Monthly Archives: February 2019

Brexit: An Argument For Proportional Representation.

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Like it or not, despite the best efforts of many of us, it seems Brexit might actually happen. Whilst I continue to hope it doesn’t, it is worthwhile considering what happens next.

The recent conference “Brexit: What Now, What Next” considered certain constitutional arrangements which Brexit had put under the spotlight, particularly those between the devolved parliaments and Westminster, and between the constituent parts of the UK, as well as our European neighbours.

No mention was made of the UK’s electoral system, “first past the post”. I can’t help thinking that FPTP is largely responsible for Brexit and for parliament’s inability to find a way out of the mess Brexit has caused. Brexit is, I reckon, a great advert for proportional representation.

FPTP wasn’t used in the UK until 1884, not even 150 years ago, so whilst some people seem very attached to it, it doesn’t have a long historical pedigree.

Creating the Conditions for Brexit

There are many putative causes for Brexit. One of them was the feeling that that votes didn’t have a voice and that Britain was run by a “metropolitan elite”. One of the effects of FPTP is that it creates “safe seats” which are unlikely to change hands during an election, meaning that few votes actually determine the outcome of an election. Voters feel it doesn’t matter who they vote for.

The referendum gave voters a chance to express their anger.

Under proportional systems, most votes cast can influence the outcome. One’s voice is heard. Every vote counts.

The Two Party System

FPTP promotes a two party system: it is hard for third parties, such as the LibDems or UKIP to gain traction.
This has prevented the two main parties in the UK from separating into what might be their logical constituent parts: left- and right- wing Europhile and Europhobic parties.

It has been suggested that David Cameron called a referendum on Britain’s place in the EU as a way to keep his party together. If PR had been in place, they might have split decades before, since each faction might have felt it had a viable position outside of the main party structure.

Coalitions

One common argument against PR is that it leads to coalitions. I view this as a strength: a coalition represents the views of more of the electorate than support a single party.

It would also mean a party wishing to hold a referendum would need to convince its coalition partners. I believe this would have greatly reduced the likelihood of Cameron calling a referendum.

I also think it would have made scrutiny of the enabling legislation for a referendum on such a large constitutional change more effective: to pass such legislation would have required building support for it, including putting safeguards in place.

Negotiations

The British government has shown itself to be an inept negotiator. Theresa May, perhaps to keep the hardliners in her party happy, treated the 52/48 result as 100% in favour of Brexit. Despite her warm words when she took office, she hasn’t tried to bring the country together or build bridges between Remainers and Leavers. The referendum chose Leave, and the rest of us have to lump it.

She didn’t even try to build a consensus in parliament, even after her ill-timed election took her majority away.

And so she has found her plans blocked by parliament, split between those who want Brexit but not her plan and those who would prefer to stay in the EU (a better deal for the UK than either her plan or a hard Brexit).

If parliament had been elected under PR, the prime minister would have had to appeal to whatever coalition might have been formed: they’d have had to include a plurality of views, which might have lead to more equitable, open negotiations – no “red lines” etched in stone. And maybe they’d have had a broader range of skills to choose from, too.

After Brexit?

If – IF – Brexit happens on March 29, no one knows what will happen next. Because with six weeks left, we don’t know what Brexit will be like. Should some form of deal be reached, the next couple of years – the transition period – very little will have changed. Ardent Leavers will be mighty disappointed; everyone else will breathe a sigh of relief.

If there’s no deal, and the forecast food and medicine shortages come to pass as Kent becomes a lorry park as we crash out – well, maybe everyone will be disappointed.

Either way, the UK faces years more negotiations on a trade deal in which the EU hours all the cards. And a national conversation as we seek to find our place in the world.

It is unlikely that either scenario will heal the deep divisions in either the Tory or Labour parties, particular if a far right party such as that mooted recently by Nigel Farage comes to pass. The Tory and Labour parties both seem fissile. (I actually wrote this a few days ago. Today seven Labour party MPs left to sit as independents.)

It is possible – maybe even likely – that either Scotland or Northern Ireland will seek to leave the UK.
Such large scale constitutional changes might yet serve to drive demand for proportional representation.

“Brexit: What Now, What Next”.

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I’m a glutton for punishment: two days after the Rally For The People’s Vote, another conference on Brexit, with many of the same contributors, but this time with an academic bent, providing a rather different perspective. “Brexit: What Now, What Next”, organised by the Centre for Constitutional Change and the UK In A Changing Europe, was almost set up to fail, since “what now” changes daily – and yet, after recent shenanigans in Westminster, it seems nothing has changed except that the next “meaningful vote” is now two weeks further away, perhaps making “no deal” more and more likely as the UK runs out of time. The conference took place the day before Tuesday’s votes and amendments, although I don’t think the outcome of those debates will have changed much.

