Constitutional reform / Views on the government’s reforms

Views on the government's reforms

As previously noted, the constitutional reforms originally agreed by the Coalition can be divided into three types. Firstly, there are reforms that represent changes to the party-based representative model of democracy at Westminster. These include reform of the Commons electoral system, changes to the composition of the House of Lords and a move to fixed parliamentary terms. Secondly, there are reforms that represent a bigger challenge to a party-based model of representative democracy, since they potentially weaken the role of political parties. These include efforts to increase the number of directly elected mayors, the introduction of directly elected police and crime commissioners throughout England and Wales, and changes to the way political parties choose their election candidates. Thirdly, there is a cluster of reform proposals that represent potentially the biggest challenge of all to representative democracy, by providing for direct citizen involvement in decision-making. These include the wider use of referendums and granting voters the power to 'recall' errant MPs.

Parliamentary democracy

As we have already noted, the formation of a coalition after the 2010 election itself represented something of a constitutional innovation. This would, thus, seem a good place to start our examination of attitudes towards the government's proposed reforms of the system of parliamentary democracy at Westminster. During the course of the last 30 years British Social Attitudes has regularly asked respondents whether they prefer single party or coalition government:

Which do you think would generally be better for Britain nowadays …

… to have a government at Westminster formed by one political party on its own,

or, to have a government at Westminster formed by two political parties together -
in coalition?

undefinedFigure 3.1 shows that on most occasions since 1983 single party government has proved to be the more popular. Initially the formation of the Coalition did little
 to disturb this picture; in 2010 just under half (48 per cent) said they preferred single party government, while two-fifths (40 per cent) favoured a coalition. Early experience of the reality of a governing coalition appeared neither to have won hearts and minds for the idea nor generated a strong adverse reaction.

This, though, is no longer the case. The proportion preferring a coalition has fallen away to just 28 per cent and is now lower than ever before. It might be thought this change is simply the consequence of an adverse partisan reaction among opposition Labour Party supporters. Indeed, those who identify with Labour are now particularly opposed to coalitions, by a margin of 71 per cent to 23 per cent. Moreover, support for single party government among this group is now 10 percentage points higher than a year ago. However, this increase is almost matched by an eight point rise (from 53 per cent to 61 per cent) among Conservative identifiers and even a six point increase (from 32 per cent to 38 per cent) among Liberal Democrat identifiers. Disenchantment with the idea of coalition has evidently spread well beyond the ranks of opposition supporters.
 

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A key issue in the negotiations that led to the formation of the Coalition was how elections to the House of Commons should be conducted in future. The Liberal Democrats preferred proportional representation, while the Conservatives wished to keep 'first-past-the-post'. In the event, the two parties bridged the gap between them by promising a referendum on a relatively minimal reform, the Alternative Vote. Although the Alternative Vote is far from being a proportional system, one argument put forward by opponents is that its introduction would make 'hung' parliaments - and thus coalition administrations - a more likely (and undesirable) outcome of elections. Given the resounding 'no' vote (68 per cent) when the referendum was held in May 2011, perhaps this argument resonated particularly strongly with the public, thereby accounting for the decline in support for coalitions?

The referendum certainly coincided with a sharp decline in support for electoral reform. For more than a quarter of a century British Social Attitudes has regularly asked the
following question:

Some people say we should change the voting system for general elections to the UK House of Commons to allow smaller political parties to get a fairer share of MPs. Others say that we should keep the voting system for the House of Commons as it is to produce effective government. Which view comes closer to your own ...

... that we should change the voting system for the House of Commons,

or, keep it as it is?

Unlike some differently worded questions (Curtice et al., 2007), this question has typically found no more than between a third and two-fifths in favour of change (see Figure 3.2). However, in the immediate wake of the indeterminate outcome produced by the 2010 election, support passed the 40 per cent mark on this measure for the first time. But then between 2010 and 2011 it slumped to an all time low of just 27 per cent.
 

