Coalition government: not liked, but expected

A few years ago, I wrote a post exploring why the very idea of  coalition government became such a negative thing in Canada. I’ve also written a number of posts explaining that, in the United Kingdom, coalition government has become the expected outcome in the event of a general election which results in a hung parliament (this being the most recent one).

UK polling firm Ipsos Mori today released its Political Monitor January 2014. Along with the usual data regarding voting intentions and satisfaction with the various party leaders and the economy, there are some very interesting numbers regarding the outcome of future elections.

A majority (51%) of those polled believe that the 2015 general election will result in another coalition government. That belief is strongest amongst Conservative (58%) and Liberal Democrat (66%) supporters. Labour Party supporters are less likely to think that will be the outcome (42%) – most likely because their party continues to lead in the polls.

But while a majority think there will be another coalition government in 2015, that doesn’t mean they like the idea. A strong majority, 60%, believe it’s a bad thing that no party achieved an overall majority in the 2010 election. That percentage has increased gradually since May 2010, when 52% thought it was a bad thing that no party had won an overall majority. And when asked about the 2015 election, 65% of those polled believe it will be a bad thing if that election again results in a hung parliament. Unsurprisingly, Liberal Democrat supporters are the only ones who overwhelmingly think hung parliaments are a good thing (55%). Supporters of the two largest parties, the Conservatives and Labour are equally unenthusiastic about hung parliaments, with only 21% thinking that it’s a good thing if no party wins an overall majority.

Ipsos Mori then asked supporters of each party who their preferred coalition partner would be from amongst the other parties, should the 2015 election result in a hung parliament. Conservative supporters strongly favoured a resumption of the current coalition with the Liberal Democrats (70%). Only 40% strongly supported a coalition with UKIP – assuming of course that UKIP even wins any seats in 2015. Labour supporters were almost equally supportive of a coalition with either the Liberal Democrats (62%) or the Greens (63%). Given that the Greens have only one seat in the current Parliament, and that is unlikely to change much in 2015, a coalition with the Green Party is not very likely. Liberal Democrat supporters actually favoured the Conservatives (65%) over Labour (53%) as coalition partners. That might surprise some. There is wide-spread assumption in the UK that the Liberal Democrats are a left-wing party, one that would more naturally align itself with Labour. I’ve never quite understood why people feel that way – the LibDems have always struck me as a very centrist party, even slightly right-of-centre in terms of economic policy. That their supporters more strongly favour the Conservatives as coalition partners possibly confirms my views. Or it could simply be a reaction to having had to endure a lot of abuse from Labour politicians and supporters since entering into a coalition with the Tories in 2010.

My interest in this is again to point out how the idea of coalition government has become, if not liked, at least accepted in the UK. The political parties and their supporters at least grudgingly acknowledge that it’s not only a viable alternative to single-party minority government in the event of a hung parliament, but perhaps a preferable option. Labour and Conservative supporters would certainly prefer that their party form a majority government on its own, there is no doubt about that. But the current coalition has demonstrated a couple of things: 1) despite constant predictions that it would fall apart, it hasn’t, and 75% of those surveyed believe it will last until May 2015 (only 40% thought that in July 2012); and 2) it has provided stable government during a difficult economic period. In other words, while it hasn’t always been pretty, the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government has worked. And ultimately, isn’t that what matters most?

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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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Coalition government gains traction

The UK House of Lords Constitution Committee has launched a new inquiry into the constitutional implications of coalition government.

The reason for this inquiry is “the increase in the general election vote share for parties other than Conservative and Labour means that government by coalition may become more common in future as single parties are unable to secure an absolute Commons majority.”

The Committee’s inquiry is focusing on three key questions:

  • The impact of coalition government on the principle of collective ministerial responsibility.  Examples of disagreements within the current coalition that have raised questions in this area include those announced at the onset of the coalition, such as on the renewal of Trident, and some which have emerged during the course of the Parliament—for example the amendment to the Electoral Registration and Administration Act 2013 which delayed the constituency boundary review.
  • How democratic legitimacy is secured under coalition governments.  The classic model of a majority government implementing its manifesto as endorsed by the electorate does not necessarily translate to a hung Parliament. This raises questions about the practices and procedures that should be adopted to secure democratic legitimacy, including the status of coalition agreements drawn up following a general election and whether manifestos should be changed to reflect the possibility of a hung parliament.
  • The organisation of the executive under coalition government.  The Committee will explore what is the most effective and accountable way to run a coalition government, including areas such as the appointment of ministers and the structure of the Cabinet and its committees.

