Report on 2010 elections for positions in the House

The UK House of Commons Procedure Committee released a report on 31 October 2011, which reviewed the elections held, for the first time, in most cases, to fill various positions in the House. It is an interesting report as it provides more detailed information into how exactly these elections proceeded.

In the dying months of the previous parliament, the House of Commons adopted many of the recommendations of the Committee on Reform of the House of Commons (the Wright Committee). These recommendations were implemented for the first time in the new Parliament elected in May 2010.

Among the changes introduced were first time elections for the Deputy Speakers of the House, the chairs of the main select committees and the chair and members of the new Backbench Business Committee, and a new system adopted by the parties to elect their members of the relevant select committees. While the entire report is interesting, I will focus on the elections affecting select committees.

To recap for those who don’t know, one of the recommendations of Wright Committee adopted in March 2010 and implemented for the first time following the May 2010 general election was the election of the chairs of the major select committees. Previously, this process had been a private arrangement between the party Whips. Standing Order No. 122B outlines a three stage process:

  1. The Speaker writes to the party leaders indicating the proportion of chairs of select committees falling to each party based on the composition of the House following the election;
  2. The House agrees to a motion tabled in the names of the leaders of all parties entitled to one of more chairs specifying to which party each chair is allocated;
  3. Two weeks later, ballots are held for each of the posts, except in cases where only one candidate has come forward, in which case they are declared elected without a ballot. The vote is conducted using the Alternative Vote system (preferential ballot), meaning MPs rank the candidates in order of preference.

What happened in May 2010

A total of 24 committee chair positions were open for election. Of these, 8 were elected unopposed and 16 were contested and decided by secret ballot. The allocation of chairs between the parties, as stated above, follows the convention of mirroring the party breakdown in the House. The Speaker sent a letter indicating the proportion each party was entitled to and was arithmetically correct, but the motion tabled by the party leaders was not, nor does it have to be. The motion allocated one fewer chair to Labour and one more to the Conservatives than would have been the case if the figures supplied by the Speaker had been strictly followed.

Members nominated for a committee chair position engaged in rather vigorous campaigning. One of the main problems faced by candidates was making themselves known to new MPs who weren’t familiar with their record in the House or past work on committees. The volume of communication sent out by some candidates even overloaded the email system. This went on for the two week period between the House agreeing to the motion tabled by the party leaders and the actual ballot date. As mentioned, AV is used, since it eliminates the need for subsequent ballots and it ensures that the winning candidate has the support of more than half of those voting.

Once the committee chairs were elected, committee membership was elected. The Wright Committee had proposed that the members of select committees should be elected by secret ballot by each political party, according to their level of representation in the House and using transparent democratic means. The House would then endorse the results.

In 2010, the process of internal party elections was carried out after the election of the chairs. Once complete, the party Whips submitted a list of names for each committee to the Committee of Selection and the House agreed to the formal motions to nominate the select committees. Little information was published as to how the division of seats between the parties was made nor on the method used for election within each party. The Labour Party asked Members to nominate themselves for a select committee. Those who had applied for an undersubscribed committee or where the number of candidates matched the number of vacancies were declared elected unopposed. They then held a two-stage election process with elections for the vacancies on the 12 most subscribed committees followed by an election for the rest of the vacancies.

The Conservatives adopted a similar process to Labour. The process of administering the election will handed over from the Whips, who ran the contest in 2010, to the 1922 Committee for future elections.

The Liberal Democrats were awarded a number of select committee places in accordance with their party strength. Interested members signed up for vacancies and there was no need for ballots.

Committee Recommendations

After reviewing the election process for committee chairs, the Procedure Committee made a few recommendations. The members of minority parties complained that they were excluded from even standing for a post as a select committee chair. While the Committee sympathised, they did not recommend a change to the election process for select committee chairs.

Other members complained about the volume of communications issued by candidates in contested elections, arguing for more control over how MPs campaigned. Others called for opportunities for members to meet with and hear from the candidates for each post, which would have been very helpful for the newly-elected MPs. The Committee reviewed these issues and in the end decided against more central control over the campaign. Given the number of elections involved, they decided that it would be unwise to lay down rules about how each event should be organised, leaving it instead to the candidates to decide how best to reach out to their fellow MPs.

Another issue raised was the participation of Ministers. Voting for the chairs was open to all MPs, but since the role of select committees is to hold Ministers to account, some suggested that it was not appropriate for Ministers to have a vote in deciding who should undertake that role. The Committee recognized this as a valid concern, but problematic to address. Excluding Ministers from voting would affect the party’s balance of the electorate. Changing the rule to say that Ministers could vote in all elections except those relating to their department might be difficult to police. Instead, the Committee concluded that Minister would be “well-advised to refrain from voting in the election for a chair to scrutinise their own department” but decided that a more formal prohibition would be undesirable.

The Committee also reviewed the use of AV for the vote and decided that it would be best to move from AV to FPTP. The Committee justified this on the following grounds: 1) FPTP is simple and is the voting system MPs are most familiar with and 2) the results from 2010 showed that even in the contests which required more than one round of counting, the candidate who was in the lead on the first count remained there and won. Of the 16 contested elections, seven were decided on the first count, five on the second, three on the third and one required 6 counts. In each case, even the one which went six rounds of counting, the winning candidate was ahead by a significant margin in the first round of counting and the subsequent rounds only served to increase their lead until they surpassed the 50% mark.

I have to say that I find this recommendation a bit problematic, given the reasons the Committee provides to justify it. First, AV is hardly that much more complicated than FPTP. While I can understand that a newly-elected MP might find it difficult to rank several candidates, none of whom he or she knows at all, they probably would find it as difficult to vote for a single candidate among a list of names that they don’t know at all. As for the second reason provided, simply because the elections held in June 2010 weren’t that close, this doesn’t mean that in future years, there won’t be much closer races. At least with AV, the eventual winner will be the candidate who eventually receives 50% of the vote. With FPTP, if there are very close races for some chair positions, the winning candidate may well be elected by a bare majority of the vote – maybe even one vote.

In my view, this would be problematic when electing the chair of a select committee. I would think that it would be preferable to have a chair who had the backing of an overall majority of his or her fellow MPs, even if that means they are the “compromise” candidate, than to end up with a chair who was narrowly elected over another candidate, and given the vote totals, very likely elected only by their own party, with no support (or barely any support) from members of other parties, which is exactly what could happen using FPTP. The chairs of select committees have to represent and answer to the House, not simply their party caucus. The whole point of moving away from Whip-appointed chairs to House elected chairs was to make the committees more independent and accountable. FPTP could very well undermine this in the event of a very hotly-contested race between several candidates.

Because FPTP was never meant to be used in instances where there are more than two candidates running, I think the Committee is making a mistake in recommending that AV be dropped in favour of FPTP for the election of committee chairs. Alternatively, they could recommend that if there are only two candidates contesting for one position, FPTP could be used since one candidate will inevitably end up with more than 50% of the vote, but in instances where there are three or more candidates, AV be used to ensure that the eventual winner have majority support of the House.

Regarding the election of committee membership, the Procedure Committee got little feedback from members and thus concluded that there was little evidence that any changes were needed. However, they did recommend that it would be more in keeping with the “spirit of the Wright reforms” if each party published details of the process by which it elected its members to select committees.

As stated at the outset, the report covers much more than simply the elections for Select Committee chairs and members. I strongly recommend readers have a look at the report in its entirety.

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