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undefinedIt is, however, less clear that the historically low level of support for electoral reform is directly linked to the fall in support for coalition government. For example, in 2010 only 49 per cent of those in favour of electoral reform also said they preferred coalition government, a figure not markedly higher than the 38 per cent level of support for coalitions among those who preferred to keep the existing voting system. On these figures any decline in support for electoral reform would have only a minimal impact on support for coalition government. What in practice has happened is that support for coalitions has dropped since 2010 among both those in favour of electoral reform (down to 41 per cent) and those who are opposed (to 23 per cent). Evidently, many people have changed their mind about the merits of coalition government irrespective of their views on the merits of electoral reform. All in all, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the current administration at Westminster has come to be regarded as a poor advertisement for coalition government irrespective of its particular partisan composition or the debate about the merits of electoral reform.

While the outcome of the referendum has ensured that the electoral system used in elections to the House of Commons will not be changed for the foreseeable future, the coalition government has made a significant change to the timing of general elections. In future, they will take place at fixed, five-yearly intervals, rather than at the Prime Minister's discretion. This move is strongly backed by the British public. We asked:

Which of the statements on this card comes closest to your view ...

... General elections should be held on a fixed date every four or five years,

or, the Prime Minister should be able to hold a general election whenever
he or she decides?

More than four times as many people prefer fixed legislative terms (79 per cent) to flexible ones (16 per cent). However, this is to overstate the popularity of the government's particular reform. For when asked how often elections should be held, only 28 per cent back the five-year parliamentary terms adopted by the Coalition. No less than 43 per cent feel that elections should occur every four years, while 28 per cent say that three-year terms are long enough. There is evidently considerable scepticism about allowing politicians the luxury of long periods in office without having to face the electorate.

The Coalition's reform programme originally extended to the House of Lords, settling on proposals, since withdrawn, for replacing its almost wholly appointed membership with a largely but not wholly elected second chamber (Cabinet Office, 2011; UK Parliament, 2012). We sought to ascertain where the public stood on this debate by asking respondents what balance of elected and appointed members should sit in the Upper House:

Some people say that having appointed members brings valuable expertise to the House of Lords. Other people argue that members of the House of Lords should be elected for it to be democratic. Which comes closest to your view?

All members of the House of Lords should be appointed

Most members of the House of Lords should be appointed

Roughly equal numbers should be appointed and elected

Most members of the House of Lords should be elected

All members of the House of Lords should be elected

The principle of an elected chamber is widely supported, although not necessarily to the exclusion of some appointed members. More than one in four (27 per cent) believe that all members of the Lords should be elected, while another 16 per cent would like to see most members elected. By contrast, just 16 per cent favour the appointment of most or all members of the Lords, although a further 29 per cent would prefer equal numbers of elected and appointed members. Thus, while there is relatively little support for a wholly appointed house, as exists at present, there is no public consensus about what the alternative should be.

undefinedOne argument put forward for retaining at least some appointed members in the Lords is that it would help ensure the House retained the professional expertise required to scrutinise legislation effectively. There appears to be widespread public sympathy for this argument. As many as 55 per cent support the proposition that "the House of Lords should consist of independent experts, not party politicians", while only seven per cent disagree. However, the public does not necessarily regard this as an argument in favour of an appointed House. Rather, those who favour a chamber composed of independent experts are actually more likely (34 per cent) to support a wholly elected Lords than are those who disagree (24 per cent). Perhaps there is some scepticism that appointment would enhance the inclusion of experts rather than party politicians in the Upper House.

In summary, none of the reforms advanced by the Coalition for changing the practice of representative government at Westminster appears to strike a resounding chord with the public. The principle of fixed-term parliaments is widely supported, but people would prefer that elections were held every four, rather than five, years. The principle of electing members to the House of Lords is widely endorsed, but there is no consensus about how far the principle should apply. Meanwhile, following the defeat of proposals for Alternative Vote elections to the House of Commons, public support for electoral reform has never been lower. Even the idea of political parties governing in coalition has never had so few friends. All in all it seems unlikely that the Coalition's Westminster reforms can contribute much to restoring public trust and confidence in the political system.

