Jonathan Sumption

The problems of PR

Two centuries ago, Edmund Burke famously mocked the intellectuals of revolutionary France for trying to devise a perfectly rational constitution for their country.

Text settings

The Coalition and the Constitution

Vernon Bogdanor

Hart Publishing, pp. 162, £

Two centuries ago, Edmund Burke famously mocked the intellectuals of revolutionary France for trying to devise a perfectly rational constitution for their country. The Abbé Sieyès, he wrote, had

whole nests of pigeon-holes full of constitutions, ready made, ticketed, sorted and numbered, suited to every season and every fancy . . . so that no constitution-fancier may go unsuited from his shop.

The Abbé Sieyès has had his imitators in England lately. The last government devoted much intellectual energy and parliamentary time to producing a theoretical separation of the judiciary from the legislature and the executive, when a practical separation had existed for years. The current coalition has devoted at least as much attention to the organisation and membership of the legislature: a smaller House of Commons, an elected House of Lords, fixed-term parliaments, equal constituencies, the alternative vote.

All of this has proved to be of consuming interest to the political classes, and of none whatever to the population at large. The contrast was painfully demonstrated in the referendum on the alternative vote. Nearly 60 per cent of the electorate did not trouble to vote. An overwhelming majority of those who did, voted for no change, mainly, it seems, because the alternative vote, for all its rationality as a method of conveying voting preferences, seemed too clever by half. It needed too much explanation. Refinement and rationality are obviously not qualities that the British look for in their constitutions. Perhaps we are all Burkeans now.

It would be unfair to call Vernon Bogdanor the Abbé Sieyès de nos jours. But he is undoubtedly a considerable authority on constitutions generally and the British one in particular. He has been a great figure in the Oxford politics school for as long as the mind of man can reckon, the present Prime Minister being one of his better known pupils. Professor Bogdanor is on record as saying that his ex-pupil could do with some more tutorials on the constitution. He takes a dim view of the constitutional proposals adopted by the coalition government as part of the patchwork of agreements that brought them together in May 2010.

This book explains why. It examines in detail the implications of the various changes which the present Parliament has either enacted or submitted to referendum. It draws not only on England’s long experience of democratic politics, but on the experience of other countries where similar proposals have been adopted. Some of the material will be familiar from Bogdanor’s other books, but this is probably the best short introduction in the bookshops to our current constitutional debates.

The first of the coalition’s changes, the reduction in the number of MPs, is comparatively trivial. It was justified on the ground that an appropriate response to the discredit heaped upon MPs was to have fewer of them. The explanation, as Bogdanor observes, is hardly adequate, and the change may make it more difficult for MPs to perform what most people now regard as their prime function, namely to serve as universal ombudsmen in dealings between their constituents and various remote and indifferent public authorities. The idea may still be justifiable on a different ground, namely that the House of Commons may actually work better with fewer MPs. But it will certainly not make it more independent of the executive. The proportion of MPs on the ministerial payroll, already excessively large, will be larger still in a smaller legislature.

On its face, the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act is a more radical departure. It professes to put an end to the manipulative but ancient convention that the prime minister may ask the sovereign to dissolve parliament whenever it suits the electoral interest of his party. But, as Bogdanor points out, the Act is subject to exceptions, and may deliver less than it promises. One exception would enable any governing party with an overall majority in the House of Commons to engineer a vote of no confidence and obstruct the creation of an alternative government, whereupon it would be entitled to a dissolution. The rather similar provisions of the German constitution have operated in just this way. Whether the British electorate would accept the opportunistic devices used in Germany remains to be seen.

Bogdanor is no more enthusiastic about equal constituencies. The motive power behind this change is crude party politics. The unequal size of the present constituencies benefits the Labour party more than either of the coalition parties, since it has historically led to the over-representation of regions like Scotland, Wales and the north of England, where Labour dominates. But Bogdanor pooh-poohs the idea that it will rectify the anomaly that Labour can win an overall majority in the House of Commons on a significantly smaller proportion of the national vote than the Conservatives. This anomaly is the result of a number of factors, most of which will continue to operate. They include the greater propensity of Tories to turn up and vote and the greater geographical concentration of the Tory vote, both of which mean that the Conservatives tend to pile up votes uselessly in their safest seats.

The subtext here, and the main theme of Bogdanor’s book, is that only proportional representation will rectify the constitutional ills of the land. As he points out, and demonstrates with some excellent worked examples, PR is quite different from the alternative vote, which is really no more than a standing mechanism for tactical voting against the strongest party in any constituency. Bogdanor’s basic point is that constitutional change is necessary in order to accommodate a three-party system, but that none of the changes will work rationally without true proportional representation. He makes a strong case, although sceptics will point to two main problems about his analysis.

One is the distrust of the British electorate for political parties, which they are increasingly reluctant to join, fund or support consistently or en bloc. Truly proportional representation necessarily depends on a system of party lists and multi-member constituencies, which dilute the relationship between an MP and his electors and considerably reinforce the patronage of political parties. This is likely to prove controversial, even under the so-called ‘open list’ system, which allows voters to express their preference for particular candidates on a party list. Bogdanor appears to believe that true PR would enjoy greater public support than the alternative vote. He is not necessarily right about this.

The second problem is perhaps more fundamental. Bogdanor is assuming that three-party politics is here to stay. But this is not necessarily true, especially after the electorate’s rejection of the alternative vote. A third party can govern only in coalition with a larger and more powerful party. This makes its more original manifesto commitments undeliverable. It also prevents it from demonstrating its individuality in an election campaign in which it will inevitably be defending the record of a government of which it formed part. The difficulties of the junior partner in a multi-party coalition are aggravated by the increasingly presidential role of the prime minister and the growing tendency of the electorate to vote for or against him (or her). These dilemmas do not affect purely regional third parties, which exist mainly to bargain for sectional interests. Nor will they bother parties whose true raison d’etre is opposition, and which reject power in principle as inherently corrupting, as some Greens and Liberal Democrats are said to do. So far, however, none of the three major parties at Westminster has been willing to accept such a marginal role. Disraeli’s dictum that England ‘does not l ove coalitions’ may yet be vindicated.