David Frum misses the point

“Parliamentary control of the executive—rightly conceived—is not the enemy of effective government, but its primary condition.” Bernard Crick, The Reform of Parliament, 1970, p 259

David Frum is not a fan of the Reform Act.

What underlies Frum’s objection to the Act is a blurring of the distinction between, on the one hand, the legislature and the Executive, and on the other, party and government. It’s not that Frum doesn’t understand that these distinctions exist – he does – to a degree, at least. But he doesn’t seem to understand them well.

Frum doesn’t want to relinquish one iota of a party leader’s control over candidate nominations. He writes:

No party can perfectly protect itself against ever nominating crooked or stupid or obnoxious candidates. But it can screen against them and then take decisive action against those who somehow slip through the screens.

(…)

Nominations are decided by relatively small numbers of people who typically cluster more toward the political poles than the political center and have their own narrow agendas. Their influence is counteracted in Canada by the party leader’s ultimate veto power over nominations. That power is rarely used, but it shapes the whole process.

To be fair, Frum isn’t the only critic of the Reform Act to voice this concern. However, what he and the others seem to ignore is that no one is advocating that there be no screening of potential candidates. The only thing that is being proposed is that party leaders not sign off on nomination papers. I wrote a lengthy post outlining how the UK Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties select candidates. Both have a very comprehensive screening process in place for persons interested in running for the party. The screening is done by a board (or boards throughout the country) that consists of sitting MPs and senior Party volunteers. They have specific criteria drawn up detailing what qualities a party candidate must have, and they test each interested applicant, running them through interviews and scenarios. If the person makes the grade, they are on a List of Approved Candidates and can then seek out the nomination in constituencies that will need a candidate in the next election. The final decision regarding who will be the candidate is left to the local constituency’s selection committee, but all of the candidates that apply to local constituencies have already been screened and approved by the party. Even if, as Frum claims, nominations are currently “decided by relatively small numbers of people who typically cluster more toward the political poles than the political center and have their own narrow agendas”, that would be circumvented by a process such as the one used by the UK parties. It is very thorough and does not involve the party leader at any stage in the process. Why couldn’t Canadian parties implement similar procedures?

Frum’s rejection of “looser” candidate selection is grounded in the fear that this will result in a caucus overrun by “irresponsible and refractory” MPs who will constantly undermine the leader. This is where Frum’s willful (or perhaps unconscious) blurring of the distinctions between the legislature and the Executive, and party and government, becomes most apparent. Frum writes:

If a prime minister has pledged that his government won’t take action on abortion during its next mandate — and a backbencher insists on trying anyway — that action makes liars out of the whole government. Voters can’t be counted on to grasp the distinction between the “government” on the front benches and the government members behind them.

The votes of those backbenchers sustain the government. Stray musings by those backbenchers can doom it.

Here Frum argues that the problem is that “voters can’t be counted on to grasp the distinction between ‘the government’ on the front benches and the government members behind them.” That may be so, but it doesn’t change the very important fact that this distinction exists – it is the very foundation of our system of government. We do not elect the Prime Minister. We do not even elect the Government. We elect individual MPs and they form a Parliament. The Executive (Government) is drawn from the Legislature and is accountable to it. MPs from the political party from which the Government is formed (or parties in the case of a coalition government) are not part of the Government. They have the same job as all of the opposition MPs in the House – and that is to hold the Government to account, and to withdraw confidence if the Government is undeserving of that confidence. If anything, I would argue that backbenchers from the governing party should hold the Government to account even more stringently than the Opposition does because they should want their party to provide the best government possible. They shouldn’t tolerate abuses of the legislative process. They should want imperfect bills to be amended and improved. They should not provide unconditional support if that confidence is not warranted.

Disaffected backbenchers would gain new leverage over party leaders, because a small minority of them – 15% — could at any moment set in motion a leadership review.

The Reform Act is a grant of power to each party’s most irresponsible and refractory MPs.

On the surface, there is some truth to this. Our main political parties are “big tent” parties, meaning they attract supporters under a very broad banner, such as “conservatism” or “social democracy”, but these supporters often have very disparate views on some issues – views which may be at odds with official party policy. Big tent parties seek to find a middle-ground, to appeal to voters beyond their more traditional base. They have to if they want to win enough seats and possibly form a government. The main consequence of this push to the middle ground is that within the party, some will become increasingly disgruntled by the party’s lack of concrete action on a particular issue. In the United Kingdom, for example, there are regular rumours of Conservative MPs challenging party leader and Prime Minister David Cameron’s leadership. This is in no small part due to the reality that the Conservatives are in a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, which has forced the party to put aside some of its key manifesto commitments in order to find a compromise position with its coalition partner. The UK’s membership in the European Union is one such issue. Many Conservatives believe the UK should withdraw from the EU and want a referendum on that very question. The Liberal Democrats are staunchly pro-EU. The Conservatives are also feeling pressure because of the growing support (in polls) for the UK Independence Party (UKIP), a strongly Eurosceptic party committed to withdrawing from the EU.

But here’s the thing – despite all of the rumours of dissatisfaction with David Cameron, no leadership review has been triggered. It would take only 46 of the Conservatives’ 303 MPs to trigger such a vote. This hasn’t happened. But even if a review was launched, it would take 152 of those 303 MPs to force David Cameron out as leader. Perhaps the main reason why no review vote has proceeded is because the disgruntled MPs know they’d never get enough support to actually unseat Cameron.

As I explained in a previous post, in a study of some countries which do allow caucuses to trigger leadership reviews and spills (the UK, Australia, New Zealand and Ireland), between 1965 and 2008, only 17 party leaders have been ousted by their caucus. Of that number, only 3 were actually Prime Minister at the time. The reality is that parties in power rarely oust their leader; they will only do after a poor election showing, or a sharp decline in the polls leading up to an election.

Frum raises the spectre of abortion in his piece. Yes, for Canada’s federal Conservative Party (CPC), many of its supporters are strongly opposed to abortion, yet the party, while in Government, has pledged to not reopen that debate. This doesn’t mean that all of the party’s MPs are happy about that. If the measures proposed in the Reform Act were in place, it would take 24 of the CPC’s 161 MPs to trigger a leadership confidence vote. I don’t know that there are 24 CPC MPs sufficiently committed to the issue of abortion to want to initiate such a vote. But even if that were the case, it would then take 81 MPs to vote against the current leader. If the leadership review was triggered based solely on one fringe issue, I find it very difficult to believe that a majority of the caucus would vote for a leadership change. The more fringe the issue, the less likely a leadership challenge would succeed. This is the point that Frum doesn’t seem to grasp. He assumes the parties would become beholden to the fringe. This isn’t the case. Dissatisfaction with the party leaders would have to be widespread throughout the caucus in order to gain majority support for a leadership change. This reform would not “empower factionalism”, as Frum argues, rather it would isolate it. The dissenting MPs would have to find other reasons – larger reasons – to attract majority support from the rest of the caucus in order to successfully challenge a leader. A faction within a party might be able to trigger a confidence vote, but they would need massive support beyond their fringe grievance for that vote to be successful.

Of course this might present a greater problem for parties with much smaller caucuses – namely opposition parties. A party in power is going to be far more leery of doing anything that might jeopardize their hold on the Government – and coming across as divided is something they will seek to avoid. If the dissatisfaction can be shown to be limited to a handful of MPs committed to one particular issue, that could actually isolate the faction even more. If the party successfully defeats the faction, their popularity with middle-of-the-road voters could actually increase. Smaller caucuses could well be more vulnerable to such hijacking because the numbers required are so much lower. But even then, I am not certain that this would occur. The federal Canadian Liberal Party currently has a caucus of only 36 MPs. Under the Reform Act proposals, it would take only 5 Liberal MPs to trigger a confidence vote in the party leader, but it would take 19 MPs to vote against the leader to force him out. It might be easier for Liberal MPs to trigger a vote, but it would still require widespread dissatisfaction in the caucus to oust the leader. Appearances of internal division will be as detrimental to a small party as they are to larger parties; most caucuses would seek to mitigate that, and only force a leadership review if they knew there was widespread support in caucus for a change.

There are a number of other questionable points in Frum’s article. For example, he writes:

Seemingly small changes in political rules can yield very large changes in political result. Given Canada’s record as arguably the best governed country in the developed world, you’d want to be very cautious about tinkering with those rules.

Advocates of the Reform Act, however, deny that Canada is so well governed. They see a Parliament crushed and stifled; MPs deprived of their historic role; local constituencies trampled by an all-powerful Prime Minister’s Office.