'Presidential' reforms at local level

Another striking feature of the Coalition's various constitutional initiatives has been an enthusiasm to invest executive authority at local level in a single directly elected individual. The first steps towards the introduction of such 'presidential-style' offices were taken by the previous Labour government, which introduced a directly elected mayor for a new London-wide authority, while inviting local authorities and their electorates in other areas of England and Wales to initiate a referendum on creating such a post in their area. However, of 37 local referendums on adopting elected mayors held while Labour was in office, just 12 produced a majority in favour. Moreover, voters in one of these localities - Stoke-on-Trent - subsequently chose to abolish their mayor (Hope and Wanduragala, 2010). Nevertheless, the model was revived by the coalition government, which decided that referendums should be held on introducing the system in 12 of the largest English cities. More controversially, the government legislated to create the new office of elected police and crime commissioner. Each of the 41 police authorities in England and Wales outside London (where the position is held by the directly elected mayor) is to be headed by a police commissioner, who will set the strategic direction for local policing while being accountable to local citizens through the ballot box.

undefinedFor their supporters, one of the virtues of directly elected mayors and police commissioners is that they open the way for politically independent figures to win elected office. Indeed, in 30 mayoral elections held up to and including May 2012, 11 were won by a figure not aligned at the time to a political party.3 However, the concept of directly elected mayors receives a mixed response from the public across Britain as a whole. The idea that mayors can act as advocates for their locality secures widespread assent. Six in ten (58 per cent) agree that directly elected mayors mean "there is someone who can speak up for the whole area", while only 15 per cent disagree. However, faced with a commonly-heard criticism that having a mayor "gives too much power to one person", more people agree (35 per cent) than disagree (27 per cent). Many people, too, remain unconvinced that an elected mayor "makes it easier to get things done". While those who agree (37 per cent) outnumber those who disagree (21 per cent), another 38 per cent say they neither agree nor disagree.4 All in all, perhaps it should not have come as too much of a surprise that when, in May 2012, referendums on introducing a directly elected mayor were held at the Coalition's behest in 10 of the largest English cities, only one - Bristol - voted
in favour.5

The public exhibits a similar lack of clear or consistent support for the idea of directly elected police and crime commissioners. Our questions, fielded for the first time in the latest survey, ran as follows:

It has been suggested that every police force should be headed by a commissioner who is elected by all the people in the area and who would be responsible for setting priorities for how the area is policed. Please say how much you agree or disagree that having locally elected police commissioners would ...

... ensure the police concentrated on tackling those crimes that most concern
    ordinary people?

... result in too much political interference in the way the police do their job?

undefinedThere is widespread assent that elected police commissioners will ensure the police focus on crimes that are of greatest public concern. Indeed, 65 per cent agree that they will deliver this benefit, while just 17 per cent disagree. Yet one of the key doubts expressed about the new arrangements - not least by the police themselves - that they will result in undue political interference, receives an echo too. More people (38 per cent) agree that directly elected commissioners will bring about too much political interference than disagree (29 per cent), while another 28 per cent neither agree nor disagree.

There is, then, no consistent support for the Coalition's proposals to extend direct candidate-centred elections for local leaders. True, people seem to believe that elected mayors and police commissioners can provide stronger local advocacy and responsiveness. But alongside this run concerns that these elected posts might give undue political power to individuals and compromise the independence of the police service.

If undue political interference is a concern for some people, how much appetite is there for opening up political parties themselves to greater popular involvement by giving the public a greater say in whom they nominate in the first place? Before the 2010 general election, the Conservative Party held 'open' primary elections in a number of constituencies. Ordinary citizens as well as party members and officials could vote in a ballot to determine who should be the party's local parliamentary candidate. The coalition agreement between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats (Cabinet Office, 2010) pledged to extend such primaries to 200 constituencies in advance of the next general election, although the commitment has yet to be implemented. To assess support for this idea we asked:

Before each general election, each of the political parties has to choose someone as their candidate to be the local MP. Who do you think should have a say in deciding who stands as a party's candidate? Should it be …

… only those who are paid-up members of the party locally,

all those locally who usually vote for the party,

or, everyone in the constituency, whether they usually vote for the party or not?

