‘The Great Parliamentary Resistance’ – some of the outcomes

Chris Game

Back in early February, I wrote a blog dissecting one of two big and controversial Government Bills involved in what I slightly hyperbolically termed the “historic Monday evening of the Great Parliamentary Resistance” – Monday, 17th January, when the Elections Bill received its Third Commons Reading, while across the way the Lords were savaging the ‘flagship’ Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill by defeating the Government a Parliamentary record 14 times in the same sitting[1].

Both Bills, in being big and controversial, were fiercely contested throughout their Parliamentary progress and significantly amended – to the extent that my initial idea of highlighting and summarising such amendments in two linked blogs in, say, February and March, proved ludicrously unrealisable. Not least because neither received their Royal Assent until 28th April.

On the ball, as ever, Jason Lowther blogged immediately about the particular aspects of the now Elections Act with which he had been particularly concerned – the Government’s ‘solution’ to the undemonstrated ‘problem’ of ‘personation’, of having in future to show counter-signed photo ID at UK Parliamentary and English local and PCC elections.

This single blog, therefore, will attempt two ludicrously daunting tasks: (a) to at least mention some of the additional, less publicised, measures in or out of the Elections Act, and (b) similarly, but even more summarily, for the considerably more complex Police, Crime etc. Act.

There were two key and particularly controversial Elections Act proposals, that went down to the proverbial wire at the so-called Ping pong stage of the Parliamentary process (pp.79ff. of the H/Commons Library briefing noted by Jason).

First, obviously, the several proposed age-discriminatory and non-photographic forms of ID that had been in and out of the Bill throughout – mentioned again here frankly as a pretext for reminding anyone who needs it of just how long and how implacably opposed the PM himself has been to ID cards of any description, and accordingly what we can presumably look out for come Election Day.

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The other long-running dispute concerned the Act’s provision for the Government to set a “strategy and policy statement” for the constitutionally independent Electoral Commission.  Some suspicious Parliamentarians suggested this might go beyond scrutiny and accountability, and “potentially into providing guidance about how [the Commission carries out its] functions on a day-to-day basis”.

They wanted it “not bound by” the Government’s “statement”, but apparently they were guilty of a “mischaracterisation” of the Government’s intentions, and the relevant amendments were defeated.

The Government’s listing of the Act’s additional benefits appears, of course, on the relevant Gov.UK page – summarised under the comfort blanket of the several “greater protections” it provides for voters, and also for candidates and campaigners.

Protection from fraud through photo ID, of course, but also from intimidation at the ballot box – the latter by fines, up to 5-year bans, and even imprisonment for offenders convicted of attempting an extended definition of ‘undue influence’.

Voters with disabilities must in future be provided with specialist equipment, and may be accompanied by an adult.  And the 15-year limit on the voting rights of British ex-pats, retired or working abroad, will be removed. An estimated 3 million potential voters are currently affected by the limit, and – read into this what you will – it fulfils a pledge in three recent Conservative manifestos.

Finally – although it was actually the first bit of the legislation I blogged about, back last April – the Act will change the voting system for both Mayoral and Police & Crime Commissioner elections from the ‘transferable’/choice-extending Supplementary Vote to First Past The Post – on the basis of “no other plausible argument” than it might fractionally reduce the numbers of rejected ballots”.

I have views – as doubtless do Mayors Tracy Brabin (Lab – West Yorkshire), Ben Houchen (Cons – Tees Valley) and Andy Burnham (Lab – Greater Manchester), all recently elected after transfers – but not here.

And so to the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act – a real pantechnicon of a Bill/Act, highly technical in places, with even the ‘short’ and definitely the ‘long’ (150-word) titles signalling how impossible it is seriously to summarise.

It makes major changes across the criminal justice system, significantly extending police powers and the treatment of suspected, arrested, charged and convicted offenders. Again, there is a substantial (100+ pages) Commons Library summary of the whole legislative process; also a detailed House of Lords account – presented, slightly disconcertingly, in reverse chronological order – covering the fate of at least some of the Lords’ 17th Jan. amendments.

