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The party manifestos for the May general election show that parties stick with their old policies; that the Conservatives seem to avoid any explicit reference to the constitution; and that all political parties appear to be willing to use the constitution to their own advantage.
One of the central problems with studying the politics of constitutional change in the UK is that the public does not care about the constitution. Unsurprisingly, constitutional reform does not figure prominently in the party manifestos for the May general election. That does not mean that these documents tell us nothing at all: they show that parties stick with their old policies; that the Conservatives seem to avoid any explicit reference to the constitution; and that all political parties appear to be willing to use the constitution to their own advantage.
In this blog post, I distil some of the constitutional issues in the party manifestos of the three largest parties in Westminster in the last parliament: the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats (if there’s time, I will do another post on the smaller parties’ proposals). I define ‘constitutional’ issues as distinct from ‘distributional’ ones, which involve reallocation of resources (and the regulation of behaviour). Constitutional issues are about how decisions are made, not about the outcomes themselves, and should be neutral between, say, more or less progressive (or conservative) substantive policies.
The public consistently marks constitutional change as unimportant. Ipsos/MORI regularly asks its subjects an open-ended question about what issues they think are the most important ones facing Britain, and the results show that most of them don’t think that constitutional reform (including devolution) is important.
Figure 1: What do you see as the most/other important issues facing Britain today?
Source: Ipsos/MORI, results online at https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/2905/Issues-Index-2012-onwards.aspx#2012
In Figure 1, the top two lines show the issues that British voters think are most important in the current election: immigration and the economy. Since 2010 (and long before that!), the percentage of those who thought that constitutional matters were important varied between one and two per cent and is shown in the dotted line at the bottom. Although that number approached 7 per cent in the months before the Scottish independence referendum (undoubtedly mostly Scots), it quickly returned to normal levels in late 2014 and early 2015.
It should not be surprising, therefore, that the parties’ manifestos do not put constitutional reform front and centre. The Labour Manifesto discusses political reform in the fourth section, out of five substantive sections; the Liberal Democrats place it tenth out of eleven—and the Conservatives have no section on political reform at all.
The first thing that should be emphasized is that a number of policies advocated by parties in this election are not new. The Liberal Democrats, for example, advocate lowering the voting age to 16 (p. 132), but they did that last time (p. 88), and so did Labour (p. 9: 2). The proposal that English votes determine English laws (EVEL) was part of the Conservative manifesto in 2005 (pp. 21-22), 2010 (p. 84) and again in 2015 (p. 70), although this policy’s time may now have been forced upon them by increased Scottish and Welsh devolution. Even the rhetoric can be strikingly similar from one campaign to the next. Consider these two statements:
The top-down model of power that exists in Britain today is completely out of date. The argument that has applied for well over a century – that in every area of life we need people at the centre to make sense of the world for us and take decisions on our behalf – has collapsed. (Conservatives, 2010: 63)
People who live in this country know that too much power is concentrated in too few hands. … We will end a century of centralisation. … Our governing mission is to break out of the traditional top-down, Westminster knows best approach’, and devolve power and decision-making to people and their local communities. (Labour, 2015: 63)
One important difference between the three parties is the Conservatives’ extreme de-emphasis on the constitution. The topic ‘Making Government Work Better for You’ (p. 47) emphasizes cost-cutting, online services and transparency, but then slips in the party’s plan to reduce the number of MPs to 600, the implementation of boundary reforms and EVEL. It also de-prioritizes (i.e. dismisses) House of Lords reform and rejects any change to the voting system. Similarly, repeal of the Human Rights Act (but not withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights) is smuggled in under ‘Fighting Crime and Standing Up for Victims’ (p. 58) and again under ‘Real Change in our Relationship with the European Union’ (p. 72)
A striking fact for some will be the parties’ willingness to manipulate the political system to their own advantage. Conservatives are alone in their failure to mention the 16-year-old vote, which both of the other two parties advocate: but 16-year-olds are unlikely to vote Conservative. However, the Conservatives do want to be sure that everyone who lives abroad is registered to vote and to eliminate the fifteen-year limit, after which expatriates lose the franchise. Both policies can be attributed to an anticipated increase in Conservative votes. Labour has advocated a 16-year-old vote but not increased voting by expatriates. The Liberal Democrats support both changes (although they only promise to consider the change for expats. It’s not as bad as voting laws in Florida yet, but we could be headed in that direction.
On purely constitutional issues, the best combination for any coalition after the election would seem to be Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Both advocate the 16-year-old vote, a constitutional convention, House of Lords reform, and an in/out referendum on EU membership when a proposed treaty change would transfer (substantial) powers to Europe. Both treat the Smith Commission’s recommendations for Scottish devolution as the starting point, although both seem willing to go further with devolution, increasing fiscal independence in Scotland as well as responsibility for social services. These are all perfectly sensible proposals, but the hedging language is important. Labour is careful about the 16-year-old vote, tying it to improved citizenship education (as they have done in the past). House of Lords reform and EVEL are both folded into the constitutional convention process. The Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, see the convention as a way of ‘mak[ing] sure all the new arrangements [i.e. recent constitutional changes] work together coherently’. This does not seem to leave much room for creative innovation.
Causality is tricky, and we should not assume that the parties’ de-emphasis of these issues is a result of the public not caring. It’s also possible that the public would care, as the Scots cared very much about highly technical issues last autumn, if only the political parties would stop repeating platitudes about the last 100 years (which actually aren’t even true). The problem is that these issues are too complex to deal with easily in a sound bite, and they are also capable of dividing a party. That’s why they’re likely to stay where they are: at the bottom of voters’ shopping lists and at the back of the manifestos.
This post is part of our Decision 2015 series.