(…)

The promise is that, freed from PMO control, MPs will speak out on behalf of the good people of his or her constituency with a verve and brio sadly lacking today. But where’s the evidence that such local interests go unarticulated today? I’ve seen none adduced.

Again, Frum misses the point. A stronger Parliament will mean better government. That said, the changes proposed in the Reform Act are not procedural reforms. At best, they would encourage backbenchers from the governing party to do their job of holding the Government to account more effectively by not allowing the Executive to take their support for granted. This would improve government, not hurt it, hence the quote at the start of this post: “Parliamentary control of the executive—rightly conceived—is not the enemy of effective government, but its primary condition.” As for his claim that there is no evidence that MPs don’t articulate the concerns of their constituency, has he not listened to Members’ Statements or Question Period in recent years?

And even if one accepts the view that Canada is “arguably the best governed in the world” – which appears to be based not on any OECD or other empirical study but on Mr. Frum’s personal opinion from an earlier op ed piece, does that mean it can’t be improved at all? Frum’s main argument seems to be that we should avoid reforms because there is nothing wrong with the status quo. Our politics may be dull, but “more exciting politics is not the same thing as better government.” I counter that no one is advocating for “more exciting” politics, but better politics. And better politics will inevitably mean better government.

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Some final thoughts on the Reform Act

In my first post on the Reform Act, I addressed the proposal of allowing a caucus to implement a leadership review upon a petition of 15% of the elected members and a secret ballot vote garnering over 50% support. This was complemented by a brief look at how this process has worked in other jurisdictions. My second Reform Act post focused on the proposal that we remove the party leader’s veto over riding nominations. This last post will focus on Chong’s proposal that caucuses elect their chairs and admit and eject caucus members based on the 15%/50% rules employed to trigger a leadership review.

I will start by saying that I honestly have no real opinion concerning the matter of caucus chairs. I don’t know what procedure is currently used by any party in Canada. I have no objection to caucus chairs being elected, and think that this is probably a good idea to pursue, but honestly – I have no problem leaving this to each party to decide. I will say that I don’t think this is something that should be enshrined in law – much like the leadership review rules. It is something that should be in a party constitution.

I will address the proposal governing the expulsion and re-admission of a member from caucus. The Reform Act proposes that the Parliament of Canada Act be amended to include the following:

49.2 A member of a caucus may only be expelled from it if
(a) the caucus chair has received a written notice signed by at least 15% of the members of the caucus requesting that the member’s membership be reviewed at a meeting of the caucus; and
(b) the expulsion of the member is approved by a majority vote by secret ballot of the caucus members present at that meeting.
49.3 A member of the House of Commons who has been expelled from the caucus of a party may only be readmitted to the caucus
(a) if the member is re-elected to the House of Commons as a candidate for that party; or
(b) if
(i) the caucus chair has received a written notice signed by at least 15% of the members of the caucus requesting that the member’s readmission to the caucus be considered at a meeting of the caucus, and
(ii) the readmission of the member is approved by a majority vote by secret ballot of the caucus members present at that meeting.

I admit to mixed feelings about this proposal. Again, I don’t believe this is something that should be legislated, but incorporated in a party constitution. I do understand why Mr. Chong is seeking to incorporate these reforms in either the Canada Elections Act or the Parliament of Canada Act – it would be the only way to guarantee that every party adopt and abide by such reforms, but ideally, it would be better if parties voluntarily incorporated these reforms (or similar reforms) in their own governing documents.

In the UK, as I have explained in my previous posts on this topic (and repeatedly in other posts on this blog) political parties already have caucus-based leadership review mechanisms in place and candidate selection procedures which do not at all involve the party leader. However, to the best of my knowledge, the decision to expel someone from caucus remains very much in the hands of the party leadership in the House. What is interesting here is that given the relative independence of UK MPs vis à vis their Canadian counterparts, it is very rare that the whip is withdrawn, as they say in the UK.

It is important to understand a couple of points before proceeding with this discussion. In the UK, as I have explained in other posts, backbench MPs from all parties – including the government party (or in the current Parliament, government parties) rebel much more frequently than do Canadian MPs. See for example, this post from 2011 on UK MPs rebellions in the current Parliament, and this post on the total absence of MP rebellions here in Canada. The current UK Parliament is on track to be the most rebellious since World War II, and this is in no small part due to the fact that it is a Coalition government – Conservative MPs in particular feel less loyalty to the government since it is not a Conservative government. However, as Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart note:

this Parliament is on course to be the most rebellious since the war. But before the most rebellious was the 2005 Parliament, and before that the 2001 Parliament. For sure, there has been an increase in assertiveness since 2010, but it is merely the latest stage in the growing independence of the British MP.

There are a myriad of reasons why it is easier for UK MPs to rebel by voting against their party; I go over some of them in that 2011 post mentioned above. Perhaps the most important of these is the system of three-line whips used in the UK House of Commons which means party discipline doesn’t apply on all votes. But even on three-line votes, MPs will still defy their party whips. Because it is a relatively normal thing for UK MPs to rebel – and this includes government party backbenchers voting against the Government as well as opposition MPs voting against their party’s stated position (and perhaps supporting a Government bill, for example), it is very rare that an MP in the UK will be expelled from caucus. And when an MP is expelled from caucus, it’s usually not for voting against a bill. I point this out only because voting against your party in the Canadian House of Commons is probably the surest way of being expelled, and also the main reasons why Canadian MPs very rarely ever do so.

In the current (41st) Parliament of Canada, five MPs have left their caucus. Three did so voluntarily, two because they were facing charges (one has since rejoined caucus), the other due to what he believed to be the “Government’s lack of commitment to transparency and open government.” The other two MPs, both from opposition parties, were expelled because they disagreed with their party’s line. One voted against the party’s stated position (and with the Government), the other was expelled for criticizing her party’s support for a provincial initiative.

In the current UK Parliament, 8 MPs have either resigned the whip (voluntarily left caucus) or had the whip withdrawn (been expelled from caucus). Of those, none were for voting against the party or over policy disagreements. Two resigned the whip while facing accusations or charges of sexual assault – one had the matter settled and returned to caucus, the other is still waiting for the matter to be settled. The other six had the whip withdrawn and the reasons are as follows: for questioning the continued existence of Israel; for taking time off from Parliament to compete in a reality show; for allegations of lobbying; for criminal charges following the expenses scandal.

This is why I don’t have an issue with party leadership retaining the right to decide if an MP should have the whip withdrawn – as long as it is done judiciously and for serious offenses or behaviour. Voting against the party line, except on confidence matters (if you’re a government backbencher), should not be a reason to expel someone from caucus. So while most critics of the Reform Act object to it over the leadership review and candidate nomination proposals, my main objection concerns the caucus control of who gets expelled and re-admitted to caucus. I’d like to believe that if the first two reforms were implemented, this reform might not be necessary.

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On forcing out a party leader

As touched on in my first post on the Reform Act, some critics of the bill argue that formal rules establishing a procedure by which a party caucus could initiate a vote of confidence in, followed by the possible removal of, its leader aren’t necessary since caucuses already have that power. Alice Funke, for example, writes:

there is nothing in the law currently preventing party caucuses from doing this very thing now, and indeed they have done so frequently in our current system: Joe Clark was pushed into a leadership review, Michel Gauthier was pushed out as leader by the Bloc Québécois caucus, a good part of Stockwell Day’s caucus left him and the Canadian Alliance and joined the remainder of the Tories instead. And a significant group of Paul Martin backers were hatching plots to oust Jean Chrétien as Liberal leader and Prime Minister.

Today on Twitter, Ms. Funke linked to this article which describes how the British Columbia Social Credit Party caucus forced their leader (and at the time Premier) Bill Vander Zalm out in 1991.

It is certainly true that even without formal guidelines or rules in place, a caucus can exert enough pressure to force a leader to resign, or at least agree to a leadership review at a party conference, but the process can be a lengthy, messy and often very public one which can end up being quite detrimental to the party in the long run. One only needs to think of the Chrétien-Martin divide which hurt the Liberal Party of Canada long after the fact, or the Blair-Brown divide which similarly plagued the UK Labour Party.

The Vander Zalm case is, in fact, a good example of why specific rules would be a good idea. Because the party itself did not have a process in place to allow the caucus to trigger an internal leadership vote of confidence, the party members had to resort to using a parliamentary procedure to achieve what they could not: they planned to table a motion of non-confidence in their own government. Ultimately, the motion wasn’t needed as Vander Zalm was found guilty of violating conflict guidelines and stepped down voluntarily.