I was never keen on listing Wiki on student reading lists, but in this case I might well make an exception.  For this blog, though, I have borrowed (sounds so much better than plagiarised!) the content of the next few paragraphs from the BBC’s summary –mainly because it focuses, as many of those Lords motions did, on the implications for and threats to the right to protest.

Until now, it has generally been the police’s responsibility, if they want to restrict a protest, to show it may result in “serious public disorder, property damage, or disruption to the life of the community” (emphasis added). They can also change/restrict the routes of marches. For major events, like the COP26 protests, details are typically agreed with the organisers weeks in advance.

The new Act enables particular measures to be designed for ‘static protests’, like those of Extinction Rebellion, whose modus operandi is to force governmental action on the “climate and ecological emergency” through non-violent civil disobedience, the occupation of roads and bridges, etc.  Start and finish times and noise limits will now be set, even for protests involving just one person, with fines up to £2,500.

Edward Colston, the C18th merchant/slave trader whose statue was pushed into Bristol docks gets his own clause, with damage to memorials earning up to 10 years’ imprisonment.

Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper has described the “rushed” legislation as creating “incredibly widely drawn” powers …”, allowing the police to stop and search anyone in the vicinity of a protest, including passers-by, people on the way to work and peaceful protesters.”

The Government/Home Office/Police viewpoint is set out in a Home Office Policy Paper.

[1] It appeared on 4th February, at the start of what proved a particularly active blogging month, with the consequence that, to access it, you may need to key ‘Older Posts’ at the end of the February 2022 selection.

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Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

Voter ID:  proceed with caution

Jason Lowther

There is much to welcome in the Government’s Elections Bill which completed its second reading last month and is being scrutinised by the Public Bill Committee over the next few weeks.  There has been widespread welcome to elements to clarify what’s meant by “undue influence” on voters, improve poll accessibility, prevent the intimidation of candidates and require all paid for digital political material to have an imprint.  But the measures to introduce voter ID need to be handled with care.

Under the Bill, voters will be required to show an approved form of photographic identification before collecting their ballot paper to vote at a polling station for UK parliamentary elections in Great Britain, at local elections in England, and at Police and Crime Commissioner elections in England and Wales. A broad range of documents will be accepted including passports, driving licences, various concessionary travel passes and photocard parking permits issued as part of the Blue Badge scheme. Any voter who does not have an approved form of identification will be able to apply for a free, local Voter Card from their local authority.

Chloe Smith, Cabinet Office Parliamentary Secretary, argued in 2019:

Electoral fraud is an unacceptable crime that strikes at a core principle of our democracy—that is, that everybody’s vote matters. There is undeniable potential for electoral fraud in our current system, and the perception of this undermines public confidence in our democracy. We need only to walk up to the polling station and say our name and address, which is an identity check from the 19th century, based on the assumption that everyone in the community knows each other and can dispute somebody’s identity…Showing ID is something that people of all backgrounds already do every day—when we take out a library book, claim benefits or pick up a parcel from the post office. Proving who we are before we make a decision of huge importance at the ballot box should be no different.

Whilst concern about voter fraud is generally low in the UK, Electoral Commission research in 2014 identified some local areas where there appears to be a greater risk of cases of alleged electoral fraud being reported.  Generally these areas were limited to individual wards within 16 local authority areas (out of just over 400 across the UK as a whole).  These areas were often characterised by being densely populated with a transient population, a high number of multiple occupancy houses and a previous history of allegations of electoral fraud. 

The Electoral Commission asked national and local organisations, including those representing people with protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010, to provide evidence of how the proposals for Photo ID affected the specific groups they represent.  The results showed significant concerns.  Charities representing people with learning disabilities, the BAME, LGBT+, gypsy and traveller communities and people without a fixed address raised general concerns that some of the people they represent are already less likely to register and vote, and they are also less likely to have ID.  Many of the responses highlighted existing difficulties their users face in accessing services requiring proof of identity, including barriers faced by people who don’t have easy access to the internet. 

