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The Coalition and the Constitution

Vernon Bogdanor questions Nick Clegg's claim that the coalition's constitutional reform programme will bring about "the biggest shake-up of our democracy since 1832". His argument is that while the fact of the coalition's existence marks a bold change in modern constitutional practice, the programme of political reform set out so far by the Tories and Liberal Democrats is in essence modest tinkering.

Bogdanor makes a strong case for this in respect of the two reforms he analyses in depth: the Alternative Vote and the Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill. The Alternative Vote may not come to pass, but even if it is endorsed in the forthcoming referendum, its essential impact is likely to be to secure the election of a small number more Liberal Democrat MPs than with an equivalent vote under the existing first-past-the-post (FPTP) system. However, working against this outcome is the impact of two other reforms, enacted alongside AV at the insistence of the Conservatives: the reduction in size of the House of Commons and the enforcement of a single electoral quota for parliamentary constituencies. Both measures are unfavourable to Lib Dem electoral prospects.

Bogdanor concludes that the effects of AV will not be very great. "It will not remedy the geographical imbalance in representation that is perhaps the greatest weakness of first-past-the-post," he writes. "It will not ensure that the Conservatives are better represented in Scotland and Wales, or that Labour is better represented in the south of England."

As for fixed-term parliaments, the provisions of the Fixed-Term Parliaments Bill render them anything but fixed. Crucially, if a government loses a vote of confidence in the Commons and a new government commanding a parliamentary majority cannot be formed within 14 days, a general election takes place. This gives prime ministers de facto recourse to an early election even if they have a parliamentary majority; they simply have to engineer defeat on a motion of confidence, rather than call an election by using the royal prerogative, as now.

More to the point, the law would also leave the Lib Dems with the power to force an early election in the present parliament, because, were they to withdraw from the coalition and vote against the Conservatives on a motion of confidence, the government would almost certainly fall. Although it is theoretically possible that a Lab-Lib government could then be formed, in practice an election is likely to be preferred by all parties. As Bogdanor concludes:

The supposed power of "parliament" to dissolve itself is the power of the party leaders to decide to dissolve parliament and whip their followers accordingly.
While the act may conceivably alter the conditions under which political leaders can seek a dissolution, it is hardly likely to give more power to backbench MPs or to strengthen parliament.

I agree that these two reforms are hardly a programme for a "post-bureaucratic age" that will devolve power from Westminster and Whitehall to the people. For the most part they represent deckchair-moving between politicians inside Westminster itself.

Reform of the House of Lords, which Bogdanor also analyses, could extend elections and accountability to pastures new. But there is as yet no coalition plan for Lords reform, and Clegg and David Cameron have yet to agree that any such plan will be backed up by a pre-legislative referendum or a threat to the Lords to use the Parliament Act if peers try to defeat a change enacted by the Commons. It will pro­bably require either or both of these battering rams for the existing nominated upper house to be replaced by an elected one.

However, one of the coalition's proposed constitutional reforms, not considered by Bogdanor, has great democratic potential. In May 2012, under the Localism Bill, referendums will be held in the 12 largest cities in England outside London on whether to follow the capital and introduce directly elected executive mayors, replacing the existing indirectly elected leader-and-cabinet model of local government.

These mayors could reinvigorate city government and bring about substantial devolution. The Localism Bill grants no additional powers to cities with mayors, but city-wide mayoral elections, and the mandate they confer on the people's choices, who will inevitably become national as well as local figures, could significantly increase the profile, authority and accountability of city leaders. If they are any good, mayors will be in a far stronger position than existing councillors to bargain with Whitehall and Westminster.
I have visited most of the cities scheduled to hold referendums to gauge the appetite for change. Unsurprisingly, there is far stronger support in cities where the general view is that local leadership is weak and ineffective (such as Birmingham and Bristol) than in those where leadership has been stronger and more effective (such as Manchester). I would be surprised if a few cities in the first category do not vote for executive mayors. If they do, this could turn out to be the most consequential reform in the coalition's constitutional programme.

Bogdanor's excellent study focuses largely on the constitutional implications of the coalition government. He notes that every other hung parliament in the past century led not to a coalition, but to a minority government, usually followed by an early second election. The general expectation was that the same would happen in 2010.

It didn't. More remarkably, a united Liberal Democrat party went into coalition with the Conservatives, an outcome that few outside Clegg's entourage thought a serious possibility before the event. The coalition intentions of the Lib Dems will be a critical issue in future elections. Democracy demands no less. l

Andrew Adonis is director of the Institute for Government

The Coalition and the Constitution
Vernon Bogdanor
Hart Publishing, 162pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 03 January 2010 issue of the New Statesman, New Issue