There are a number of problems in using this example to prove that caucuses don’t really need formal rules to trigger for possible leadership change. First of all, simply put, I can’t help but think that this is a misuse of the Confidence Convention. The SoCreds were unhappy with their leader, not the fact that their party formed the Government. Confidence of the House is given to a Government; who heads that government is an internal matter for the governing party to decide. Related to this, this option is one that could only be used by a party that formed the government. Opposition parties cannot move want of confidence motions in the House against themselves or their own leader – they can only move want of confidence motions against a sitting government. Consequently, an opposition party unhappy with its leader can’t go this route.

Another problem is that it isn’t necessarily guaranteed to result in a change of leadership. As I explained in my previous post, the tradition in Canada for governments which lose confidence votes is not to resign, but to seek dissolution and trigger a new election. In the article, it appears as if the Social Credit caucus kept the Lt.-Governor informed of what was transpiring, explaining that they planned to “withdraw majority support from Vander Zalm and delegate it to another of their number.” And apparently the Lt.-Governor agreed that he would ask Vander Zalm to resign rather than agree to a dissolution. But what if the Lt.-Governor had not agreed to listen to the caucus? What if the premier had decided to pre-empt his caucus and seek a dissolution and new election? To put it simply, the party should not have had to go this route; if they were unhappy with their leader, they should have simply been able to resolve that internally without resorting to moving a want of confidence motion in the Government.

I am not a constitutional expert, but a lot of this sounds like involving the Crown in the internal machinations of a political party and that makes me somewhat uncomfortable. As per House of Commons Procedure and Practice, 2nd ed., “no act of the monarch (or Governor General as the monarch’s representative) is carried out without the formal advice and consent of the Prime Minister and Cabinet.” There is no mention of carrying out the advice of a party caucus. I will leave that issue to persons better qualified to comment on.

Many critics of the Reform Act worry that an empowered caucus will lead to chaos, with party leaders being shown the door on a regular basis. Is this necessarily what happens?

In Politics at the Centre: The Selection and Removal of Party Leaders in the Anglo Parliamentary Democracies, William Cross and André Blais compare leadership procedures in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand and the United Kingdom. It is important to know that of these five countries, Canada is the outlier, the only one where political parties have no specific entrenched procedures available to caucuses to challenge their leader. Chapter 5 looks at how and why party leaders’ tenure in office ends. This normally occurs in one of three ways: the leader resigns (either voluntarily, or under pressure), they are forced from office, or either they, or their party, die.  Cross and Blais examined the departures of 110 leaders between January 1965 and January 2008 and found that most (76%, or 84 of 110) resign, and the majority of those who resign (59, or 54%), did so under pressure. It probably goes without saying that most of these leaders who resigned under pressure did so to avoid being forced out. (p. 97)

What we are most interested in, however is how many leaders were actually forced from office. Over the 43-year period studied by Cross and Blais, only 17 leaders in those five countries were forced out: New Zealand 5, Australia 7, the UK 3, Ireland 1, and Canada 1. The Canadian case – John Diefenbaker, is the only one removed by “a process involving the extra-parliamentary party.” (p. 106) Additionally, it is important to note that most of these forced leadership changes occurred among opposition parties. During that same time frame, only 3 sitting Prime Ministers were forced out by their own caucus – Margaret Thatcher (1979-1991) in the UK, and Bob Hawke (1983-1991) and John Gorton (1968-71) in Australia. (p. 98) Thatcher had been in power since 1979, but by late 1990, the Conservatives had been trailing Labour for 18 months in the polls. These same polls showed that a change in leadership would give the Tories a lead over Labour. Bob Hawke’s popularity had been in decline from the late 80s, and while he led Labor to a narrow re-election in 1990, his party lost faith in his ability to counter the resurgent Liberal Party. John Gorton simply proved to be a poor choice for leader, and in his first general election as Prime Minister (1969), saw the Coalition’s 45-seat majority over Labor that he had inherited reduced to only a 7-seat majority. He was forced out as leader of the Liberal Party not long afterwards.

These examples demonstrate two important points. First, the caucuses of parties that are in government aren’t likely to force a leader (and Prime Minister) out if the party is doing well in the polls. The three Prime Ministers forced to resign by their caucuses were forced out due to declining polls or poor election results. The second point is that it is parties in opposition which are more likely to force a leader out, and these are the parties which would not be able to use the want of confidence approach to leadership change described in the Vander Zalm piece or as postulated by Dale Smith.

Of course, Cross and Blais’s research does not take into account the Rudd-Gillard-Rudd leadership spills of 2010-2013, but even by Australian practice as described in Politics at the Centre, that chapter was an anomaly. And as I stated in my earlier post, Labor has now changed its rules governing challenging a sitting leader; consequently, we will never seen anything like that occur again.

I admit that I still don’t quite understand the arguments of those who insist that formal rules for triggering a leadership change aren’t at all needed. I think Canadian political parties would benefit from having formal rules in place. Is the process outlined in Chong’s Reform Act the best way to proceed, perhaps not. I am not comfortable with these rules being incorporated into the Elections Act; I think they should be adopted by parties and included in party constitutions. And I certainly fail to understand how anyone can insist that the confidence convention is a viable option for parties to effect leadership change. It isn’t, and even if it were, it would only work for a party in government. Parties in opposition would be left with no clear options. Hopefully this short international context I’ve provided will help calm a few fears. The process isn’t abused by political parties. It doesn’t result in political chaos. If anything, it might avoid it.

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More thoughts on “The Reform Act”

Another reform being proposed by MP Michael Chong in his Reform Act (see this first post for background) is removing the party leader’s veto over riding nominations. Currently, the Canada Elections Act stipulates that the witness for a nominated candidate must file with the returning officer in the electoral district in which the prospective candidate is seeking nomination:

“an instrument in writing, signed by the leader of the political party or by a person referred to in subsection 383(2), that states that the prospective candidate is endorsed by the party in accordance with section 68.” [67(4)(c)]

The Reform Act proposes instead:

4. Paragraph 67(4)(c) of the Act is replaced by the following:
(c) if applicable, an instrument in writing, signed by the nomination officer of the political party’s electoral district association for the electoral district that states that the prospective candidate is endorsed by the party.
5. The Act is amended by adding the following after section 68:
68.1(1) A prospective candidate for a political party in an electoral district must be endorsed by the nomination officer of the party’s electoral district association of the party in that electoral district.
(2) The nomination officer referred to in subsection (1) shall be appointed by the members of the electoral district association by a majority vote.

Dale Smith provides a bit of a history lesson behind the requirement for the party leader’s signature on a candidate’s nomination form:

When the changes to the Elections Act were debated in 1970, the decision was taken to include the party name on the ballot next to the candidate’s name.  Prior to this, the ballot showed not only the candidate’s name, but also his or her address and occupation.  The issue of people with shared last names became an issue, as did the listing of occupation — especially for incumbents.  While there were concerns about this amounting to “free advertising” for the party, there were more concerns around spoofing party listings — that unless there was a control mechanism that anyone could simply declare on the ballot that they were the Liberal candidate, or that they might instead put down “Progressive Conservative Party for Canada” instead of “of Canada.”  That fail safe mechanism was determined to be the party leader’s signature.  Not once in the debates recorded in Hansard was there the concern that the party leader might use this power to blackmail any rebellious MPs — and yet that is what ended up happening.

The other concern, while not recorded in Hansard but has been repeated anecdotally by those familiar with the situation, was that a safeguard was needed against hijacked nomination races.  This being the days of Pierre Trudeau’s famous omnibus bill that decriminalized contraception, homosexuality and took the first steps in removing some of the more draconian restrictions against abortions, there was intense pressure by anti-abortion groups who were trying to stack the nomination races in their favour.  Once again, the leader’s signature was the stopgap.

Oddly – in my view anyway – this seems to be one of the most problematic proposals for a number of people. For example, Tim Harper of the Toronto Star writes:

On one point, Chong would take away the power of the party leader to select or reject election candidates, making that decision binding from the local electoral district association.

It is silent on the fate of a leader who watches a candidate die, or deal with past indiscretions or criminality, or start spouting contrary policy during the campaign.

The leader cannot fire the candidate and he or she must deal with the damaging fallout until the electoral district association deals with the matter. The leader also cannot move to dissolve the local association.