Photographic voter ID has been used in Northern Ireland since 2003, and at the May 2019 local elections, ten local authority areas in England agreed to run pilots.  Interestingly, three of the ten pilot areas were in the Electoral Commission’s list of higher risk local authority areas referred to above.  There were different arrangement according to three models: In two areas, people had to show a specified form of photo ID.  In five areas, they could choose to show either a specified form of photo ID or two pieces of specified non-photo ID.  And in three areas people could show either their poll card or a specified form of photo ID.  The mixed ID model and the photo ID model both had a provision for free, locally issued ID available from the local authority, if electors did not have the required form of ID.

The Cabinet Office’s internal evaluation of the pilot declared the 2019 pilot “another success”.  The evaluation aimed to assess the pilots against measures of integrity (perceptions of the voting process, and of electoral fraud), democracy & equality (awareness, voting behaviour), delivery (planning and resource implications), and cost.  Some may feel that generalisability of the conclusions are limited by the range of local authorities volunteering to be involved not being representative of the country as a whole (table 1). 

Table 1: 2019 pilot authorities

Source: Cabinet Office evaluation report, p.7

The Cabinet Office concluded that the photographic ID model had the most pronounced impact on the measures of integrity, with a significant increase in voter perceptions that there are sufficient safeguards in place to prevent electoral fraud at polling stations (differences in the mixed ID model were not significant). The proportion of people who did not return to the polling station varied by model, but the evaluation argues that across all models this accounted for under 0.5% of those who were checked at polling stations, the report notes ‘there are some indications that the mixed ID model was accessible for electors, particularly in more demographically diverse areas’. 

As always, the devil is in the detail.  Looking at the detailed results, the proportion not returning is at least twice as high in the mixed and photo ID samples (up to 0.7% of electors in two councils).  And when you look at individual wards, those with the highest percentage of non returners were often those with relatively high BME populations.  As LGIU pointed out in its analysis of the pilots: ‘Voter ID is not a priority for voters, who are more concerned about low voter turnout, bias in the media, and inadequate regulation of political activity on social media. Only one in four respondents to a post poll survey (24%) said electoral fraud was somewhat of or a serious problem, with more (26%) stating it isn’t a problem’.

The Electoral Commission’s overall conclusion on the pilots was ‘we are not able to draw definitive conclusions, from these pilots, about how an ID requirement would work in practice, particularly at a national poll with higher levels of turnout or in areas with different socio-demographic profiles not fully represented in the pilot scheme.’

The Joint Committee on Human Rights has also considered voter ID, and published its final report in September 2021. It called on the Government to produce clear research setting out whether mandatory ID at the polling station could create barriers to taking part in elections for some groups and how they plan to mitigate this risk effectively.

As outlined in the excellent report on the issue by Neil Johnston and Elise Uberoi of the House of Commons Library, experience in Canada (who introduced voter ID in 2008) showed that ‘a significant minority of voters in Canada struggled to prove their residence address as they lack documents that prove the address used to register to vote’.

Voter ID, of course, is one of a range of measures which Government could take to change election arrangements.  The Missing Millions report made 25 recommendations to enable increased participation, such as encouraging recipients of National Insurance number notification letters to register online, and Government funding and support for a National Voter Registration Drive.  Most polling clerks experience having to turn away electors because their names are not on the electoral roll in the first place, arguably this is a much greater threat to our democracy than the fears of false identities which voter ID seeks to address.

The Government has not yet shown how voter ID will operate in England without adversely affecting certain minority and disadvantaged groups.  Until issues such as costs and access are fully addressed, it needs to proceed with caution.

Simon Clarke – first his speech goes, then him

Chris Game

Boris Johnson didn’t start the modern trend of hyper-rapid ministerial turnover, but he did ratchet it up.  His election last July produced a larger ministerial cull than in any other recent transition between ministers of the same party, the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government being no exception.

So, were you paying attention?  Can you recall who was the minister specifically responsible for English local government on the first day of Boris Johnson’s Premiership, and how many there have been since?

For a department not traditionally one of the most sought-after steps on the ministerial promotion ladder, 18 months in Marsham Street evidently did Rishi Sunak no lasting career damage. For he it was who was junior Local Government Minister when Johnson arrived and was promoted by him to Chief Secretary to the Treasury.