(Side note: you don’t have to be a UK citizen or resident to contribute to this inquiry. If you are interested in the topic and want to contribute your thoughts on the above, download the call for evidence guidelines (PDF). The deadline is 30 August 2013.)

The next general election, in 2015, will more than likely again result in a hung parliament. And unlike in Canada, there is growing acceptance in the UK that the proper response to a hung parliament is coalition government, not single party minority government. This inquiry is just one example of that acceptance. Another is the news that the UK Conservative backbench have set out certain “red lines” for their party leadership – policy areas on which they will not compromise in any future coalition negotiations. The same article mentions that the Liberal Democrats will likely do the same – spell out their own red lines for joining a coalition with either Labour or the Conservatives.

Of course, the next election is still more than a year away, and polls can – and most certainly will – change between now and then. Combined with the vagaries of First-Past-the-Post, one of the major parties could very well eek out a majority mandate on its own. But what is encouraging is that the idea of coalition government, despite the ups and downs of the current Conservative-Liberal Democrat government, has gained acceptance and parties are preparing for that possibility.

Now if only Canadian political parties could start thinking more boldly as well…

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Update on the House Business Committee

In a recent appearance before the UK House of Commons Political and Constitutional Reform Committee, Leader of the House, the Rt. Hon. Andrew Lansley admitted that:

the Coalition programme commitment to the establishment of the House Business Committee in the third year of Parliament will not be met. From my point of view it is not the abrogation of the commitment to pursue the principle of a House Business Committee, but what I am saying is we are now exercising a reality check and recognising that we are not in a place to do this yet.

Establishing a House Business Committee was one of the reforms proposed by the Reform of the House of Commons Committee (more commonly referred to as the Wright Committee) in its 2009 report, Rebuilding the House (PDF). The House Business Committee would assemble a draft agenda to put to the House in a weekly motion. The Wright Committee considered various models and favoured the following (see pages 59-62 of the report for complete details):

  1. There would be two committees, a House Business Committee and a Backbench Business Committee;
  2. The task of assembling a draft agenda of House business would be undertaken by a unified House Business Committee, comprised of representatives of all parts of the House: backbenchers, Government and Opposition;
  3. The members of the committee would comprise the elected members of the Backbench Business Committee, together with frontbench Members nominated by the three party leaders;
  4. It would be chaired by the Chairman of Ways and Means (the Deputy Speaker);
  5. It would have a secretariat combining the House officers who support the Backbench Business Committee and the Government officials who currently support the usual channels.

Lansley explained to the Political and Constitutional Reform Committee that it was the establishment of the Backbench Business Committee, which occurred in June 2010, which complicated matters. Given that the Backbench Business Committee was something new, it was necessary first to understand “what the impact of the Backbench Business Committee is and how it works” and until that was clear, it wouldn’t have been practical to shape a House Business Committee.

Lansley studied the Scottish Parliament’s Parliamentary Bureau, which is their equivalent of a House Business Committee and noted that it was put in place in the expectation  that there would never be a single-party majority government in Scotland (because Scotland uses proportional representation to elect its MSPs). Because the Scottish Parliament would most likely end up with hung parliaments and coalition or single-party minority governments, there would be a need for some sort of mechanism to find a consensus to get business through the House. However, the last general election in Scotland resulted in (to most people’s surprise) a single-party majority government and the Parliamentary Bureau:

literally rubber stamps what has been decided beforehand, but not just Government business; it actually controls the backbench business. It has a substantial control in relation to the selection of Members for participation in debates. There is  a degree of control happening in the Scottish Parliament that would not be contemplated here.

Lansley added that the backbenchers in the UK House of Commons have far more autonomy than do their Scottish counterparts, and had they set up a House Business Committee as proposed by the Wright Committee,

it would have undermined the decisions made independently by the Backbench Business Committee by subjecting them to what is effectively another control, which the Whips of the main parties might be held to have control over.

(…)

The conclusion I have reached, and which I think is reflected in much of the evidence that has been given to you, including from those who were directly involved with the Wright Committee, is that as it was presented in the Wright Committee report the model of a House Business Committee is not practical and workable.

