The Syria vote was a triumph of parliamentary sovereignty

Votes such as last night's are no longer mere rubber stamps but a binding convention that can change the foreign policy of a government.

There are several significant angles to last night's Commons vote on Syria. Foreign policy experts look at Britain’s role in the world and our relationship with the United States; domestic politicos look through the prism of party politics, asking who came out better between Miliband and Cameron. Meanwhile, Syria continues to suffer and we can only now hope that inaction is the lesser of two evils.

But amid the fallout, easily obscured by the more obvious issues of the day, is a seismic shift in the British constitution, an evolution that has crept up quietly but which serves to empower Parliament and constrain the executive. 

While the Prime Minister officially retains the Royal Prerogative to declare war, it is clear that this power is now tempered by the convention that Parliament must vote on the matter beforehand.

Previous votes on Iraq and Libya, while contentious, saw the government of the day validated by the Commons. Before this it had been understood that the executive had a right and duty to declare war as it saw fit. The real test of this innovation was whether a government convinced of the need for military action would respect a vote that opposed it.

The fact that Cameron had to promise the House that it would have a second vote, the fact he has now changed course so dramatically – while retaining the right to declare war - shows that votes like this are not simply rubber stamps but have become a binding convention that can change the foreign policy of a government.

Ironically, by calling an unprecedented vote on Iraq, Tony Blair, the most presidential of prime ministers, set in place an innovation that created a precedent largely devolving 'war powers' from the executive to the legislature.

Frustrating for many, our uncodified constitution is nevertheless pragmatic and far from conventions being ignored (as many fear has increasingly happened) a new one that curtails government power has clearly entrenched itself.

In the Lords, former generals, admirals, defence secretaries and ambassadors urged caution, while the debate in the Commons was marked by many MPs speaking of their constituents’ concerns. Some cheap politicking (from both benches) aside, the standard of debate was high and the tone respectful.

Whether one agrees with the outcome or not, the vote was a reassertion of Parliamentary sovereignty – a message to the executive, but also to the United States, that in the United Kingdom it is with Parliament, not the Prime Minister, that ultimate power resides. Indeed, many MPs spoke of this as a retreat from British presidentialism and a return to the PM being primus inter pares.

It is now unthinkable that Cameron would disregard Parliament’s wishes. Likewise, his deference to the Commons and his claim to have listened further entrenches the precedent that any future Prime Minister would have to call a similar vote on military action.

In my view, reserve powers of Royal Prerogative should remain with the Executive in case a Prime Minster must act immediately before explaining himself or herself to the House. But it is now clear that any premeditated military action will rightly require the approval of Parliament.

The British constitution is something that has grown organically over the last thousand years. It has survived because it has evolved; its imperfections have been mitigated by its flexibility. This latest stage in its evolution has something to say of our present and of our past. It speaks to a country disillusioned with foreign interventions, war-weary and cautious of unknown consequences. But fundamentally it also reasserts an ancient British principle: Parliament is sovereign.

James Hallwood is associate director of The Constitution Society @jhallwood

"A message to the executive, but also to the United States, that in the United Kingdom it is with Parliament, not the Prime Minister, that ultimate power resides". Photograph: Getty Images.

James Hallwood is associate director of The Constitution Society @jhallwood

Photo: Getty Images
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Britain's shrinking democracy

10 million people - more than voted for Labour in May - will be excluded from the new electoral roll.

Despite all the warnings the government is determined to press ahead with its decision to close the existing electoral roll on December 1. This red letter day in British politics is no cause for celebration. As the Smith Institute’s latest report on the switch to the new system of voter registration shows, we are about to dramatically shrink our democracy.  As many as 10 million people are likely to vanish from the electoral register for ever – equal to 20 per cent of the total electorate and greater than Labour’s entire vote in the 2015 general election. 

Anyone who has not transferred over to the new individual electoral registration system by next Tuesday will be “dropped off” the register. The independent Electoral Commission, mindful of how the loss of voters will play out in forthcoming elections, say they need at least another year to ensure the new accuracy and completeness of the registers.

Nearly half a million voters (mostly the young and those in private rented homes) will disappear from the London register. According to a recent HeraldScotland survey around 100,000 residents in Glasgow may also be left off the new system. The picture is likely to be much the same in other cities, especially in places where there’s greater mobility and concentrations of students.

These depleted registers across the UK will impact more on marginal Labour seats, especially  where turnout is already low. Conversely, they will benefit Tories in future local, Euro and general elections. As the Smith Institute report observers, Conservative voters tend to be older, home owners and less transient – and therefore more likely to appear on the electoral register.

The government continues to ignore the prospect of skewed election results owing to an incomplete electoral registers. The attitude of some Tory MPs hardly helping. For example, Eleanor Laing MP (the former shadow minister for justice) told the BBC that “if a young person cannot organize the filling in of a form that registers them to vote, they don’t deserve the right to vote”.  Leaving aside such glib remarks, what we do know is the new registers will tend to favour MPs whose support is found in more affluent rural and semi-rural areas which have stable populations.  

Even more worrying, the forthcoming changes to MPs constituencies (under the Boundary Review) will be based on the new electoral register. The new parliamentary constituencies will be based not on the voting population, but on an inaccurate and incomplete register. As Institute’s report argues, these changes are likely to unjustly benefit UKIP and the Conservative party.

That’s not to say that the voter registration system doesn’t need reforming.  It clearly does. Indeed, every evidence-based analysis of electoral registers over the last 20 years shows that both accuracy and completeness are declining – the two features of any electoral register that make it credible or not. But, the job must be done properly.  Casually leaving 10m voters off the electoral resister hardly suggests every effort has been made.

The legitimacy of our democratic system rests on ensuring that everyone can exercise their right to vote. This is a task which shouldn’t brook complacency or compromise.  We should be aiming for maximum voter registration, not settling for a system where one in five drop off the register.