The number of Sunak’s successors is less straightforward, as, following Simon Clarke’s recent resignation, he is replaced by Luke Hall, the man he himself at least formally succeeded in the role barely six months ago. This was interesting, as back in February it had apparently been necessary for an MHCLG “spokesperson” to dismiss as “nonsense” rumours that Hall was being “quietly moved aside” because Secretary of State Robert Jenrick “does not rate him”.

Interesting, but marginal, for this blog, although again featuring MHCLG in a key role, is about Clarke’s resignation and its possible policy ramifications. In the BBC’s rather odd choice of library photo he himself looked positively delighted.  But his letter to the PM cited “purely personal reasons”, so, if distressing circumstances are involved, one must obviously sympathise.

I don’t know Clarke, but from a distance he seemed one of the more committed, interested and listening Local Government ministers (as opposed to Secretaries of State) we’ve had recently.  And, given the limited options, I felt reasonably positive about his taking lead responsibility for the local government part of the Government’s anticipatedly radical ‘Devolution and Recovery’ White Paper, long expected sometime this month, but now at the Conservatives’ virtual annual conference in early October – possibly, or possibly not.

I wasn’t expecting to like what the White Paper had/has in store for the future gargantuan structure of what we could once meaningfully call local government. Clarke, though, almost from the outset, enthused – talking of producing a “genuinely seminal document … helping the process of unlocking devolution everywhere and empowering communities on a scale never seen before.”

The ”everywhere” and “communities” seemed perhaps that bit more meaningful, given Clarke’s having apparently made a point of meeting personally with the National Association of Local Councils, acknowledging the role parish and town councils had played in responding to Covid, and talking of strengthening that role in the future – along, albeit, with the extensive unitarisation.

His departure does, therefore, leave several question marks.  First, the resignation’s sheer hint-less suddenness.  Second, Clarke’s personal – and very recently well publicised – centrality to both the content and presentation of the White Paper.  And third, almost inevitably, the ‘Was he pushed, or at least nudged?’ conspiracy theory – and ‘The Mystery of the Disappearing Speech”.

The Local Government Chronicle (LGC) recalled Clarke’s ‘ground-breaking’ July speech to a Northern Powerhouse audience, promising “a roadmap for establishing a series of new mayors within the next ten years – representing the greatest decentralisation of power in our modern history.”

The speech duly appeared on the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government website … then suddenly disappeared.  A manifestly crass piece of business, whatever the motive, and, of course, guaranteeing immensely greater interest and speculation than it initially attracted.

Happily, therefore, LGC was able to satisfy this ramped-up curiosity by publishing the full speech on its website (see preceding link).  Which means, if any pushing from No.10 were involved in Clarke’s resignation, we can at least speculate about possible prompts.

“A new deal for the North”?  A £5 billion ‘New Deal’, rebuilding public infrastructure, creating thousands of new jobs, helping our regions “build back and bounce forward” – no, that rallying vagueness is almost straight Boris.

“New mayoral devolution”?  “Responsible and effective mayors representing 100% of the north of England.”  Again, Johnson playbook stuff.  He proved Londoners would elect a Conservative mayor, despite most boroughs being Labour-run, as have Andy Street in the West Midlands and Ben Houchen in Tees Valley.

Remember in December how voters in those North and Midlands ‘red wall’ – now ‘blue wall’ – constituencies elected Conservative MPs for the first time?  They should have a similar chance next April to elect a Conservative metro mayor in the new but traditionally very Labour West Yorkshire Combined Authority.

This is the Government’s apparent strategy: abolishing – sorry, combining – large numbers of already big city, borough and district councils into, by any traditional and international standards, huge unitary ‘Combined Authorities’ headed by directly elected and hopefully Conservative mayors, thereby simultaneously saving money and providing more ‘streamlined’, if hardly local, government.

All of which leaves at least as many questions as it answers.  Why the apparent rush, mid-Covid?  This seems best explained by the Winston Churchill/Rahm Emanuel injunction to “Never let a good crisis go to waste”.  Councils have been hit massively by Covid, with County Finance Directors especially warning throughout the summer of budget shortfalls and the looming necessity to issue Section 114 (Bankruptcy) Notices.