Dale Smith, in the same article quoted above writes “What we know of Chong’s proposals to date is that they don’t contain some kind mechanism to prevent hijacked nominations, which do remain a concern.” Many others have chimed in on Twitter and elsewhere warning of total chaos, as Andrew Coyne aptly observes: “Remove the power of the leader to decide who may run under the party banner, warned some, and it would lead to a wave of neo-Nazis hijacking nomination meetings. At best, it would empower tiny parliamentary factions to divide and disrupt the party’s business.”

Nothing of the sort occurs in other countries which manage to select candidates without the involvement of the Party leader. I will, as usual, use the United Kingdom as an example, only because it is more familiar to me. What follows is based on information readily available on both the UK Conservative Party and the UK Liberal Democrat Party websites. I couldn’t find anything about candidate selection on the Labour Party website. I have also been in contact with someone who recently went through the selection process for the Liberal Democrats, and he answered a few questions for me. I have also attempted to contact the UK Conservative Party for a bit more information, but have yet to hear back from anyone. If I do, and if necessary, I will update this post with any new information.

Both the UK Tories and the Lib Dems follow very similar procedure to select candidates. It can be summarised as follows:

1. Persons interested in being a candidate need to fill out an application form
2. Based on the application form, suitable candidates will be assessed by an assessment board/team based on criteria established by the party
3. If they pass the assessment, they will be added to a national List of Approved Candidates
4. Once on the List of Approved Candidates, they can then apply for selection in any seat advertising for a parliamentary candidate.
5. The Local Selection Committee decides on a short list of potential candidates (if more than one candidate applies). If you are short-listed, you have a short campaign to drum up support of local party members, at the end of which, the members vote for their candidate for the next Election.

I will go over these steps in a bit more detail.

1. So you want to be a candidate

The UK Tories invite anyone interested in becoming a candidate for the Party to first contact the Candidates’ Team by email or phone for advice on how to proceed. You will then be asked to contact a member of the Field Team, who is either a Party official or senior volunteer in your area. You’ll have an informal chat with about the process, and you can ask any questions you might have. If you still want to be a candidate after that, you have to fill in an extensive application form, which asks about your experience, career, who you are as a person. You also need to provide three referees: one of them must connected with the Party and one must have known you for more than five years.

The Liberal Democrats do things a bit differently. They suggest that you first fill in the self-assessment questionnaire on their website before you apply. Their application forms are similar to the Tories’ – your contact information, basic background information, three referees, one of which must be a Party member, a signed declaration and code of conduct form.

Note: In both cases, you are applying to the party’s central office, not to a local constituency selection committee.

2. The Assessment Process

If you are deemed suitable based on your application form, the UK Tories will then invite you to attend a Parliamentary Assessment Board (PAB). This assessment lasts about 5 hours, during which you will be assessed by MPs and senior Party volunteers. In order to attend a PAB, you must be a current Party member and have been for at least three months. You will also be charged £250 to cover the Party’s costs of hiring the venue and running the PAB. The skills the Party is looking for are: communication skills, intellect, the ability to relate to people, leadership and motivational skills, resilience and drive, and conviction. However, you don’t have to know all about the Party’s manifesto and policies – you’ll learn about that if you make the cut. At this stage, the Party is more interested in you and your abilities.

The Liberal Democrats process is a bit more informal, but that is probably due to their status as the third party. They simply don’t have the same resources available to them. They are more stringent on the Party membership side of things, however; you need to have been a Party member for 12 consecutive months in England and Wales and 9 consecutive months in Scotland. The Lib Dems hold Assessment centres across the country, and once you’ve applied, you should be assessed within six months. The assessment team (similar to the Tories’ PAB) doesn’t see your application form; they only assess your performance during the assessment centre. The process is based on a Competency Framework of the qualities a parliamentary candidate should possess. These competencies are very similar to what the Tories are looking for: communication skills, leadership, strategic thinking and judgement, the ability to represent people, resilience and values. The Lib Dems do expect you to know about their Party policies, however.

Note: In both cases, the required skills and competencies potential candidates are measured against are drawn up by each party’s central office.

3. What happens if you don’t pass the assessment?

No worries! You can try again. The Tories admit that not everyone passes the first time – some require more training or experience. If that applies to you, you can try again in the next Parliament. And some people simply aren’t suited to become candidates, but the Party might find other ways you can help. As for the Lib Dems, if you don’t pass your assessment, you can reapply in either 1 or 5 years, depending on your final score.

4. You passed the assessment – now what?

In both cases, you’re now an Approved Candidate on the Approved Candidates List maintained by each party’s central office. And in both cases, you can now apply to run in any constituency in the country that needs a parliamentary candidate. That’s right – any constituency. However, the Lib Dems at least do encourage people to look for openings close to home. Someone from London seeking to run as a candidate in Newcastle probably wouldn’t be welcomed with open arms.

How do you apply to run for an advertised seat? You contact the Returning Officer named in the advertisement, complete the application form that will be sent to you by the deadline, and wait for the short-list decision from the Local Party Selection Committee (they might invite you to attend an interview). Local selection panels have the final say in who they choose as their candidate (s). In some cases, you might be the only person who applies. In other instances, there might be a number of Approved Candidates after that particular seat. If you are short-listed, there’s a short campaign – about three weeks – during which you will have to try to drum up support from local members. At the end of the campaign, there will be a meeting where local party members will vote for their candidate. If it’s you, you will fight the next General election for that seat.

The Liberal Democrat process described above is the general on which applies for candidates for both Parliamentary and Local elections. On the Party’s website, they stipulate the following:

The approval and selection of Parliamentary Candidates is the constitutional responsibility of each of the three Federal State Parties of England, Scotland and Wales. Each State has an elected Candidates Committee, which takes the decisions and sets the policies that govern the processes of the approval, selection and review of their Parliamentary Candidates.

At no point in this process does the Party leader have any say or input into who becomes an Approved Candidate or who will be contesting for a seat in the Party’s name. Nor can the Party leader veto the selection an Approved or selected candidate. But this doesn’t mean that there is no screening – quite the contrary. Each candidate who makes it onto the List of Approved Candidates has been screened and approved by the party’s central office based on criteria developed by the party. While local selection committees have the final say in which candidate they want, they can only choose from candidates who have been approved by the party. This eliminates (or at least greatly reduces) the possibility of local nomination meetings being stacked by special interest groups. And even if they are, they still will be limited to choosing between candidates who have been approved by the Party’s central office through the selection process described above.

According to my contact with the Lib Dems, the Approved Candidates list doesn’t carry over from one Parliament to the next. If you ran as a candidate for the Party in 2010, but didn’t win your seat, and want to try again in 2015, you have to go through the above process from the start. However, he did say that for previous Approved Candidates, the assessment might be shorter the second time around.

Would such a process work here in Canada? I don’t see why not. With regards to the Reform Act proposal, some concerns have been expressed regarding leaving the decision up to local party riding associations, since some of these local associations aren’t particularly healthy. Some parties may not have a very active membership in some parts of the country, which could make candidate selection problematic if decentralized. This is a legitimate concern, but I don’t see why our parties couldn’t set up Parliamentary Assessment Boards consisting of sitting MPs and long-time party volunteers who could assess candidates anywhere in the country via Skype, for example. The PAB could be supplemented by one or two local party members. Yes, the Canadian situation is different, but none of the problems or objections I’ve yet seen raised are insurmountable.

Do some oddball MPs get elected to the UK House of Commons? You bet they do! And that no doubt adds to the liveliness of the place (when compared to the Canadian House of Commons, for example). But here’s the thing – there are plenty of oddball MPs who get elected here in Canada even with the party leader signing off on nomination papers. The main difference here is that our party leaders can more easily keep their oddballs on a tight leash.

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“The Reform Act”: some thoughts

Canadian Conservative MP Michael Chong today introduced Bill C-559 “An Act to amend the Canada Elections and the Parliament of Canada Act (reforms)“, otherwise known as the Reform Act. When news of what the bill would propose broke several days ago, it immediately sparked great excitement among columnists and politics fans alike. Some hailed it as the bill that would save Parliament; others were more subdued, calling it “a solution in search of a problem“.

The bill proposes three reforms. First, it would remove the existing requirement that a party leader sign the nomination papers of prospective candidates for that party. Second, it would allow a caucus to implement a leadership review upon a petition of 15% of the elected members and a secret ballot vote garnering over 50% support. Lastly, it will allow caucuses to elect their chairs and admit and eject caucus members based on the 15/50% rules employed to trigger a leadership review.