Lansley was asked by one member of the Committee if it would be accurate to say that there is a House Business Committee, but it is called “the usual channels”. Lansley agreed, saying that it was between the Whips, himself, the Shadow Leader and his opposite number in the House of Lords, and that they use the terminology “business managers”. When asked by the Chair if there wasn’t then a need for a House Business Committee as such because the business managers currently fulfill the objectives of a House Business Committee, Lansley replied:

I would not characterise it like that. There are a lot of conversations and discussions that take place between the parties through the usual channels and from my point of view, and indeed my opposite number in the House of Lords, on a basis of discussion with Members across the House, I try to establish where expectations in the House lie in business. That includes, for example, meetings with the Chairman of the Backbench Business Committee and meeting the Chair of the Liaison Committee and so on. From that point of view, I see my role as achieving that, and sometimes I do not get it right and sometimes the Members have a bit of a go at me about it. Sometimes, like they did on the Crime and Courts Bill, they say, “Actually, you got it wrong.” We put forward a motion to the House and fortunately the alternative approach did not secure the majority.

In the end, Lansley indicated that the door is not shut on a future House Business Committee, but that “I am looking for further guidance, not least from the report of this Committee.”

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Coalition government is not a marriage

On 7 January 2012, Conservative Party leader David Cameron and Liberal Democrat Party leader Nick Clegg held a joint press conference, which you can watch here, to promote the Coalition government’s Mid-Term Review. That review lists what the government says it has achieved in meeting its coalition agreement and outlines further reforms to come. Both Cameron and Clegg stressed that the coalition would last the full five-year term.

One of the stranger questions asked during the press conference was if the coalition was like a marriage. Indeed, when Cameron and Clegg held their first press conference together back in 2010 to launch the coalition, some of the press coverage read as if it should have been on the Society pages rather than in the Politics section (see for example, this piece, or this one). Cameron answered that question thusly:

“To me it’s not a marriage, it’s a Ronseal deal, it does what it says on the tin – we said we would come together, we said we would form a government, we said we would tackle these problems, we said we would get on with it in a mature and sensible way, and that is exactly what we’ve done.”

This prompted the BBC’s political editor to write a column entitled: Coalition: Official – it’s not a marriage. The column starts:

It’s not a marriage. It never was. They were never in love so they are not renewing their vows.

That, in summary, is the reaction inside Downing Street to how the media, including me, have spoken about today’s joint news conference to be held at Downing Street by David Cameron and Nick Clegg.

Robinson goes on to explain:

The reason this debate about terminology is revealing is that both sides of this coalition have concluded that all this talk of marriage is toxic as it invites hacks like me to conclude that the Tory and Lib Dem partners are still “in love” – something which infuriates many of their natural supporters – or preparing to “divorce” in the run-up to the next election.

The Cameron/Clegg talk of their strengthened “shared purpose” was, of course, always going to make it hard to resist the temptation to ask whether both men are protesting too much. I doubt that many hacks today will resist.

It’s not surprising that the UK media haven’t known exactly how to cover the coalition – it is a rarity in First-Past-the-Post jurisdictions such as the UK. Indeed, the UK media, almost from day one, has regularly speculated not on if the coalition would collapse – that seemed to be a given, but when this would occur. At times it seemed that every single policy was “the one that will tear the coalition apart”, bring about the aforementioned “divorce”.  What the press have failed to understand is that, in the words of the Constitution Unit’s Robert Hazell, is that the UK has a coalition government, but not a coalition Parliament.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have not merged their two parties, therefore it is not surprising – or at least, should not be surprising – that the backbenches of each party often disagree. Such disagreement in the House does not mean that the coalition itself is coming apart at the seams. Indeed, even the parliamentary splits aren’t always divisions between the Lib Dems and the Tories, but divisions within the Conservative Party itself, as this other analysis from the Constitution Unit explains. A coalition is not merger of two parties; it is an attempt by two parties to find common ground in order to govern jointly.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg was questioned by the House of Lords Constitution Committee on 9 January 2012 and addressed many of the issues surrounding the workings of the coalition, in particular how it impacts the doctrine of collective ministerial responsibility. It’s an interesting discussion and I recommend watching it.