Housing, Communities and Local Government Secretary, Robert Jenrick, made it clear from the start that he saw no “long-term future” for two-tier local government and especially for all those pesky ‘lower tier’ Labour councils. Unitary councils with directly elected mayors would be “strongly preferred” by the Government in considering devolution deals – the major issue for debate being the preferred and maximum permitted size of said unitaries.

Minimum size seems likely to be 300,000.  The arguments will be over the maximum: the District Councils Network’s preferred 500,000; the 1 million+ that whole-county unitaries could involve; or something in between?  Clarke’s position seemed flexible, but not that flexible: definitely closer to the former than the latter.

These things are already under vigorous discussion, but, if elections to new authorities are to be held as early as 2022 or even 2023, the legislation needs to be in place by summer 2021. Without even mentioning the Br…. word, and Covid clearly not going away any time soon, could the departure of the key minister signal at least a slowing-down of the timetable?  Which would also postpone the point at which, along with all those Labour district councillors who would lose their seats, there would be plenty of disgruntled Conservatives.

On the other hand, and returning to the ‘Missing Speech Conspiracy’, could it be that Clarke was going just a touch too far for ultra-centralisers Johnson/Cummings and had started seriously to believe in his “greatest decentralisation of power in our modern history”?

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Chris Game is an INLOGOV Associate, and Visiting Professor at Kwansei Gakuin University, Osaka, Japan.  He is joint-author (with Professor David Wilson) of the successive editions of Local Government in the United Kingdom, and a regular columnist for The Birmingham Post.

The INLOGOV General Election Maxifesto Quiz

Chris Game

There were two prompts for this blog. The first was the politest of enquiries from the recently returned INLOGOV Blog Manager, which was easy enough to deflect. Shortly after doing so, however, while reading through one of the parties’ election manifestos – as you do – I came across ‘dibs’, a word I don’t recall crossing either my lips or barely my consciousness for a good half-century or so.

Back in my distant childhood there was much dibbing – and dybbing. On my father’s allotment I would make holes with my own potato dibber. As cub scouts, we would be enjoined every Friday evening by the ‘Old Wolf’ Akela to ‘Dyb, Dyb, Dyb’ (‘Do Your Best’), responding of course that we would indeed ‘Dob, Dob, Dob’. Back home, if there was any scarce desirable to be shared, like recently de-rationed sweeties, my younger sister Jennifer and I would compete for ‘first dibs’ (1).

In the ensuing decades, though, dibbing disappeared completely from my life. Yes, I recall registering the existence of the very top-end-of-the-market 1stdibs fine art dealership, but my INLOGOV salary discouraged closer interest. I remember being intrigued, therefore, by the context in which it did re-enter my personal/public policy world, and was fascinated again to see it an election manifesto.

So much so that I felt an urge to share the news, and decided to sneak it surreptitiously into an INLOGOV Election Maxifesto Worthy Pledge Quiz – not exactly an established tradition, but for which there is a kind of antecedent.

A Worthy Pledge is best explained by what it isn’t. It’s not one of those a major party either wants to, or fears might, create headlines and win or lose it loads of votes – and which are likely to be known to or guessable by readers of this blog anyway. Worthy Pledges are the add-ons. Not exactly window-dressing, because so relatively few wavering voters will even glance at, let alone open, these windows. They’re mostly imprecise pledges, or often just hopes – so loosely phrased that accountability of anyone, ever, is out of the question.

They are, however, the main reason why the average length of the major parties’ 2019 maxifestos – around 25,000 words (without ancillary ‘costings documents’) – is roughly four times the total length of ALL THREE major parties’ manifestos in 1951 (Thackeray and Toye, 2019). Nearly 83% of voters turned out in that election – the last time a General Election turnout topped 80% – and, while we don’t know how many of them had read those minifestos, it’s surely a fair bet that it’s more than will have thumbed through the 60-100 page compilations this time.

Here, then, listed alphabetically, is the 2019 Local Government Maxifesto Worthy Pledge Quiz.

Which party (Conservative, Labour, Lib Dem, Green, Brexit) pledges to …?