These are all interesting proposals, and in order to avoid an epically-long post, I will deal with them separately. This first post will focus on the second point, allowing a party caucus to implement a leadership review upon a petition of 15% of elected members and a secret ballot vote garnering over 50% support.

Specifically, Chong’s bill would amend subsection 366(2) of the Elections Canada Act by adding a new sub-clause. This section of the act governs the criteria that must be met in order for a political party to become a registered political party. Chong’s proposal would amend the application for registration to include the following:

(k) the extract of the party by-laws that provides that
(i) a leadership review may be initiated by the submission of a written notice to the caucus chair signed by at least 15% of the members of the party’s caucus,
(ii) a leadership review is to be conducted by secret ballot, with the result to be determined by a majority vote of the caucus members present at a meeting of the caucus, and
(iii) if a majority of caucus members present at the meeting referred to in subparagraph (ii) vote to replace the leader of the party, a second vote of the caucus shall be conducted immediately by secret ballot to appoint a person to serve as the interim leader of the party until a new leader has been duly elected by the party.

This is actually standard procedure in other countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand, where such measures are incorporated not into legislation, but in political party constitutions. For example, in the UK, under Conservative Party rules, a leadership review is triggered if 15% of Conservative MPs call for a no confidence vote in the leader. The Labour Party has a slightly higher threshold. It requires that 20% of Labour MPs express that they no longer have confidence in the leader. The Liberal Democrats have set the highest bar for a leadership review. According to the Lib Dem constitution, a vote of no confidence must be passed by a majority of all Members of the Parliamentary Party in the House of Commons or the receipt by the President of the Party of a requisition submitted by at least 75 local party associations.

While many commentators, even before they saw the bill, endorsed this proposed reform, others were less convinced that it was needed. Dale Smith wrote:

The provision around leadership review is also something that cannot be taken as anything other than a half-measure, and one that misses the target.  MPs already have the power to challenge a leader, and most especially a Prime Minister.  We’ve seen several provincial examples of opposition caucuses pressuring their leaders to resign, and the removal of a Prime Minister is one of the most important built-in functions of our system of Responsible Government, and that is that if they are unhappy with the status quo, they can simply withdraw confidence. After all, Responsible Government depends entirely on the Prime Minister having the confidence of the Chamber. If enough government MPs decide that it’s time for the leader to go, they can join in a vote of non-confidence — no need for a call for a leadership review that gives the PM time to organize one and to consolidate support for the vote.

I have a few problems with that statement. First, I strong object to this line from Smith’s piece:

… the removal of a Prime Minister is one of the most important built-in functions of our system of Responsible Government, and that is that if they are unhappy with the status quo, they can simply withdraw confidence. After all, Responsible Government depends entirely on the Prime Minister having the confidence of the Chamber.

Responsible government – or more specifically, the confidence convention, rests on the Government having the confidence of the House. While many might argue that for all intents and purposes, the Prime Minister IS the Government, that is too simplistic. There isn’t a single procedural manual which discusses the confidence convention in terms of the Prime Minister maintaining the confidence of the House – only the Government. In terms of the confidence convention, who is Prime Minister doesn’t really matter. A governing party can change its leader at any point during its mandate and this will not necessarily impact the Government’s ability to maintain the confidence of the House. In Canada, Liberal Prime Minister Jean Chrétien was replaced by Paul Martin, and the Government continued to enjoy the confidence of the House. In the UK, Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair was replaced by Gordon Brown, and Labour continued to enjoy the confidence of the House. Granted, in both of these instances, the governing party held a majority of the seats, making it very difficult, if not impossible, for the House to withdraw confidence without a significant number of members of the governing party also withdrawing support, but it still serves to illustrate the point that it is the Government that must maintain confidence and it can do so even if the Prime Minister changes.

My second issue is with Smith’s suggestion that a party wanting to change its leader could use an Opposition want of confidence motion to affect that change. I simply don’t see how that would work. First of all, it is not inconceivable that  a caucus might be increasingly unhappy with their current party leader, while still being quite satisfied with their party forming, or being a part of, the Government. If members of the governing party who were unhappy with their current leader did what Smith suggests – simply remove confidence from the Government (with the support of the Opposition parties), I don’t see how this would necessarily lead to a leadership change for that party because of how the confidence convention works in Canada.

When a House withdraws confidence from a Government, traditionally, the various procedural manuals will tell you that the Government has two options: it can resign, and another Government can take its place, or the Prime Minister can seek dissolution. In Canada, that first option is very rarely, if ever, considered. When a Government is defeated on a confidence vote, the Prime Minister will almost always seek to have Parliament dissolved and a new election called. A new election will take place almost immediately. For example, on 25 March 2011, the minority Conservative government was defeated on a want of confidence motion. The defeated Prime Minister met with the Governor General the next day to ask that Parliament be dissolved, and the writs were issued on the 26th. The vote took place on 2 May 2011, which resulted in the Conservatives winning a majority of the seats in the House of Commons. While no Conservative MPs voted against their party to indicate that they too had lost confidence in the Government, even if they had used it as an excuse for a leadership vote, the reality of the situation is that the party would not not have  had time to have a leadership convention following the Government’s defeat.

Using a want of confidence motion is simply not a viable option to ensure leadership change. The disgruntled caucus members who might attempt to use a confidence motion to rid themselves of a leader will find themselves in an election campaign with the same leader. Perhaps a leadership review might be held following the election (and most certainly would be if the party were defeated at the polls), but if the party is returned to power with an even stronger mandate, wouldn’t that simply reinforce the leader’s position, making it that much more difficult for caucus members unhappy with the leader to challenge him or her?

In her piece on Chong’s bill, Alice Funke wrote:

the Bill would formalize in legislation a party caucus’ ability to call for and effect a leadership review. I say formalize, because there is nothing in the law currently preventing party caucuses from doing this very thing now, and indeed they have done so frequently in our current system: Joe Clark was pushed into a leadership review, Michel Gauthier was pushed out as leader by the Bloc Québécois caucus, a good part of Stockwell Day’s caucus left him and the Canadian Alliance and joined the remainder of the Tories instead. And a significant group of Paul Martin backers were hatching plots to oust Jean Chrétien as Liberal leader and Prime Minister.

(…)

So, it’s not that a caucus CAN’T call for a leadership review or push a leader out, it’s that they apparently won’t, and/or they don’t. I fail to see how enacting legislation formalizing this authority gives them any more actual power to do so, or makes them any more accountable back home for not showing some backbone.

This is true – caucuses can exert enough pressure on a leader to force them to step down. However, as far as I can tell, none of our parties have specific processes in place outlining exactly how this is to be done. As stated above, the main political parties in the United Kingdom all to have very specific rules in their Constitutions allowing for the party caucus to express lack of confidence in their leader and potentially trigger a leadership change. The existence of these rules does make politics in the UK more interesting – hardly a week goes by without some report in the media that Tory MPs are edging ever closer to the magic number of 46 MPs required to challenge David Cameron’s leadership. But while perhaps generating more media attention, this doesn’t mean that caucuses in the UK regularly challenge their leaders. There were a number of attempts to oust Gordon Brown as leader of the Labour Party, which all failed. Despite regular rumours in the media, David Cameron’s leadership of the Conservative Party has not yet faced an actual challenge. The most recent Liberal Democrat leadership challenge occurred in 2006, when Charles Kennedy resigned once he realised he no longer had the support of most of his caucus.

Australian political parties also allow the caucus to oust a party leader. Labor most famously ousted its leader and Prime Minister Kevin Rudd in 2010, replacing him with Julia Gillard. Gillard herself was unsuccessfully challenged by Rudd in early 2012, again in March 2013, and again, successfully, in June 2013. As they say, third time’s the charm.

What is interesting here is that after Rudd regained the leadership, he got Labor to change its rules. Virtually insurmountable barriers now exist to such overnight challenges. Under the new rules, a leadership ballot aimed at removing a Labor prime minister can only take place if 75% of caucus members sign a petition—and only on the basis that the leader has “brought the party into disrepute.” Under the new rules, even when the Labor Party is in opposition, its leader can now only be challenged after a petition signed by 60% of caucus members. Another new election procedure will, for the first time in the party’s 122-year history, let party members vote for their leader. The Labor leader will now be selected by a ballot of all caucus members combined with a ballot of the party’s members, with each ballot having a 50 percent weighting in determining the final outcome.

