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.
6 thoughts on “The Political Colour of an English Parliament”
In the coming weeks could you please publish your thoughts on the proposed devolved Sutton Coldfield Town Council. You have been quoted as saying:
“I suspect some of this has got confused in people’s minds because this campaign has been mixed up with so many other things. It got caught up with parliamentary boundaries, which are completely different, and ran alongside Sutton’s bid for the return of Royal status.”
A thoughtful blog post or more on this issue would be warmly received.
A new English Parliament is NOT required. Westminster will do fine thanks. Just kick out the Scots (who may leave anyway) Then the Welsh and N.Irish. There you have it ! An English Parliament in a new UK federation (with or without Scotland)
Hello there as an alumni of Birmingham Uni (biology I’m afraid) can I just ask if you’ve ever looked into the Cornish question and the campaign for a Cornish assembly? It’s often said that there is little or no interest within what is commonly considered England for ‘regional’ devolution. This is not quite true however. 50,000 people signed a petition calling for a Cornish Assembly in 2002. At the time a Cornwall Council opinion poll put support for a Cornish assembly at around 55%. The petition was collected over a couple of months by some motivated volunteers before the age of social media. This 10% of our population met with the criteria set by Prescott for the government to investigate a ‘regions’ desire for devolution. New Labour decided to renege on this promise and ignore Cornish calls for an assembly. Various Liberal Democrat MP’s for Cornwall have defended the idea of Cornish devolution as well as campaigning for Cornish national minority status, funding of the Cornish language and democratic accountability for the Duchy of Cornwall. Perhaps the last example of this being Dan Rogerson’s Government of Cornwall Bill. It should also be noted that the Green party, amongst others, also supports Cornish devolution. The last PLASC data for Cornish schools showed that 46% of children would choose Cornish to describe their identity rather than English, British or some mixture.
The Cornish Constitutional Convention: http://www.cornishassembly.org/
The Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities and the Cornish: http://www.scribd.com/doc/59678181/Cornish-Minority-Report
I don’t know why, but I get that feeling of deja vu every time I read your posts somewhere. It’s the same stuff, more or less word for word, every time. When the subject is Kernow, please contribute, but when the subject is England, plesase refrain from commenting, especially when you say the same thing all the time. As you would almost certainly agree, we’re separate countries, so this discussion is nowt to do with thee. How did such a fanatical Anglophobic bigot manage to survive all those years studying on the English side of the Tamar? It must have been like putting Hitler in the middle of Israel, or Nathan Bedford Forrest in Africa. By the way, ‘alumni’ is a plural. The singular is ‘alumnus’. Somebody studying the sciences should have a reasonable knowledge of Latin.
Absolutely agree Bob. Fulub turns up on every blog that wishes to discuss England and hijacks it into a Cornwall issue.
So is Cornwall not part of England then? Are the Cornish not English? Don’t we have the right to enter the debate about the future governance of England? I wonder guys if you’ve seen my posts on other forums and blogs discussing English governance what were you doing there. Just passing I suppose. Not that both of you, along with a whole host of other far-right Eng Nat loons, also turn up on just about every blog, website and forum that talks about the UK’s future governance. Take a look at any article that discusses the Scottish referendum and you’ll soon see what I mean. As for “Hitler in Israel” this ‘English hater’ spent 2 years working to support the homeless of England’s capital who had drink, drug and mental health problems.
Do you see how ridiculous your comments seem now?