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The Politics of Coalition: the video

In support of their book, The Politics of Coalition: How the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Government Works, which was published in June 2012, Dr. Robert Hazell and Dr. Ben Yong of UCL’s Constitution Unit delivered a talk in October highlighting some of their main findings. That talk was recorded, and is now available for general viewing online.

I strongly encourage anyone interested in coalition government and minority parliaments to watch the video (and buy the book). Drs. Hazell and Yong were given wide access to everyone who mattered – including Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, as well as ministers, MPs, Lords, civil servants and others. While they focus primarily on the coalition’s first 15 months in office, the authors also look down the road, raising important lessons political parties in the UK would do well to consider since hung parliaments are likely to be increasingly regular occurrences.

From a Canadian perspective, despite the more recent difficulties the coalition parties have encountered, it’s still very refreshing to know that elsewhere in the world, political parties are both capable of and willing to work together and that the very idea of coalition government isn’t considered something evil or unconstitutional. Canadian political parties, both federal and provincial, would do well to take note.

Where to buy The Politics of Coalition: in the UK, from Amazon.co.uk, in Canada, from Amazon.ca, in the US, from Amazon.com.

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The length of two swords

Recently, the brilliant UK actor Philip Glenister (Life on Mars, Ashes to Ashes, State of Play, Mad Dogs, Hidden, etc.) was interviewed on the Andrew Marr show in connection with his latest role, that of Chief Government Whip in the play “This House“, which is set in 1974, when Labour had a shaky minority government.The discussion turned to the innately adversarial nature of politics in the UK House of Commons, with Marr noting that the play was in some ways an attack on the British parliamentary tradition, that of two sides against each other, and that underneath, there was a dream of a better way of doing things, a call for politics to be more consensual. Glenister noted that UK was “one of the few democracies, just by the layout of our parliament… it’s in a rectangular shape as opposed to in the round. It’s only one of two in the world.”

If Glenister is correct, and there are only two democracies in the world with rectangular Chambers which force government and opposition to face off against each other on opposing sides, then the Canada is the other one. The Canadian House of Commons, the Senate and most of the Canadian provincial and territorial legislatures are also rectangular, the exceptions being the Legislative Assembly of Manitoba, the Legislative Assembly of Nunavut and the Legislative Assembly of the Northwest Territories.

What is being implied here is that layout of the Chamber, government on one side, opposition parties on the other, makes our politics more adversarial because it imposes an “Us vs Them” feel from the outset. This is the same argument put forward by architects in this very interesting article, “The Shape of Debate to Come“.

However, it is debatable to what extent the shape of the chamber might influence how adversarial or consensual debate will be. As Professor White notes in the above article, countries which end up with a more consensual approach to politics also tend to use some form of proportional representation rather than First-Past-the-Post:

But, in an email, he said there was “pretty much zero” chance of more co-operative behaviour in Canadian legislatures. And he put the differences in approach in legislatures such as Wales and Scotland more down to mixed electoral systems, not just first-past-the-post.

He said: “Unquestionably the opposing rows of benches in standard Westminster parliaments reinforces the adversarial nature of the place; for my students I liken it to opposing armies or sports teams squaring off. At the same time, I see seating arrangements as very much secondary to underlying political culture and prevailing political norms.

“The Manitoba [legislature], which is semi-circular, has exceedingly nasty, adversarial partisan politics, and the US Congress these days is hardly a paragon of non-partisanship.”

Because PR makes it very difficult for any one party to form a majority government on its own, this means that coalition government tends to be the norm in countries which use some form of PR, and that reality alone will require parties to work harder to find some sort of consensus. As Prof. White points out, despite sitting in the round, politics in both Manitoba and the US Congress are very partisan and adversarial, and both jurisdictions use FPTP. The Australian House of Representatives is horseshoe-shaped, and politics Down Under is every bit as partisan as it is up here, particularly in the current minority parliament. Australia uses the Alternative Vote to elect its MPs, a voting system which requires voters to rank the candidates on the ballot in order of preference, and to win the seat, a candidate must gain over 50% of the vote, either outright, or through transferred preferences. AV, like FPTP, is not at all proportional, which may explain why political debate in the House of Representatives is partisan and adversarial.

