsh Nationalists who will adopt a "what's in it for Scotland/Wales?" approach

6. There are 8 Democratic Unionists who might align with the Conservatives at a price.

And yes, the bargaining will be hard because both Labour and Lib-Dems are opposed to the Conservative approach to the budget deficit which can be summarised as a "soak the poor" approach.

Mourad, a "hug" may position one to better thrust a knife in the back of another.

Thanks for the updates. I just read Burns et al in the NYTimes and noted that the lib-dems got 23% of the popular vote. I wonder how this compares to the lib-dems popular vote in the last election. A combination of the labour and lib-dems popular vote exceeds the tory popular vote. What significance might this have with the eventual governance or what obstacles the tories might face if they form the government?

Shag: the results are now complete (bar the one seat where voting has been postponed) .

The Tories have 306 seats with probably one extra to come from the postponed seat. So they cannot obtain a majority 326 by going it alone and nor can they do so with their only natural allies the Ulster DUP who have just 8 seats. They can do it in coalition with the Lib Dems who have 57 seats.

Labour have 258 seats. Even with the Lib-Dems 57, they would still be 11 seats short. So they would need to have with them also the N Irish SDLP -3 seats, the NI Alliance - 1 seat and also the Scots and Welsh Nationalists - 9 seats.

So there are now formal talks under way to see what coalition is possible. There are numerous elephants in the room:-

1. The economy is in such a mess that the party which has to bring in the tax increases and spending cuts to remedy that will probably become so unpopular that it will be out of power for a generation.

2. All parties except the Tories want electoral reform. But the Tories know that if electoral reform comes in they may also be out of power permanently. They only got 36% of the vote this time. Labour + Lib-Dem got 52% of the vote.

3. Each leader is constrained by what the party activists will go along with. Some of the Conservative right wing have something of a Gotterdammerung mentality and some Lib-Dems and Laborites would sooner opt for ideological purity than a responsible approach in the national interest.

Still the prospect of power is a powerful aphrodisiac.

Mourad, thanks for the update. Take a look at Paul Krugman's Blog entry yesterday (5/7/10) headed "Hung Over in Britain" in which he states that all three parties - Tories, Labour and Lib-Dems - were losers. Krugman closes with:

"The big loser here, clearly, is the Queen, who may find herself actually forced to play a substantive role."

So maybe the Monarchy is the constitutional change required in the UK. As Snow White might have said "Some day my Prince will come." I hope he doesn't dilly dally.

The LATimes' Doyle McManus has an interesting column today (5/9/10): "Forget change, voters want safety - Amid economic troubles, voters aren't looking for change as much as safe passage out of their fiscal problems" that looks at the recent British elections and what it might mean for Europe and the U.S. Doyle didn't use "It's the economy, stupid" but that's what it may be. He doesn't think the Tea Party is the answer in providing financial safety here in America.

E. J. Dionne's column in today's (5/10/10) WaPo "A way forward in Britain" lays out the dilemma for Clegg and the lib-dems if he and his party are to avoid being weakened. Will it be Camelot for Cameron? Or will Brown step down to keep Labor around for a couple of years until another election? Or might Clegg persist with coffee, tea or me in his bid for reform? There is no man-date. Rather, its a trans-gender-date with the lib-dems in the mix, a possible three-way - or the highway. Where's Monty Python's Flying Circus to make sense of this all? It's getting tight in the tight little island across the Pond. In response to the Brits' typical "Here, here," we on the other side of the Pond ask "Where, where?"


Just to note that the UK has its first coalition government since World War II.

The change of Prime Minister took place in 45 minutes. HM The Queen did not need to get involved in any political issues. The composition of the government is being announced as I blog with David Cameron as Prime Minister, Nick Clegg as Deputy Prime Minister, 4 other cabinet positions going to Liberal Democrats, 20 other ministerial posts sub-cabinet level going to Liberal Democrats and a quite detailed agreed coalition programme which is an amalgam of the policies of both parties.

So, for all its faults, our constitutional settlement still has the flexibility to meet our needs - and the new government is up and running as of now.

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