This is another important difference to note between how party leaders are chosen in Canada, and how they are chosen in other countries. In Canada, party members as well as MPs, vote in leadership conventions. In other jurisdictions, party members either have no say at all – only the caucus – or they have very limited input. Dale Smith explains why this is problematic for Michael Chong’s proposed caucus leadership review reform:

The larger problem there is that we need to re-examine the way that we elect leaders in this country, because the status quo allows them to be shielded under a rubric of “democratic legitimacy” — that the membership chose them, and because of that, the caucus cannot remove them.  We need to return to the system whereby it is the caucus that chooses the leader, and it is the caucus that removes the leader.  Best of all, it eliminates the months-long leadership races, no-hope candidates outside of caucus who are simply trying to make a name for themselves, and the rudderless limbo that parties find themselves in.

Alice Funke points out another problem:

The one bad thing formalizing this authority in law might accomplish is to exacerbate regional tensions further, given that until recently most Canadian political parties have had regional bases of support and regional wastelands. Taking control away from delegates to party conventions, or even from party members (and now party supporters), means taking authority away from nationally representative deliberative bodies, and putting it into the hands of a potentially regionally unbalanced caucus.

This is a legitimate concern, but I don’t think it is insurmountable. Inevitably, all party leaders will appeal more to some parts of the country than others. The UK Conservatives, for example, are virtually shut out of certain parts of England (largely the north) and Scotland, where they have only one MP. However, this “problem” wouldn’t be a problem if some form of PR were to be adopted to replace FPTP. I think ensuring a solid chain of political accountability matters more: “citizens elect MPs, and their MPs not only influence policies but also hire and fire leaders to implement them.”

There is an alternative to what Smith proposes when he writes: “We need to return to the system whereby it is the caucus that chooses the leader, and it is the caucus that removes the leader.” Parties could implement a hybrid system such as the one used by the UK Conservative Party, which limits the initial rounds of a leadership vote to the caucus, but brings in the party membership to decide between the final two candidates. Simply put, following a successful leadership challenge, members of caucus will put themselves forward for the position of party leader. If there are more than two candidates, the caucus votes. If no candidate receives a majority of the vote, the candidate with the lowest vote tally drops out. This is repeated until the choice is down to two candidates. At that point, postal ballots are sent to all registered party members to let them vote on the two remaining candidates.

Chong’s proposal certainly deserves much debate, but as has been pointed out, it will create conflict with our existing means of selecting party leaders. Whether the answer is to remove party members from the process completely and leave leadership selection and deselection to caucus only, to to try to find some compromise between the two, I don’t know. That too is something which will require consideration.

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Towards a Parliament 2.0

UK House of Commons Speaker John Bercow delivered a speech to the Hansard Society (PDF downloadable here) outlining his plans for a Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy.

The first part of his speech highlighted the Westminister Spring – the remarkable revival of the UK House of Commons as an institution since the 2010 general election. Mr. Speaker noted that when he became Speaker in 2009,

the House of Commons as a meangingful political institution, an effective legislature, had been in decline for some decades and was close to reaching the point wher eit had become, to distort Walter Bagehot slightly, a diginified part of our constitution without any dignity.

(…)

Parliament appaered to have been reduced to the status of a small green room in which men, overwhelmingly men, shouted at each othe rfor relatively short periods of the working week and then disappeared from sight thereafter to do Lord Knows What. Certainly, it was not to strike terror in the hearts of Ministers or offer considreed criticism and surgical scrutiny either of proposed legislation in the Chamber or via the Select Committee system of the implementation of executive policy.

However, as Speaker Bercow explains, “the virtual corpse has staged an unexpected recovery.” He attributes this miracle to three facters: procedural reform, fresh blood and the novelty of coalition government.

In the dying days of the previous Parliament, the House adopted many of the Wright Committee recommendations (of which I have written about many times). These reforms were implemented for the first time in May 2010, following the general election. They include the election of the Deputy Speakers, the election of Select Committee chairs by the whole House, the election of Select committee members by their respective caucuses, and the creation of the Backbench Business Committee.

Added to this is Speaker Bercow’s revival of an existing, but almost extinct, procedure, the Urgent Question UQ), which Speaker Bercow describes as a “parliamentary intrument of inquisition.” I explain Urgent Questions in some detail here, but simply put, it is a procedure which allows any MP on any day to petition the Speaker to demand that a ministry send one of its Ministers to answer some issue or matter that has arisen very suddenly. In the 12 months under Speaker Bercow’s predecessor, only two UQs had been allowed. Since becoming Speaker, Bercow has granted 154.

The revival of the UQ has had another unexpected benefit – Ministers are now far more likely to take the initiative and deliver statements to the House “because they know that if they do not the chance of a UQ is now high.”

The 2010 general election saw a very large intake of new MPs – 227 (out of a total of 650 MPs). These new MPs were more diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity, race, career background, etc., that had been true previously. They also brought with them a new attitude – not content to simply sit quietly and do what they were told by party Whips.

Add to this mix the formation of a coalition government – the first in some seventy years, which forced both the government and Parliament to “make up new norms as we have gone along”:

The uncertainty as to what exactly is the correct way to proceed has offered the breathing space for backbench creativity and parliamentary originality which the House Backbench Business Committee chaired by the redoubtable Natascha Engel MP has eagerly exploited. It has also, I conclude, further convinced Select Committees that a more forensic approach to scrutiny is not an act of rebellion or disloyalty to their own political party but a civic obligation.

Speaker Bercow acknowledges that there is still more to do, particularly in the area of setting up a House Business Committee, improving Private Members’ Bills, and perhaps reforming Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs). And beyond that, one enormous challenge remains, not only for Westminster, but for all legislatures in the 21st century, namely,

how to reconcile traditional concepts and institutions of representative democracy with the technological revolution which we have witnessed over the past decade or two which has created both a demand for and an opportunity to establish a digital democracy.

And this is where the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy comes in. The Commission will have a core membership supplemented by a circle of around 30 expert Commissioners and will solicit input by the public. it will begin its work in 2014, reporting in early 2015, just before the next general election. Digital democracy initiatives could include:

online voting, e-dialogue between representatives and those they represent, increased interconnectedness between the functions of representation, scrutiny and legislation, multiple concepts of what is a constituency, flexibility about what is debated when and how, and a much more intense pace for invention and adaptation.

Speaker Bercow goes on to explain that digital democracy is a form of “in-reach encouraging and enabling the public to become more involved in the work of Parliament and Parliament responding as a result.” In-reach used to consist of voting once every 4-5 years, but this no longer suffices. He concludes by admitting that his plan is ambitious:

The structure is one which is unfamiliar to the House of Commons, the agenda is potentially vast and the timetable for publication is tight. Universities and even our schools, because this should not be an area deemed exclusive to so-called adults, might not necessarily respond to the call to e-arms, although I suspect that they will not need to be conscripted. The recommendations might not make the impact that they should arriving as they will but a few months before a general election, although I believe that when the new Parliament assembles it will be truly interested in what it means to become a new Parliament more broadly. And technology might turn up in 2020 or 2030 that renders all that we thought before redundant.

None of which should be an alibi for inaction. When I was elected Speaker I made it clear that while I would be a non-partisan figure withinour democracy, I would not be neutral about our democracy. Representative democracy is a wonderful principle but what it is to be representative has to be re-examined constantly. It is a process, not an event. I am a passionate advocate of democracy. I do not feel that it is stretching the  nature of the office in which I serve to champion that democracy. I am by choice politically celibatebut I am not a political eunuch. The fantastic people who work in and for the House of Commons arenot party political figures and should not be either but from the top downwards they share my desire to see Parliament and the people connected as closely as humanly possible and we recognise that technology can be our best friend and ally in this regard. All those who care about Parliament, and I  appreciate that with this audience I am preaching to the long-time converted, should want to embrace this  cause and deliver us their thoughts on the development of digital democracy. I am convinced that we can really make a difference.

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A few thoughts on IPPR’s Divided Democracy report

The Institute for Public Policy Research’s (IPPR) new report, Divided democracy: Political inequality in the UK and why it matters, takes a novel approach to the issue of declining voter turnout.

Declining voter turnout is not a new issue, nor is it one of concern only to the UK. While most studies look at the reasons why more and more citizens are staying away from the ballot box, this report looks at the consequences of lower voter participation among certain sectors of society, young voters and lower-income voters.

