To what extent have government proposals to reform the constitution been controversial?

In 2011 the coalition introduced the fixed term parliament act as a result of the Coalition agreement,  which in effect meant UK elections are now fixed to the first week in May every five years. This was welcomed by the LibDems, Labour and some Conservatives as the previous system was seen as giving an advantage to the Prime Minister who could call an election at the most advantageous time for them (as was the case under Blair where he called elections in 2001 and 2005, four years into his first and second terms and famously in 2007 when Brown flinched from calling an early election which he would probably have won). The old system would also mean there was always a period of uncertainty as to when an election would be called, this was seen to be bad for economic decision making. However there has also been criticisms to the new reform, some have argued that knowing the date a long time in advance will lead to longer election campaigns, a lack of flexibility and the possibility of a ‘lame duck’ government limping on longer than it should. The last Coalition seemed to have run out of steam in 2014, leaving a year were no real substantial pieces of legislation were presented to parliament. Clegg disputed this, believing that five years was “going with the grain of some of the founding texts of our unwritten constitution”. Despite some disputes against the Act support was given by most parties, with little opposition or disagreement, aside from Conservative back benchers.

Nick Clegg pushed for the introduction of AV which was hugely controversial between coalition partners and within the Conservatives. Smaller parties and the LibDems were for the replacement of FPTP with AV as they believed too many votes are effectively wasted under the current system, with elections decided by a smaller number of voters, which they deemed undemocratic. Conservatives opposed the reform entirely, as it would mean a loss of votes and seats in parliament and make future coalitions far more likely. This reform was also controversial within the Labour Party, with Miliband for the reform, but many Labour MPs against it, knowing that a change to FPTP could lead to a rise in smaller parties in parliament and a loss for them. However this controversy was settled by the referendum which had a low turnout of 41% and an overwhelming decision to keep FPTP. There will be no further look into reforming the FPTP system under the 2015 majority Conservative government, as it favours the two bigger parties, and the chances to look at a more proportional system is even slimmer.

There were attempts to redraft boundary lines in 2013 making them more equal in size and reduce the overall number of MPs from 650 to 600. The Conservatives were very much for this reform as it would mean the Conservatives would gain more seats. This reform was hugely controversial as the LibDem partners in the coalition were completely opposed to the idea following their blocked proposal for the reform to the House of Lords. The issue of boundary changes had been one of the biggest flash points between Cameron and Clegg causing the first major disagreement between the parties. Labour also opposed the reform,  as they believed it was simply an electoral tactic for the conservatives to win more seats (gerrymandering). It is estimated that as Labour benefits from the current disproportionate boundaries it would lose out the most, possibly up to 30 seats.  Although the reform was defeated in the House of Lords, after a Liberal u-turn, now Cameron is governing alone he is likely to reintroduce the idea, this has sparked more controversy as all smaller parties, and Labour, believe this is simply a tactic for the Conservatives to stay permanently in power.

The EU referendum planned for 2017 is another controversial constitutional reform. It was introduced by William Hague as an attempt to satisfy Conservative back benchers as well as quieten UKIP protests and win back right wing Conservative voters. When first introduced it caused great controversy between Cameron and Clegg, as LibDems have always been a fiercely pro-EU party and Conservatives have famously housed a substantial number of traditional Eurosceptic. The Labour party also completely opposed the referendum (until recently) as they are also a pro-EU party and believe leaving the EU would be bad for business, immigration and social policies. The referendum has also split the Conservatives, between those who support a British exit ‘Brexit’, such as MEP Daniel Hannan, and those who don’t, such as Ken Clarke. The referendum was agreed to be held after the 2015 election following a period of renegotiation with the EU. This referendum could prove one of the most controversial reforms, if voted ‘yes’, and could cause a split within the conservative party.

The Conservatives have resolved to answer the ‘West Lothian Question’ by diluting the power of Scottish MPs when it comes to voting on devolved matters not concerning Scotland. Famously Labour passed tuition fees using its previous Scottish MPs. William Hague in the previous parliament came back with a plan to give English Votes for English Laws (EVEL), this would involve reducing the rights of Scottish MPs to amend and discuss bills as they go trough parliament. However the West Lothian Question is less of an issue in a post 2015 parliament as Labour has lost all but one of their Scottish seats and it is unlikely to gain them back anytime soon. The Conservatives previously saw the system as giving an advantage to Labour in parliament. With a more fractious parliament, the issue is not as important. Hague plans however stopped short of removing completely Scottish voting rights, allowing them a right to vote on the Third Reading (and some would say the most important point) of a Bill. He struck this compromise in order to retain the unity of the United Kingdom and not further split it apart after the acrimonious Independence referendum of 2014.

Lastly, during the dying days of the last parliament the Conservatives introduced the Recall of MPs Act (2015). This Act allows constituents to get rid of their MPs if they found them to have failed to undertake their duties leading to a suspension or committed a crime. The processes by which an MP would trigger the recall process, would be namely a custodial prison sentence, suspension from the House ordered by the Committee on Standards, or providing false or misleading expenses claims. In all cases it would be the Committee on Standards (a Parliamentary committee of MPs) that would allow for constituents to recall their representative. Conservative backbencher Zak Goldsmith felt it did not go far enough, with Parliament as the filter to trigger a recall not the people, as is the case in California. It is claimed it is a weak piece of legislation, however recent controversies over Lib Dem MP Alistair Carmichael’s dirty trick campaign against Sturgeon may be the first test of recall powers.

To conclude, while there has been some less controversial reforms such as the Fixed Term Parliament Act, which was supported by most parties, and AV voting system, which was resolved through a referendum, most proposed constitutional reforms have caused splits between parties, governments and within parties. FPTP is unlikely to be changed, even though the 2015 election showed it to be very unfair. Recall powers seem to be a watered down version of what Cameron had promised. The re-drafting of boundary lines and EU referendum have both sparked outrage from the public.

Lily Teevan

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