Why Gordon Brown’s constitutional reforms need PR

Last year Gordon Brown launched his long-awaited report on the future of the UK constitution. One of the major criticisms of his proposals is that they do not include electoral reform – a commitment to change the electoral system for the UK House of Commons from First-Past-the-Post to Proportional Representation (PR). The omission is odd and makes little sense. And on analysis, PR looks like an important further safeguard within the full set of constitutional reforms the report proposes.

First, let’s note how Brown’s report does leave the door ajar on electoral reform. Tucked away towards the end of the report, at the bottom of page 144, we find this:

Our report deliberately focuses on change that can be delivered and make a difference in a single Parliament, to address the UK’s immediate constitutional and economic challenges. Other issues that would have to span more than one electoral cycle can however also be discussed. Most obviously, the UK now has a patchwork of different electoral systems for its different legislatures and systems of local government, and we recognise that a well-functioning electoral system is vital to the health and defence of our democracy, and that our proposed changes will no doubt be discussed within this context.

Apparently, the report does not say anything about electoral reform to the House of Commons because relevant changes would supposedly span ‘more than one electoral cycle’. This reference to electoral cycles makes little sense. While the first election under PR would logically have to follow the final election under First-Past-the-Post, the actual legislation to change the electoral system to the Commons to PR could be passed in the first year of a future Labour/progressive government. (Whether it would necessarily be a good thing to enact PR in this particular way is something I discuss elsewhere.) Nevertheless, there is a clear indication here that the reforms proposed in the report should be discussed ‘within [the] context’ of a discussion about electoral reform. 

Indeed, we should definitely discuss them in this context because if one presses the report’s ideas a bit further, an obvious argument for including PR as a central plank of the overall package quickly emerges.

Perhaps the most innovative and interesting part of the report is Brown’s proposal to use a reformed second chamber of the UK Parliament as a mechanism for entrenching a special set of ‘constitutional’ laws. The distinction between constitutional and ordinary legislation is relatively new in the UK, emerging in the 1990s, but Brown plans to build on it. A subset of laws would be deemed constitutional, e.g., laws around the devolution settlements in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. It is proposed in Chapter 11 (page 140) that some of these special, constitutional laws – ‘protected constitutional statutes’ – be entrenched by giving the second chamber, in its new form, the power to block any changes supported by a simple majority in the Commons. This is presented as an ‘extension’ of the House of Lords’ power, contained in the 1911 Parliament Act, to block the Commons from passing a law to extend its duration beyond a normal Parliamentary term.

Brown is, however, concerned that this entrenchment mechanism will threaten the ‘primacy’ of the Commons. So having set up a protection mechanism for certain constitutional laws, the report immediately backtracks somewhat and discusses ways in which the power of the Commons can nevertheless be maintained. Here the report mentions three possible, illustrative approaches (see page 141):

  1. Give the Commons the power to override the second chamber, with respect to a protected constitutional statute, if it can secure the support of a supermajority – say 2/3 of MPs in the Commons.
  2. Give the second chamber the power to insist on its veto, against the Commons’ simple majority opposition, if it can muster a similar supermajority.
  3. Give the Commons the power to override the second chamber, with respect to a protected constitutional statute, if it can muster simple majorities for a given change in two sessions each side of a general election (with the proposed change included in the election manifesto of the winning party or parties).

There is, however, another possibility – complementary to these. The more parties are needed to support the Commons’ proposed changes to protected constitutional statutes, the more ‘veto points’ there are in the Commons to any proposed changes to constitutional laws. 

The obvious way to create multiple veto points like this is, of course, to use a proportional electoral system for the UK House of Commons rather than First-Past-the-Post. PR will make it less likely that any one party ever has a large Commons majority and will thereby force a more cross-party approach to any fundamental constitutional reform. 

PR looks especially important in the case of the first and third of the three Commons ‘primacy’ mechanisms canvassed in the report. It makes it much less likely that any single party will win enough seats in the Commons to get close to the 2/3 supermajority threshold by itself. It makes it less likely that a single party will win any given election outright, and so be able to muster, by itself, majorities on both sides of a given election.   

Anyone who says they support Brown’s proposed reforms, so far as they go, therefore also has strong reason to support PR – PR has a strong claim to be the ‘missing piece’ in the constitutional machinery the report starts to sketch out.

Dr Stuart White is the Nicholas Drake Tutorial Fellow in Politics and Associate Professor of Politics at Jesus College, Oxford. 

Stuart’s research focuses on democracy, citizenship and property rights and the question of what rights to resources we should have as members of a democratic community. A unifying theme is exploring visions of society that are at one anti-capitalist and opposed to authoritarian forms of socialism. He explores this in studies ranging across political philosophy, public policy and the history of political thought.

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