This summer, it was reported that the UK Parliament could be closed for five years for extensive refurbishment, with MPs and Lords “convened in a replica chamber or a conference centre for the duration of the repair work, which could start in 2015.” This immediately alarmed some. The Spectator’s Fraser Nelson raised the threat of some advocating that a new, refurbished chamber would be “a chance to move the MPs to a lifeless, European style semi-circular chamber that supposedly encourages them to co-operate.” Fraser comments on how deathly boring debate is in the Scottish Parliament, which is circular. He does not mention that Scottish Members of Parliament (MSPs) are elected using Mixed-Member Proportional representation (MMP).

But is the electoral system alone enough to determine how consensual or adversarial politics will be in a given jurisdiction? Thomas Carl Lundberg, in his paper “Politics is Still an Adversarial Business: Minority Government and Mixed-Member Proportional Representation in Scotland and New Zealand“, concluded that while both nations introduced MMP in part to bring about a “new politics”, in the end, “the impact of institutional engineering upon the behaviour of politicians has been limited.” New Zealand adopted MMP in 1996, Scotland in 1999. New Zealand has seen the formation of mostly minority governments under MMP (albeit minority coalition government rather than single-party minority government) supported by other smaller parties through confidence and supply agreements, while Scotland has experienced two terms of majority coalition government, one term of single-party  minority government, and most recently, to the surprise of most, a single-party majority government.

The reasons why MMP has had limited success in curbing adversarial politics in Scotland and New Zealand, according to Lundberg are varied. Long before New Zealand adopted MMP, it had a very strong two-party system (Labour on the left and the National Party on the right) and a long history of single-party majority government. With the introduction of MMP in 1996, that didn’t really change. Politics remained quite adversarial between Labour and the National Party, but both of the main parties learned to work with the much smaller parties in order to form governments.

Scotland on the surface may appear more consensual, but there are other tensions at work. Scotland has a true multiparty system, that is one in which “there are three to five relevant parties which are not separated (polarised) by a large or intense ideological distance” (which isn’t the case in New Zealand). Rather, Scotland’s party system “is characterised by two significant cleavages” – class divisions and “the process of building the UK (with England at the centre dominating the periphery composed of Scotland, Wales and Ireland) in the latter.” The two largest parties in Scotland are Labour and the Scottish National Party – both are centre-left, and they have a long, adversarial relationship dating back before devolution, or to quote the former leader of the Scottish Liberal Democrats: “there is a level of visceral hatred between the Nationalists and Labour to this day. So, it just transferred from London to Edinburgh … we just so massively underestimated how important it is for people to have good, personal relationships across all parties.”

Simply put, how adversarial or consensual politics might be in a given democracy will depend on many factors. While the shape of the debating chamber and the voting system used to elect members undoubtedly play a part, changing one or both will not necessarily bring about more polite politics.

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Collective ministerial responsibility and Coalition Government

There appears to be significant interest in the issue of collective ministerial responsibility during Coalition government. For what follows, I will be largely quoting or paraphrasing Vernon Bogdanor’s The Coalition and the Constitution.

Following the formation of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition in May 2010, the Coalition issued its Programme for Government which outlined in detail a full range of policy aims for the new government. It also provided for the explicit abandonment of the doctrine of collective responsibility on one issue in particular – the referendum on the Alternative Vote. The two parties would be whipped to get the Bill implementing the referendum through the House of Commons, but would be free to campaign on opposite sides during the referendum itself.

Elsewhere in the Programme for Government, there were explicit “agreements to differ” on issues such as new nuclear power stations, the renewal of Trident, on married couples’ tax allowances and on university tuition fees.

Agreements to differ were not inventions of the current Coalition. They were first introduced in 1932, to hold together the National Government on the issue of free trade. As Bogdanor writes:

Three Liberal Cabinet ministers had been allowed, not merely to abstain, but to speak and vote, both in the House of Commons and in the country, against the Import Duties bill, which imposed a tariff, being promoted by their Conservative coalition colleagues. The ‘agreement to differ’ was defended by Stanley Baldwin, Lord President of the Council and in effect deputy Prime Minister, as an expedient for a coalition since ‘[t]he fate of no party is at stake in making a fresh precedent for a National Government’. But, he went on to warn, ‘[h]ad the precedent been made for a party Government, it would have been quite new, and it would have been absolutely dangerous for that party’. (pp 51-52)

The doctrine of collective responsibility was suspended twice in the 1970s, not by a coalition government, but by a Labour government, both times on issues involving Europe. Consequently, ‘agreements to differ’ aren’t limited to coalition governments, but are more likely to be needed by coalition government than by single-party government.