The idea of giving citizens some say in the selection of party candidates is popular in principle but, as we saw with elections to the House of Lords, there is no consensus on how far it should extend. While 30 per cent think all voters should be able to take part in such primaries, another 28 per cent want participation limited to those who usually vote for the party. Meanwhile, 23 per cent are happy to leave the decision to party members, while a further 19 per cent could not decide between these options.

Direct democracy

Thus, as in the case of reform of party-based representative government at Westminster, measures that focus greater attention on the merits of individual candidates rather than just their parties largely receive no more than lukewarm, and certainly far from uncritical, support. But is this also true of reforms that give the public a more direct say in decision making? How, in particular, do people view the increased use of referendums and the coalition government's plans for the recall of Members of Parliament?

Since coming to power, the Coalition has both held and made provision for a variety of referendums. We have already referred to the referendum in May 2011 that rejected the Alternative Vote for elections to the House of Commons, and the referendums held in May 2012 in some English cities on whether or not to introduce directly elected mayors. In addition, voters in Wales were invited in March 2011 to decide whether or not their National Assembly should assume full legislative powers in its devolved areas of responsibility. The Coalition has, meanwhile, legislated for a referendum to be held before any further significant transfer of powers to the European Union can take place. It has also required any local council in England wishing to increase the council tax by more than a government-recommended maximum to secure the assent of its voters in a referendum. At one stage, the Coalition also proposed to enable voters in any local authority to initiate an advisory referendum vote on an issue of local concern. However, this proposal was dropped following opposition in the House of Lords, not least because of the expense of holding such ballots (Lords HC Deb 10 October 2011, cols.1406-1413).

undefinedAll these referendum proposals are popular. For example, 67 per cent agree that "a council that wants to increase the council tax by more than inflation should have to get a majority vote in favour through a local referendum", while just 13 per cent disagree.6 People appear equally keen on being able to initiate a local referendum on issues where there is "a lot of local concern"; two-thirds (67 per cent) are in favour while only 16 per cent object. Again, 67 per cent say voters rather than MPs should decide in a referendum "whether or not Britain should agree to giving more powers to the European Union". Meanwhile, as many as 69 per cent reckon voters should directly determine the electoral system used in House of Commons elections, while no less than 76 per cent support holding a referendum to decide "whether or not a town or city should have a directly elected mayor".

One Coalition reform whose origins lie directly in the MPs' expenses scandal is the proposal that voters should be able to 'recall' their MP in the event of 'serious wrongdoing'. If an MP received a custodial sentence7 or was adjudged guilty of wrongdoing in a vote of the whole House of Commons, a by-election would be called in their constituency provided that more than 10 per cent of the local electorate signed a petition demanding one. No less than 88 per cent feel voters should be able to compel an MP who has "broken the rules" to resign and fight a by-election.8 However, public support for this approach goes well beyond what the government envisages; six out of ten people (58 per cent) feel that MPs should also be subject to recall in cases where no rules have been broken but where voters think the MP is "not doing a very good job".9

In contrast to the rather muted response to the coalition government's proposals for reforming representative democracy, those reforms that offer an element of direct democracy are generally favourably received. The public gives solid backing to reforms that give them the right to vote to decide certain local and national issues, as well as to require errant MPs to face the judgement of the ballot box. What, however, is less clear is whether the government's direct democracy reforms go far enough to satisfy the public mood. Most people support more powerful recall measures for MPs than the Coalition is proposing, as well as local policy referendums of a kind that the government has now dropped. We might note, too, that 61 per cent believe that any decision to reintroduce the death penalty should be decided by a referendum as well. Nevertheless, of all the constitutional reforms so far enacted or announced by the government, it seems that its direct democracy measures are the ones best placed to help restore the public's trust in politics. We still need, however, to apply the second of two key tests we identified at the start of this chapter, that is to assess whether the government's reforms appeal particularly to those who are currently most sceptical about government and politics.

Do the government's reforms appeal to the less trusting?

