One of the closing questions put to Professor Eastwood following his recent Distinguished Lecture on The British State: Past, Present and Future concerned the place, if any, of an English Parliament in the kind of future federal or quasi-federal Britain about which the lecture had speculated. Pressure of time permitted only a brief answer, but one reason proffered for what I took to be Professor Eastwood’s instinctive scepticism concerning such an institution was that it would be likely to have “a permanent Conservative majority”.
Even here in the Midlands, which could lay claim to be its most obvious location, a separate English Parliament has hardly captured the popular imagination as being the answer to Britain’s unfinished devolution project. Much preferred, certainly within the present Government, would be ‘English votes for English laws’ – English MPs having the final say on purely English legislation – which has the considerable advantage that it wouldn’t itself require legislation, simply a change in the Standing Orders of the Commons. Some suspect that an English Parliament would undermine the Union almost as seriously as Scottish independence. Still, that’s no reason not to consider what politically an English Parliament might look like, if there were one.
I’ll take the most improbable scenario first. If a devolved English Parliament were to comprise all the 533 English constituency MPs elected at the 2010 General Election, the Conservatives, even with their 39.5% of the English vote, would indeed have an overall majority – with 297 seats to Labour’s 191 (from 28% of the vote) and the Liberal Democrats’ 43 ( from 24%). It’s even further from proportional representation than was the actual Westminster result, thereby avoiding the need for any coalition negotiations. That, however, with great respect to the Vice Chancellor, is about as far as a permanent Conservative majority goes. In 1997, 2001 and 2005 Labour would have had very comfortable overall majorities of 127, 117 and 43 respectively.
It is, though, politically inconceivable that a new, devolved English Parliament would contain anything approaching the present number of English MPs – which would put it amongst the dozen largest national lower chambers in the world. For illustrative purposes, therefore, I will use a 180-seat chamber, loosely modelled on the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, as proposed in a 2011 policy paper by The Wilberforce Society. Obviously, if that two-thirds cut in membership were the only change posited, then the same results in recent General Elections would produce the same outcomes: overall, if numerically smaller, majorities for the Conservatives in 2010 and for Labour previously. But it wouldn’t be the only change.
Like the Scottish and Welsh devolved bodies, a devolved English Parliament would almost certainly be elected by some system of Proportional Representation (PR) – not least to reduce the prospect of any one party being able to obtain an overall majority on the basis of a minority vote. The Wilberforce Society’s model uses the Scottish and Welsh Additional Member System (AMS), in which each elector has two votes: a constituency vote and a party vote. 120 of the 180 MDEPs (Members of the Devolved English Parliament) would be elected from single-member constituencies, and the remaining 60 additional or ‘top-up’ members from regional party lists, in such a way as to make the Parliament’s final membership as proportionally reflective as possible of the party votes cast.
It needs to be remembered that PR isn’t itself an electoral system, but simply the broad aim of many different systems, some more perfectly arithmetically proportional than others. The German system, used to elect the Bundestag, is almost perfectly proportional, having exactly equal numbers of constituency and top-up members. The Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly systems aren’t, with only 43% and 33% of top-up members respectively, which partly explains how the Scottish National Party, despite having only 44% of the party vote in 2011, achieved 69 of the 129 Parliamentary seats and an overall majority.
It would be possible, therefore, for a single party – say the Conservatives – to win an overall majority even in an English Parliament elected by a supposedly proportional electoral system like AMS. It would also be possible to prevent it: simply by adopting the German, rather than the Scottish, variant.
Chris Game is a Visiting Lecturer at INLOGOV interested in the politics of local government; local elections, electoral reform and other electoral behaviour; party politics; political leadership and management; member-officer relations; central-local relations; use of consumer and opinion research in local government; the modernisation agenda and the implementation of executive local government.