What is different about the 2010 agreements to differ is that they are the first to be agreed to before the formation of a government, as part of a Coalition Agreement, rather than after the government is formed, as an expedient way to deal with new and/or unforeseen issues. Bogdanor states that because of this, “the ‘agreements to differ’ of 2010 are, from a constitutional point of view, more soundly based.” (p. 52)

What does an agreement to differ do? Simply put, it allows for the suspension of the convention of collective ministerial responsibility for certain specific issues. Interestingly, Bogdanor posits that there is no reason in principle why a Cabinet – any Cabinet – should not agree to suspend collective responsibility on any issue. The New Zealand Cabinet Manual has accepted the legitimacy of the agreement to differ since 2008, thus governments in New Zealand are free to waive it whenever they wish. Bogdanor does not note, however, that New Zealand has been governed by coalitions since the adoption of Mixed-Member Proportional in 1996, which may explain why agreements to differ are specifically recognized in the Cabinet Manual.

Bogdanor explains that with an agreement to differ, what is actually happening is that the doctrine of collective ministerial responsibility is replaced by collective Cabinet unanimity – in other words, the Cabinet collectively agreed to suspend collective responsibility. Ministers are therefore collectively responsible for the decision to suspend collective responsibility on a particular issue for a limited time.

Bodganor also makes clear that on none of the occasions when past governments have used agreements to differ did it bring credit to the government in question. All it succeeded in doing was to draw attention to important differences within the government. He concludes his discussion of agreements to differ thusly:

Not only a government but any collegiate executive, whether a Board of Directors or the committee of a students’ union, will make itself look ridiculous if it publicly advertises its disagreements. Any such body must therefore weigh up the benefits of employing an agreement to differ rather than trying to discover a compromise formula on which all can unite. It is surely advantageous if a coalition Cabinet can discover such a compromise formula. For the sanction on any departure from the convention of collective responsibility is not constitutional but political. It lies in the danger of public ridicule. (pp. 53-54)

I highly recommend The Coalition and the Constitution. It can be purchased in from Amazon UK and Amazon Canada.

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Inside the New Zealand House of Representatives

Like its Australian counterpart, the New Zealand House of Representatives’ debating chamber is arranged in a horseshoe shape. The Chamber measures 19.3 by 13.12 metres, which is  smaller than the Canadian  and UK Houses of Commons. As in the other chambers, the Speaker sits at one end, on a dais, and the Clerk and other Table officers are seated at a Table in front of and below the Speaker’s Chair.

The Members sit at desks arranged in three to five tiers. The MPs who are members of the Government side sit on the Speaker’s right, with the members of the executive nearest to the Speaker. The members of the Opposition parties sit on the left, with the members of the shadow cabinet nearest the Speaker, as we can see in this image from Te Ara – the Encyclopedia of New Zealand:

The Prime Minister, Deputy Prime Minister, Leader of the Opposition and deputy to the Leader of the Opposition sit facing each other in recognised front bench seats. Their respective whips are seated immediately behind them. Other Ministers and members are allocated seats within the area of the Chamber occupied by the party to which they belong on a basis determined by the party. As far as practicable, each party occupies a block of seats in the Chamber, so that its members are seated contiguously. It is also a recognised practice that, if at all possible, every party leader should have a front-bench seat. Because New Zealand uses Mixed-Member Proportional voting rather than First-Past-The-Post, coalition government is the norm and so the government side of the House will include all of the parties forming the coalition.

In this image, we note that the horseshoe shape of the Chamber is divided at three points by gangways. One gangway at the far end of the Chamber leads beyond the bar of the House to an exit. The other two gangways are on either side of the Chamber. The one on the Speaker’s right leads into a lobby known as the Ayes Lobby, and the one on the left leads into the Noes Lobby. New Zealand MPs used to use these lobbies for divisions as is done in the British House of Commons, but since adopting MMP voting in 1996, the lobbies are used only for what are called “personal” votes. Party votes – which would be the equivalent of a whipped vote in other parliaments – don’t even require that all MPs be present. If a party indicates that is it voting in favour of a bill or motion, then a number of votes equivalent to the number of MPs that party has is attributed to the Ayes. Because of this, even the Speaker votes in New Zealand, which is not the case in other Westminster-style parliaments. The Speaker’s vote is included in any party vote cast and the Speaker votes in a personal vote, though without going into the lobbies personally – the Speaker’s vote is communicated to the teller from the Speaker’s chair. Because the lobbies are rarely used for divisions, they are now set aside for the exclusive use of members while the House is sitting as a place where they can go to relax.