In Table 3.3 we compare the level of support for the various elements of the Coalition's reform programme among those with low and high levels of trust. The measure of trust we employ is a scale based on the combined answers to three questions introduced earlier on how much people trust the Westminster parliament, politicians and governments.10 Those deemed to have 'low trust' comprise the one fifth or so with the lowest levels of trust on this scale, while those with 'high trust' are the one fifth with the highest levels. The difference between the two groups in their levels of support for each reform is shown in the third column of the table; positive scores indicate that the reform in question is more popular among those with low levels of trust.

undefinedMany of the Coalition's reforms are particularly appealing to those with low levels of trust in government and politics. Such voters are, for example, relatively keen on an elected second chamber (albeit a fully elected one) and on allowing the public to choose a party's candidate in a primary election (so long as all voters can participate). However, in neither case does the measure command majority support among those with low levels of trust. Meanwhile, the idea of fixed-term parliaments with elections every five years appears no more popular among those with low levels of trust than those with high levels, while the pattern is actually reversed when it comes to directly elected mayors. People with low levels of trust apparently do not regard having more visible and powerful local politicians as the solution to Britain's political ills.

The one type of reform that is consistently both absolutely and relatively popular among the sceptical is that which gives citizens a direct say in decisions. This is especially true of citizen-initiated local referendums and referendums on transferring powers to the European Union. Also of particular appeal to those with low levels of trust is the proposal to allow voters to recall their MP, though this difference is more pronounced when it comes to recalling MPs who have not necessarily broken any rules but are simply seen as doing a poor job.
 

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undefinedIt seems that people who are already sceptical of politicians and governments are particularly receptive to constitutional changes that reallocate decision-making power away from elected representatives towards ordinary citizens. Moreover, these links are not artefacts, concealing more important relationships between the attributes of individuals and their support for constitutional change. Further statistical analysis summarised in the appendix to this chapter shows that even when we take into account a variety of other possible reasons as to why people might support or oppose constitutional reform, the patterns illustrated in the difference column of Table 3.3 are largely still evident. In only two cases - the concern that elected police commissioners will introduce political interference
 into policing and the introduction of fixed five-year parliamentary terms - are people's reactions largely unrelated to their existing levels of trust. Meanwhile, as we would expect from Table 3.3, there is a negative relationship between distrust and people's views on the merits or otherwise of directly elected mayors (people who are sceptical of politicians are less, not more, likely to favour elected mayors). But in the case of all other reforms, distrust is positively related to support for reform, indicating that support for constitutional change is more likely to be found among the ranks of the sceptical than among those who are more trusting of politicians. However, this relationship is particularly strong in respect of all of the various measures of direct democracy, namely, giving voters the power to recall MPs and holding referendums on both local and national issues.

Notes
  1. This picture of low trust in politicians relative to other professional actors, such as the police, is confirmed by data from other polling organisations, such as MORI's 'Trust in Professions' surveys (Ipsos-MORI, 2011).
  2. Readings are indicated by data marker; the line indicates an overall pattern but where there is no data marker the line cannot be taken as a reading for that year.
  3. These figures have been collated from various House of Commons Library papers supplemented by data from the New Local Government Network.
  4. Nor have attitudes to elected mayors improved since their introduction in 2000. The same questions about speaking up for the area, getting things done and giving too much power to a single person were also asked on British Social Attitudes in 1998 and 2000. The proportions agreeing that mayors speak up for the area and help gets things done were no higher in 2011 than in 1998, while the proportion agreeing that mayors give too much power to a single person fell by only 10 percentage points, from 45 per cent in 1998 to 35 per cent in 2011.
  5. Two other of England's largest cities, Leicester and Liverpool, had previously decided to introduce a directly elected mayor without holding a referendum. In four other referendums on directly elected mayors held since the 2010 general election, the proposal was approved in two cases (Salford and Tower Hamlets) and rejected in a third (Great Yarmouth). Doncaster voted in May 2012 to keep its elected mayor.
  6. The Coalition's proposal is that a referendum should be held when a council wishes to increase the level of council tax by more than a limit specified by the government. To simplify matters, we couched this as referring to an above inflation increase. Note though that voters are not necessarily keen that decisions about the council tax should routinely be referred to them. Only 43 per cent say that decisions about the council tax should be made by voters in a referendum, while 52 per cent would prefer the decisions to be made by their elected council. It would appear that, while voters are happy to have a referendum as a potential bulwark against a particularly large increase in council tax, they are not sure they trust their fellow citizens to make decisions about the tax on a regular basis.
  7. Strictly speaking this provision would apply to custodial sentences of 12 months or less, as longer sentences already result in automatic disqualification from membership of the Commons.
  8. The full question wording was:

    It has been suggested that sometimes voters should be able to force their local MP to resign and fight a by-election. First of all, say that the MP has broken the rules. How much do you agree or disagree that in those circumstances voters should be able to force their MP to resign?

    Respondents were invited to answer using a five point scale ranging from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree".
  9. The full question wording was:

    And what if the MP had not broken any rules, but voters thought he or she was not doing a very good job? Should voters be able to force their MP to resign?

    Again respondents were invited to answer using a five point scale.
  10. The scale was created by adding the scores (ranging from 1 to 4) across the three items and dividing the resulting total by three. Multi-item measures of complex concepts like trust are usually held to be more reliable and valid than single item measures (Zeller and Carmines, 1980: 48-52; Heath and Martin, 1997). Cronbach's alpha for this particular scale is 0.90.
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  • Notes
    1. This picture of low trust in politicians relative to other professional actors, such as the police, is confirmed by data from other polling organisations, such as MORI's 'Trust in Professions' surveys (Ipsos-MORI, 2011).
    2. Readings are indicated by data marker; the line indicates an overall pattern but where there is no data marker the line cannot be taken as a reading for that year.
    3. These figures have been collated from various House of Commons Library papers supplemented by data from the New Local Government Network.
    4. Nor have attitudes to elected mayors improved since their introduction in 2000. The same questions about speaking up for the area, getting things done and giving too much power to a single person were also asked on British Social Attitudes in 1998 and 2000. The proportions agreeing that mayors speak up for the area and help gets things done were no higher in 2011 than in 1998, while the proportion agreeing that mayors give too much power to a single person fell by only 10 percentage points, from 45 per cent in 1998 to 35 per cent in 2011.
    5. Two other of England's largest cities, Leicester and Liverpool, had previously decided to introduce a directly elected mayor without holding a referendum. In four other referendums on directly elected mayors held since the 2010 general election, the proposal was approved in two cases (Salford and Tower Hamlets) and rejected in a third (Great Yarmouth). Doncaster voted in May 2012 to keep its elected mayor.
    6. The Coalition's proposal is that a referendum should be held when a council wishes to increase the level of council tax by more than a limit specified by the government. To simplify matters, we couched this as referring to an above inflation increase. Note though that voters are not necessarily keen that decisions about the council tax should routinely be referred to them. Only 43 per cent say that decisions about the council tax should be made by voters in a referendum, while 52 per cent would prefer the decisions to be made by their elected council. It would appear that, while voters are happy to have a referendum as a potential bulwark against a particularly large increase in council tax, they are not sure they trust their fellow citizens to make decisions about the tax on a regular basis.
    7. Strictly speaking this provision would apply to custodial sentences of 12 months or less, as longer sentences already result in automatic disqualification from membership of the Commons.
    8. The full question wording was:

      It has been suggested that sometimes voters should be able to force their local MP to resign and fight a by-election. First of all, say that the MP has broken the rules. How much do you agree or disagree that in those circumstances voters should be able to force their MP to resign?

      Respondents were invited to answer using a five point scale ranging from "strongly agree" to "strongly disagree".
    9. The full question wording was:

      And what if the MP had not broken any rules, but voters thought he or she was not doing a very good job? Should voters be able to force their MP to resign?

      Again respondents were invited to answer using a five point scale.
    10. The scale was created by adding the scores (ranging from 1 to 4) across the three items and dividing the resulting total by three. Multi-item measures of complex concepts like trust are usually held to be more reliable and valid than single item measures (Zeller and Carmines, 1980: 48-52; Heath and Martin, 1997). Cronbach's alpha for this particular scale is 0.90.
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