  1. Abolish both student loan interest and the target to push 50% of young people into Higher Education.
  2. Devolve full control of Right-to-Buy to local councils.
  3. Encourage councils to build more beautiful architecture.
  4. End rough sleeping within five years.
  5. Enshrine a legal right to food in law.
  6. Establish a £150m. Community Ownership Fund to help local people take over civic and community assets under threat, including football clubs and post offices.
  7. Establish a Royal Commission to develop a public health approach to substance misuse, focusing on harm reduction rather than criminalisation.
  8. Explore ways to tackle the problem of grade inflation in higher education courses (sorry, that’s more for us in the UoB!).
  9.    Increase central government funding to councils by £10 billion a year.
  10. Introduce a levy on overseas companies buying housing, and give local people ‘first dibs’ on new homes built in their area.
  11. Launch the biggest ever pothole-filling programme.
  12. Legislate to require councils to switch from a Cabinet system to a Committee system.
  13. Provide 35 hours a week of free childcare, from the age of 9 months.
  14. Replace Police and Crime Commissioners with police boards made up of local councillors.
  15. . Stop bank branch closures and ban ATM charges.

Of course, the inherent problem with these kinds of exercises is where to list the answers. It may be that the Blog Manager can come up with something brilliant, but in case he can’t, I’ll witter on for another couple of sentences, then list them at the end – confident that you won’t have cheated and read ahead.

So, how many of you got the ‘first dibs’ pledge? It’s Labour’s, of course – a straight steal from Mayor Sadiq Khan’s attempt to give Londoners the first chance to buy new homes priced up to £350,000 before foreign investors can get their hands on them. A bit like Jennifer, after sweets came off rationing in 1953, except statistically her chances were massively better.

Finally, since you were no doubt wondering, one possible origin of ‘first dibs’ is an ancient children’s game played (by ancient children) with pebbles or sheep’s knucklebones known as ‘dibstones’.

The answers: 1. Brexit Party; 2. LD; 3. Con; 4. Trick question – Con + Lab; 5. LD; 6. Con; 7. Lab; 8. Con; 9. Green; 10. Lab; 11. Con; 12. Green; 13. Green;                    14. LD; 15. Lab.

Chris Game - picChris 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.

How other countries deal with the horror of a hung parliament.

Chris Game

In amongst all the election analysis on the Friday morning after the night before, there was a widely reported quote from Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission: “As far as the Commission is concerned, we can open Brexit negotiations tomorrow morning at half-past-nine.”

My first reaction was quite defensive. While kicking someone when so obviously down may not be all that un-British, surely we should be allowed time to have first go. Besides, Juncker’s own prime ministerial career hardly ended in glory, so I thought I’d make it the peg for this blog about how some other EU countries, starting with Juncker’s Luxembourg, might handle Theresa May’s little parliamentary arithmetic problem.

During the two-year Brexit negotiation, several EU states will hold parliamentary elections, any of which could produce changes of government – though not necessarily instantly or overnight, as Juncker’s jibe seemed to imply he expected of us.

Luxembourg’s elections are due next October – five years after those held prematurely in 2013, prompted by Juncker being forced to step down from his record-length 18-year premiership, having lost parliament’s support for presiding either unknowingly or untellingly over years of illegal activities by the state intelligence agency.

His Christian Social People’s Party (CSV) had been in government since 1979, latterly in coalition with the Socialist Workers Party (LSAP). The CSV again won comfortably the most seats, but the resultant government was what we might call a rainbow coalition, or ‘minimum winning coalition’ – of the smallest number of parties able between them to form a majority. This one was popularly labelled the ‘Gambia coalition’, with the participating parties’ red (LSAP), blue (Democratic Party) and green (Green Party) colours matching those of the Gambian national flag. More relevant, though, is how it was negotiated.

After a few days of election recovery and exploratory inter-party talks, the Grand Duke of Luxembourg nominated Xavier Bettel, Democratic Party leader, as formateur – literally the person judged most likely, and now with official responsibility, to form a viable coalition government.

The whole process, as Juncker knew at first hand, took over five weeks – and that with a parliament a sixth the size of the Commons. The politicians weren’t “teary and exhausted”, with “everyone knackered, new or under-resourced”, as Theresa May and her office were reported as being (Sunday Times, June 18, p.16). The country didn’t shut down, and a stable government was formed.