Ministerial advisers are able to converse with their Minister from a bench situated immediately to the right of the Speaker’s chair (not shown in the diagram). Immediately to the left of the chair there are seats available for former members of Parliament, heads of diplomatic missions and visiting members of overseas parliaments.

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Some parliamentary reforms to look forward to in 2012

The BBC’s parliamentary correspondent, Mark D’Arcy, has an interesting look ahead  at what to expect at Westminster in 2012, with two items in particular worthy of special attention.

The first will be a review of the Backbench Business Committee. I have written a number of posts about this new committee, and many readers have frequently asked if the Backbench Business Committee has been a success. By most accounts, it has, which is why the review will take on added importance. As D’Arcy notes:

While the Leader of the House, Sir George Young, and his Lib Dem deputy, David Heath, are both convinced reformers, not everyone is an unalloyed fan of the new empowerment of backbenchers.

“Too keen on confrontational debates”, murmur some voices. “Too ready to schedule debates on a Thursday on voteable motions”, complain others. They might want to clip the committee’s wings by limiting its powers in some way.

It is not clear when this review will take place – D’Arcy has it listed under the April to October timeframe.

He also writes that both the chair and members of the Backbench Business Committee will be up for re-election, probably some time in June:

having realised the power it wields, committee places and perhaps even the chair will be hotly contested.

In particular, I’d be slightly surprised if the contingent of Tory awkward squaddies on the committee remained unscathed.

The other item of note is in some ways the counterpart to the Backbench Business Committee: the creation of a House Business Committee. The Coalition Government had promised to institute a House Business Committee by 2013, therefore in order to meet that deadline, moves in that direction will have to occur this year.

What is a House Business Committee and what will it do? In theory at least (since nothing has yet been proposed), it will be a Committee of the House of Commons, with (one assumes) an elected chair and members similar to most of the other Select Committees, which will organize most, if not all, other debates in the House of Commons. This might not sound particularly important, but it is very close to revolutionary change since it is currently the Government which has full control in deciding the House’s business agenda. As D’Arcy explains:

A house business committee would decide how much time would be devoted to particular bills, which matters more than you might imagine.

In the last Parliament [under Labour] it was quite usual to see heavily-amended legislation hammered through the Commons in a single day’s debate on “remaining stages” – report and third reading – with the result that scores of important changes were voted through unscrutinised.

To its credit, this government has avoided that particular practice – but a more open approach to scheduling debates, something more than the normal carve-up between government and official opposition, could still produce improvements.

The key would be that the agenda for coming weeks was presented as a voteable motion – so MPs who were unhappy that not enough time was being devoted to some bill or debate could attempt to amend it.

Not everyone likes this idea. “I’m not having the business of the House decided by (shudder) Peter Bone,” one upwardly mobile backbencher told me.

Some fear the government would lose the ability to put its bills before the House – defying the time-honoured maxim that the government “must get its business”.

Others fear that a house business committee would amount to no more than the same old backroom dealing, but clothed with a little extra legitimacy because a few establishment grandees had been in the room when it was sealed.

But for those who want the Commons to control its own business, and not have it handed down from on high, the key will be that voteable motion.

They argue that the prospect of being over-ridden by a vote in the House will help ensure the concerns of backbenchers are not ignored.

This innovation should be of great interest to Canadian readers, particularly given the current Canadian government’s propensity to curtail debate through the use of time allocation and closure motions. This is one initiative that I will follow with great interest, and keep readers updated on developments as they occur.

One other item of note will be the Coalition’s draft bill on Lords’ reform. That draft bill is currently being scrutinised by a committee of MPs and peers, and the committee is due to report in March, which means there would be a Lords Reform Bill available to be put into the coalition’s next Queen’s Speech (what Canadians call the Speech from the Throne).

All in all, for those interested in parliamentary and procedural reform, the coming year at Westminster promises to be an interesting one.

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