There were three panels (two comprising academics, one of politicians), and Mike Russell MSP providing a key note speech.

The first panel looked at “Deal or No Deal”. Unfortunately, the consensus seemed to be that “no deal” is increasingly likely. Simon Usherwood looked at what had created the impasse in parliament, and the way MPs beliefs in the party system were likely to endure it continues. And he concluded that whatever the outcome, it was unlikely to be stable, leading to a succession of crises. Drew Scott

Drew Scott looked at the different outcomes of Brexit and the nature of the UK’s long term relationship with the EU (which has yet to be negotiated – the withdrawal agreement is just the start of a long, slow process). A free trade agreement between the UK and EU would require a long and probably tortuous negotiation around the fundamental features that make the single market work, such as the legal framework relying on the European Court of Justice, accepting the EU’s “level playing field” and the likely requirement to pay into the EEA budget – crossing several of Theresa May’s “red lines”. In the meantime, the UK would be stuck in the “transition period” or relying solely on WTO rules, which no other nation does. (It is clear that there’s no deal that could possibly be as good as that we have as being part of the EU, making leaving an economic folly.)

Mary Scott  presented a view from the Republic of Ireland: one of puzzlement since the UK’s referendum and fear as the negotiations had progressed, not least because the close relationship between the UK and RoI would be threatened by the imposition of a hard border in contravention to the Good Friday Agreement. The backstop negotiated between the UK and the EU was therefore not up for debate by the RoI – and any one country had the potential to block the negotiations. Support for the idea of a united Ireland was gaining traction, just one of several constitutional threats to the “United” Kingdom. It was also pointed out that UK ministers supporting “no deal” would be in a very awkward position constitutionally, since they would be advocating that the UK breaks international agreements in the form of the GFA.

I’ll leave aside the second, political, panel because those aspects have probably been well aired already. At least they found a Tory willing to discuss Brexit, even if he couldn’t countenance a referendum on the deal!

The third panel looked at “Brexit, Devolution and the Future of the Union”. This is a big one in Scotland, which voted to stay in the EU by 62/38 and voted to stay in the UK in 2014 55/45, when the “No” (to independence) campaign claimed that staying in the UK was the only way to assure continued membership of the EU. It’s not a surprise that many feel duped that we are now being dragged out of the EU against our wishes.

Dan Wincott and Jo Hunt explored how devolution had so far focused on those issues which are devolved or not: where competence lies on specific issues. But Brexit has shown that devolution hadn’t really dealt with how devolved governments should work together. The Sewel Convention is just that – a convention, which can be ignored. Matters which have been devolved within the framework of the EU, such as agriculture and fisheries, could become issues of contention if one parliament wants one set of regulations and another is opposed. The devolution settlement doesn’t set out how to resolve these, and the UK government’s willingness to ignore the will of the Scottish Parliament during Brexit does not bode well for future cooperation.

Nicola McEwen examined possible routes to Scottish independence. The context of a further referendum (or “IndyRef2”) has changed considerably since 2014; and so have the economics. Westminster holds the power to call a referendum: it may not grant that power to the Scottish government again, which could itself precipitate a constitutional crisis. If Scotland voted for independence from a UK outside the EU, the debate over the Irish border would be repeated, perhaps worse because although issues such as the Good Friday Agreement wouldn’t be in play, after three hundred years of union, Scotland lacks much of the infrastructure it might need – not least a hard border and sufficient ports to deal with its trade.

Mike Russell MSP closed the conference, covering much the same ground he did in November and just two days before, too. He outlined the futility and negativity of Brexit, and how Brexit is an anathema to Scotland: a vision of Britain at odds with Scotland’s view of itself. In particular, Scotland needs immigration: freedom of movement is hugely valuable to Scotland, as well as being culturally enriching. The Scottish government is having to prepare for “no deal” whilst believing “no deal” should be ruled out. He firmly believed an extension to Article 59 was needed – he thought three or four months might be possible – and a referendum on the deal was the only way to clear the impasse in Westminster. In which case he would campaign vigorously to Remain in the EU.

The conference, and the political activity the following day, left me somewhat despondent after the euphoria surrounding the rally for the People’s Vote. Despite nothing materially changing, the likelihood of “no deal” arising simply because the British government runs out of time; the futility of Theresa May getting to continue negotiations with the EU when the EU has said they will not reopen negotiations – the very hopelessness of a Brexit in which British citizen lose their rights with no benefits accruing at all. It is enough to make one weep.