Likewise, following Germany’s last elections in September 2013, when Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic/Social Union (CDU/CSU) achieved its best result since 1990, with close to 42% of the vote, but finished five seats short of the 316 required for an overall Bundestag majority. Statistically, a position almost identical to that of May’s Conservatives. The difference was that the ‘Grand Coalition’ of the CDU/CSU and the Social Democrats took three months to finalise – but again without the heavens falling in.

As Juncker also knew, though, the UK is not like most EU countries, particularly those with proportional representation electoral systems, for whom coalitions and working collaboratively with one or even more ‘other’ parties are seen as natural and even positive. For our politicians – and, it must be said, media – anything short of a stonking, wildly disproportional one-party majority signifies some fearful and embarrassing systemic failure, to be somehow papered over at the earliest opportunity. My personal guess, then, is that the Commission President’s Friday morning remarks were gently mocking the political frenzy he knew May had unleashed almost as much as the PM herself.

And that was probably before he knew the best bit. How this of all PMs – whose inability to share any decision with even her own Cabinet had created this potential constitutional crisis – was about to make a desperate, unplanned, ill-considered lunge for some, any, kind of voting support from the Democratic Unionists (DUP). And to do so, moreover, before she even knew the final total of her own MPs, and with nothing remotely to match the DUP’s “12-page route map of 45 priority demands” fully prepared and waiting.

The formateur system, with its institutionalised recognition of the importance of the inter-party negotiations required to form a sound and lasting coalition, seems a sensible one, which explains why it’s also used by, among others, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy and Israel. Not, though, by the French themselves, because the combination of their strong presidential system and their two-round elections aims, like our first-past-the-post ones, to render post-election fixes unnecessary.

This weekend, then, we’ve have the second, or run-off, round of National Assembly elections, within a month of Emmanuel Macron being elected President, the constitutional aim, highly effectively achieved, being to give the new President and his new centrist party government a ‘double mandate’.

Last time, in 2012, support for newly elected Socialist President Hollande wasn’t as great, in which circumstances the French way is – to adapt the rugby retaliation tactic – to get your negotiation in first. It’s a kind of effective version of what the Progressive Alliance was trying for in our election: an agreement among the supposedly ‘progressive’ Labour, Lib Dem and Green parties that their candidates – of all three parties, not just the Greens – would stand aside for another progressive candidate with an apparently better chance of winning that particular constituency.

In France, Left, Right, and this time Centre parliamentary party groupings are negotiated and publicised in advance of the elections. And candidates really do withdraw prior to the second-round vote in favour of a rival in the same grouping more likely to win, while voters know in advance who their candidates will ally themselves with, should no single big party achieve an overall majority.

In 2012, the Socialist Party’s 280 seats did fall short of the 289 majority figure by almost precisely the same distance as Theresa May’s Conservatives. Hollande’s party, however, already had a Left grouping negotiated with the Greens and several other smaller parties, holding an additional 48 seats. Majority effectively secured.

Across Europe as a whole, this approach and its speed are the exception. Even so, the example illustrates the obvious lesson: whether you do your negotiations before or after you know the detailed numbers, government formation following an inconclusive election result needs, deserves and almost certainly repays time.

Chris Game - picChris 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.

 

The Road to A Soft Brexit

Jon Bloomfield

The election result has been a game changer. The electorate has turned down the Theresa May/Daily Mail offer of a hard Brexit and the threat of walking away from the negotiations with the European Union. The issue did not get the in-depth discussion during the election that it should have, but the result is a rebuff to Mrs. May and all her Government Ministers claiming that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal.’

The new parliamentary arithmetic means that the road is now open to negotiate a soft Brexit. That means accepting the result of the 23rd June referendum but recognising that for reasons of economics, geography, history and culture a close working partnership between the UK and the Continent is in the interests of both parties. Hence, the UK should seek a partnership and cooperation arrangement with the EU across a whole range of areas – the economy, security, culture, the environment, research – where the UK has vital interests with our closest neighbours.