It is this growing inequality of turnout that is the focus of the IPPR’s research:

Unequal turnout matters because it reduces the incentives for governments to respond to the interests of non-voters and thus threatens a central claim of democracy: that every citizen’s preference, no matter their status, should count equally. (p. 2)

This argument isn’t new, of course. We’ve all frequently heard people say that if you don’t vote, you can’t complain about policy decisions that are made. In the UK 1987 general election, there was a 4 percentage point gap in the turnout rate between the highest income group and the poorest. By the 2010 general election, this gap had increased to 23%:

The age gap is even more striking. Just 44 per cent of 18–24-year-olds voted in the 2010 general election, compared to 76 per cent of those aged 65 and over. Turnout inequality between young and old voters has grown at an alarming rate in recent years – the turnout gap between these two age-groups jumped from 18 points in 1970 to 32 points in 2010 – and shows little sign of being reversed. Worse still, there is now clear evidence of a ‘cohort effect’: younger people today are less likely than previous generations to develop the habit of voting as they move into middle age. (p. 2)

What did this mean for the Government’s austerity measures?

IPPR’s analysis of the 2010 spending review shows that those who did not vote in the 2010 general election faced cuts worth 20 per cent of their annual household income, compared to 12 per cent for those who did vote. The cuts have disproportionately affected the young and the poor – precisely those groups that vote with least frequency. People aged 16–24 face cuts to services worth 28 per cent of their annual household income, compared to 10 per cent for those aged 55–74. Those with annual household incomes under £10,000 stand to lose the equivalent of 41 per cent of their average income through cuts; by contrast, those with incomes over £60,000 will lose on average £2,104, which represents just 3 per cent of this group’s average income. (p. 2)

The bulk of the report is a detailed analysis of voter participation rates in the UK and the impact of the 2010 spending review. What I want to comment on, however, are the two recommendations put forward to address the problem: universal compulsory voting and compulsory first-time voting.

IPPR has often argued in favour of compulsory voting. While acknowledging that this is often a controversial proposal, compulsory voting is “currently practised in approximately a quarter of the world’s democracies”. They also point out that in none of these countries is voting itself actually compulsory. What is mandatory is showing up at the polls. Studies of countries with compulsory voting all show an increased voter turnout, and more importantly, “drastically” reduced turnout inequality through the greater representation of “marginalised and apathetic” groups. Despite the benefits of compulsory voting, the IPPR researchers seem resigned to the fact that the British will never accept it given that it flies in the face of a citizen’s right to choose not to vote, and so they propose instead compulsory first-time voting.

Compulsory first-time voting is just that: voters would be obliged to go to the polls once, on the first occasion they were eligible. They wouldn’t actually have to vote – they’d only have to turn up – but as an added incentive, there would be a “none of the above” option on the ballot paper. To ensure compliance, a small fine would be levied against those who failed to turn up at the polls.

Why force first-time voting? The researchers offer the following reasons. Research has shown that if people vote in the first election they’re eligible to vote in, they are more likely to vote in future elections. Forcing them to vote the first time could lead to voluntary continued voting. Second, this initiative deliberately targets young people, who have the lowest participation rates. Third, if young people turned out in larger numbers, politicians would be forced to take their concerns into consideration. And lastly, there could be a trickle down effect: “if young people from poorer backgrounds were required to vote then this might encourage their non-voting parents and grandparents to exercise their democratic right, thereby closing the political inequality gap between the classes as well as generations.” (p. 22)

I don’t dislike this idea, but I admit to being somewhat confounded by the “none of the above” option on the ballot paper. While it is not 100% clear in the report, I assume that everyone’s ballot paper would have this option, otherwise you’d need two ballot papers, one for “regular” (non first-time) voters, and one for the first-timers. While doable, this seems like it would be a lot of work and added confusion for no good reason. We assume then that the “none of the above” option would be available to all voters. I find it rather interesting that this is mentioned twice (pp. 2 and 21), almost in passing, but never really explained or dealt with in any detail.

I think we’ve all wished at some point that there was such an option on our ballot paper. But what would happen if that option actually won in some constituencies – meaning the “none of the above” option garners more votes than any of the candidates? Of course, with First-Past-the-Post, the candidate with the most votes, even if they were second to “none of the above” would still end up elected. However, this strikes me as problematic – for a couple of reasons. The first is purely optics. I can’t imagine any candidate would feel particularly happy to have “won” by finishing second to “none of the above”. If this occurred in only a handful of constituencies, it might not be that big a deal, but if it occurred in a lot of constituencies, I can’t help but think that some would question the wisdom of including that option on the ballot. The second reason ties in with the first. There is already significant displeasure with the fact that under FPTP, a candidate doesn’t need majority support to win; he or she simply needs more votes than any other candidate. Consequently, a majority of MPs end up elected with less than 50% of the vote. If you add in another option – specifically “none of the above”, that risks reducing the winning candidate’s percentage of the vote that much more. Part of me can’t help but think that the combination of MPs being elected after finishing second to “none of the above” and with even lower percentages of the vote really won’t do much to improve anyone’s opinion of politicians. If anything, it might even undermine their legitimacy.

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Coalition government and constraints on the PM’s prerogative powers

The UK House of Lords Select Committee on Constitution has been conducting an inquiry on The Constitutional Implications of Coalition Government. For anyone interested in parliamentary conventions, government formation and other related issues, this is absolutely fascinating stuff.

On 9 October 2013, Professor Lord Norton of Louth and Lord Donoughue appeared as witnesses before the committee. It was quite interesting, enlivened somewhat by Lord Donoughue’s staunch dislike of the very idea of coalition government. In fact, he repeatedly urged the Committee to stress in their final report the many advantages of alternatives to coalition since, as he put it, “I fear that a younger generation will begin to assume that if they do not get a majority, they must have a coalition.” (page 2 of the uncorrected transcript)

Some interesting points were raised during the course of the hearing. Lord Norton discussed some of the major departures from “normal” constitutional practice brought about by coalition government, particularly those that affect the Prime Minister’s prerogative powers. He identified four such departures, which he grouped under two headings. The first is the existence, under coalition, of a dual executive. This affects the Prime Minister’s traditional prerogative powers in two ways. The first concerns ministerial appointments, which are no longer purely the prerogative of the PM as the sovereign’s adviser. Normally, in the case of single-party government, the Prime Minister has the power to the power to appoint, reshuffle or dismiss cabinet ministers. With the current coalition, it was agreed that the Liberal Democrats would have five cabinet positions, and number of ministerial spots. It is the leader of the Liberal Democrats and Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, who decides which of his party’s MPs will be appointed to those spots. The Prime Minister, Conservative David Cameron, can still shuffle his cabinet, but he cannot dismiss or appoint any Liberal Democrats on his own. The second change brought about by the dual executive concerns the convention of collective responsibility. Traditionally, decisions are arrived at collectively in Cabinet, and Cabinet is bound to support those decisions plublicly and in the House (by voting for them, for example). There have been departures from this with the Coalition government.

The other changes which impede the PM’s prerogative powers have come about because of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, 2011. The first concerns maintaining the confidence of the House. As we know, the PM and Cabinet are responsible to, and must answer to, the House of Commons and must maintain the confidence and support of a majority of the House. If the government is defeated in the House on a matter of confidence, then the government is expected to resign or seek the dissolution of Parliament so that an election can be held. What are matters of confidence? That can vary, but it is generally acknowledged that confidence motions can be:

  • explicitly worded motions, usually moved by the Opposition, which state that the House has, or has not, confidence in the government;
  • any motion that the government expressly declares to be questions of confidence; and
  • implicit motions of confidence, that is, motions traditionally deemed to be questions of confidence, such as motions for the granting of supply, motions concerning the budgetary policy of the government and motions respecting the Address in Reply to the Speech from the Throne.

Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, 2011, the Prime Minister can no longer declare a certain vote to be a matter of confidence. Or rather, as Lord Norton explains, a Prime Minister could say that a particular motion was one of confidence, if defeated, the only thing the government could do is resign. The option of requesting a dissolution is no longer available. This ties in with the second change – previously, the Prime Minister could seek to dissolve the House and call a new election when he or she so desired. The Act now establishes a fixed date, and unlike similar Canadian and provincial Acts, there is a very specific process in place that must be followed in order to dissolve a parliament before the date fixed by law for the next election. As explained in the Cabinet Manual:

2.19 Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, if a government is defeated on a motion that ‘this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government’, there is then a 14-day period during which an alternative government can be formed from the House of Commons as presently constituted, or the incumbent government can seek to regain the confidence of the House.