Furthermore, events are pushing the EU as well as the UK in that direction. Firstly, after the latest terrorist horrors in Manchester and London, who is seriously going to suggest that the UK should pull out of its intelligence sharing and security cooperation with European police and counter-terrorism services? A handful of little Englander ideologues will object to UK cooperation because it is overseen by the European Court of Justice but that will not resonate on many doorsteps. Secondly, the disastrous performance of President Trump in Saudi Arabia, at NATO and the G7 has given renewed momentum to the desire amongst European leaders for greater self-reliance. The swift declaration with the Chinese government upholding their joint commitment to the Paris agreement on climate change after Trump’s announcement of US withdrawal is an early example. Thirdly, the election of Emmanuel Macron as the new French President adds a powerful, new political figure pushing for collective action at the European level.

Until now the main political obstacle has appeared to be migration. The May government has argued that the UK must pull out of the Single Market and the Customs Union because membership of either is incompatible with the UK controlling its own migration policy. This view is regularly echoed by EU leaders and Commission President Juncker who talk about Single Market membership requiring adherence to the four principles of the Treaty of Rome, including the free movement of labour. Yet the way to combine a migration policy that is fluid enough to preserve economic dynamism and rigorous enough to inspire public confidence lies in articles 48 and 49 of the original treaty of Rome. Article 48 states that “freedom of movement for workers shall entail the right (a) to accept offers of employment actually made; (b) to move freely within the territory of member states for this purpose.” Article 49 calls for “the achievement of a balance between supply and demand in the employment market in such a way as to avoid serious threats to the standard of living and level of employment in the various regions and industries”.

In other words, these have to be managed processes. The treaty is not a neoliberal free for all. Freedom of movement is specifically tied to agreed, contracted employment and recognises the need to balance labour supply and demand. Here is the basis for a serious negotiation between the UK and the rest of the EU.

Importantly, this is the view of Jean Pisani Ferry, the author of Macron’s Presidential policy programme and now his chief economic adviser. Nine months ago Ferry wrote a pamphlet for the influential Breughel think tank with four other senior EU policy makers entitled Europe After Brexit. The authors argue that in an increasingly volatile world, neither the EU nor the UK have an interest in a divorce that diminishes their influence, especially as the balance of economic power shifts away from the North-Atlantic world. They propose a new form of collaboration between the EU and the UK, a continental partnership which would consist of participating in the movement of goods, services and capital and some additional labour mobility, as well as in a new system of inter-governmental decision making and enforcement of common rules to protect the homogeneity of their deeply integrated economies. On migration, the Brueghel authors see it primarily from a functional, economic rather than constitutional/political viewpoint. Hence managed labour mobility is required for the interdependent parts of the European economies to function smoothly and to enable firms to transfer staff to other countries easily, but there is no legal necessity for unrestricted labour mobility. Ferry’s co-authors are policy and political heavyweights including Norbert Röttgen, the Christian Democrat Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the German Bundestag and Andre Sapir, an adviser to two previous European Commission Presidents. Thus, there is intellectual heft behind the case for pursuing a managed migration policy within the framework of the Single Market. Currently, the 10,000 lorries a day that pass through Dover are the most visible indicator of how interdependent the UK and Continental economies have become. That is why it is so crucial to both the UK’s and Europe’s economic well-being that this tariff-free, seamless trade is retained. There is a viable political path here for a soft Brexit and now there is also a window of opportunity.

Throughout the election Jeremy Corbyn’s team took the political initiative. He should keep this momentum and bring the new parliamentary arithmetic to bear. For starters, his Labour negotiating team should:

* bring together all MPs regardless of party who want to pursue the soft Brexit option. They should re-draft the terms of the UK negotiating position and seek to win Parliamentary approval for it.

* open informal discussions with Pisani Ferry in France, Röttgen in Germany and other key players across Europe.

Calls for a second referendum are dead. They hampered both the Liberal Democrats and the SNP in the election. But what is on the cards is the negotiation of a proper, collaborative partnership with the EU. It will be complicated and difficult but the opening is now there. Can a progressive alliance come together to take it?

 

Jon Bloomfield is an Honorary Research Fellow at INLOGOV and an expert on EU funding, European and EU issues of regional and local government who carries out research on the EU and contributes to INLOGOV’s post-graduate programmes.