If no government can secure the confidence of the House of Commons during that period, through the approval of a motion that ‘this House has confidence in Her Majesty’s Government’, a general election will take place. Other decisions of the House of Commons which have previously been regarded as expressing ‘no confidence’ in the government no longer enable or require the Prime Minister to hold a general election. The Prime Minister is expected to resign where it is clear that he or she does not have the confidence of the House of Commons and that an alternative government does have the confidence.

As Lord Norton concludes, those are the main changes to the Prime Minister’s prerogative powers, and the last two won’t end with a return to single-party government. They will have “ongoing consequences because they are statutory changes.”

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Scandal as a catalyst for positive change

In 2009, the UK Parliament was rocked by a major scandal. The scandal was triggered by the leak and subsequent publication by one of the UK’s major newspapers, the Telegraph, of expense claims made by members of both the House of Commons and the House of Lords over several years. These disclosures revealed widespread misuse of the Additional Cost Allowances (ACA) members were able to claim. The UK Parliament had been fighting disclosure of these expenses for years.

Compared to the UK expenses scandal, the current Canadian Senate expenses scandal is relatively minor. The abuses uncovered in the UK were quite extensive. Alongside specific allegations of incorrect claims such as claims for the cost of mortgages which had already been repaid in full, the Telegraph alleged that parliamentary expenses rules gave wide scope for a number of abuses, especially those related to costs of maintaining two residences, one in the constituency and one in London. Areas of questionable claims highlighted by the Telegraph included (but were not limited to):

  • Nominating second homes: MPs and peers were able to ensure that their second home was the one which enabled them to claim more expenses. In at least one case, the nominated home was near neither constituency nor Westminster.
  • Re-designating second homes: MPs were able repeatedly to switch the designation of their second home, enabling them to claim for purchasing, renovating and furnishing more than one property. This practice became widely known as “flipping”.
  • Renting out homes: MPs were able to claim for their “second home” while they were, in fact, renting other homes out. In most cases the rented homes were ‘third’ properties, but in one case, a second home was rented to another MP, who was claiming the rent on expenses.
  • Over-claiming for council tax on second home: MPs were able to round up actual amounts due, claiming for 12 monthly instalments where only 10 were due or by claiming up to £250.00 per month with no receipt required until those rules were changed. Over 50 MPs were alleged to have over-claimed council tax.
  • Subsidising property development: The rule that MPs could not claim for repairs “beyond making good dilapidations” was not enforced and consequently MPs were able to add significantly to the value of a property. By implication some “second homes” were effectively businesses (not homes) since they were renovated on expenses and then rapidly sold.
  • Evading tax and inappropriate attempts at avoiding tax: MPs either evaded tax, or inappropriately deemed themselves not required to pay tax on reimbursements when it was likely tax was due.
  • Claiming expenses while living in grace and favour homes: Ministers with “grace and favour” homes in Westminster as well as their existing primary residence were able to claim for a further “second home” in addition.
  • Renovating and furnishing properties when standing down: MPs were able to claim for renovations and furniture even when they had already announced their intention to resign from Parliament.
  • Furnishing of other homes: MPs were able to claim for items of furniture that were actually delivered somewhere other than their second home.
  • Exploiting the ‘no receipt’ rule: MPs submitted a large number of claims for just below £250, the ceiling under which they were not required to produce receipts, without being challenged as to their legitimacy.
  • Over-claiming for food: Under a rule permitting up to £400 for food each month (without receipts), MPs were simply able to claim the whole £400 every month, even when Parliament was not sitting.
  • Overspending at the end of the financial year: MPs were able to submit claims just before the end of the financial year, so as to use up allowances, without being challenged as to their legitimacy.

There was massive political fall-out from this scandal. The Speaker of the House of Commons, Michael Martin, was forced to resign because of his handling of the crisis. He appeared to be far more concerned  with the fact that the information was leaked to the Telegraph than with the actual abuse of expenses. MPs from his own majority party, Labour, and the minority opposition party, the Conservatives, felt he had lost the confidence of the public and the House in general. Martin was the first Speaker to be forced out of the office by a motion of no confidence since John Trevor in 1695. A number of ministers resigned. A number of MPs from both Labour and the Conservative parties announced they would not seek re-election. Four MPs and 2 Lords were charged and convicted of various criminal offenses.

However, the scandal had a silver lining. Public outrage and anger over the expenses scandal drove home the fact to MPs and Lords alike that Parliament needed to change if it hoped to regain the public’s trust. One of the first reforms implemented, in May 2009, was the creation of the creation of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority, intended to manage Members’ expenses at an “arm’s length” from the House, ending the historical self-policing by MPs of their expenses.

The next initiative was the striking of the Select Committee on Reform of the House of Commons, which was appointed by the House of Commons on 20 July 2009 to consider and report by 13 November 2009 on four specified matters and related matters:

  • the appointment of members and chairmen of select committees;
  • the appointment of the Chairman and Deputy Chairmen of Ways and Means;
  • scheduling business in the House;
  • enabling the public to initiate debates and proceedings in the House

More commonly known as the Wright Committee, after its chair, Tony Wright, the committee’s report led to the adoption of by the UK House of Commons of the many reforms about which I have frequently written. These reforms include: the creation of the Backbench Business Committee, various initiatives to increase public involvement in the legislative process and other House business; the election of select committee chairs and select committee membership, etc.

The Wright Committee understood why it had come into being and what it needed to do. To quote from the introduction of its November 2009 report, Rebuilding the House:

1. We have been set up at a time when the House of Commons is going through a crisis of confidence not experienced in our lifetimes. This is largely, but not exclusively, because of the revelations about Members’ expenses, bringing with it a storm of public disapproval and contempt. Public confidence in the House and in Members as a whole has been low for some time, but not as low as now. It is not too much to say that the institution is in crisis.
2. The storm has been gathering, but has now reached its climax. In 2001 a survey found that 30 per cent of people were dissatisfied with how Parliament was doing its job; in 2009, in the wake of the expenses scandal, dissatisfaction with the Commons was a massive 71 per cent (Ipsos/Mori). This demands a response, if public confidence in the central institution of our representative democracy is to be restored. Action is already being taken to establish a transparent, fair and independently regulated system of allowances. This is necessary, but not sufficient.
3. The great majority of Members of Parliament work extremely hard. Members are in closer and more regular contact with their constituents than ever before, and dedicate a great deal of time to serving their interests. But while the House of Commons remains the central institution of British democracy, in both real and symbolic terms, there is a sense in the country that it matters a good deal less than it used to. We believe that the House of Commons has to become a more vital institution, less sterile in how it operates, better able to reflect public concerns, more transparent, and more vigorous in its task of scrutiny and accountability. This requires both structural and cultural change. This report by necessity focuses on structural changes, but we hope they will lead gradually to a change of culture. The core business of Parliament has to matter more to the public and to individual Members. At present many Members do not see the point in attending debates or making the House the primary focus of their activities. In order to address this we must give Members back a sense of ownership of their own institution, the ability to set its agenda and take meaningful decisions, and ensure the business of the Chamber is responsive to public concerns. We believe this is what the public demands, what the institution needs and what most Members want. The present crisis presents an opportunity to make some real progress with this.
4. Without the shock of recent events, it is unlikely that this Committee would have been established. Yet the case for an inquiry such as ours was already strong, and becoming ever stronger. Since 1997 the Modernisation Committee has presided over a number of reforms, some of which—such as sittings in Westminster Hall and oral questions without notice to Ministers—have proved successful. However, a number of the proposals from that Committee, and the Procedure Committee and others, have been shelved, sidelined or simply disregarded, often without being put to the House, which is dispiriting for reform and reformers. A steady stream of reports from outside bodies have made the case for significant parliamentary reform.  Meanwhile, the Modernisation Committee has run out of steam and not met for over a year.
5. We have a rare window of opportunity. There is an appetite for reform inside the House and among the public at large. We have a newly elected Speaker expressly committed to it. Backbenchers are fed up with their inability to make a difference and the deadweight of timeworn procedures. Select committees are universally praised but have few opportunities to initiate debates or propose amendments to legislation and sometimes struggle to maintain a quorum. Thirty years ago, in the closing period of the 1974–79 Parliament, our predecessors took the bold step of proposing a system of departmental select committees, which have now become integral to the work of the House. Unlike our predecessors, we have had to work at high speed under a very tight timetable, but hope to have produced proposals which—if implemented—may have an equivalent impact.

The Senate scandal in Canada could be a rare window of opportunity to finally implement real and lasting reform – not only of the Senate, but of our Parliament as a whole. Sadly, I doubt that will happen.

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