Oxford University Press - Online Resource Centres

Broadbent: Public Law Directions

Chapter 4

1. How does the present electoral system operate?

In terms of its operation you should identify the basic components of the system; namely the division of the country into constituencies each returning one member of parliament elected by voters in the constituency casting a single vote for their preferred candidate, and the candidate with the most votes being elected to represent the constituency for a parliamentary term of up to 5 years. Candidates have to be nominated in order to stand for election and this is normally a matter for political parties, who put forward candidates in some or all constituencies. As a significant number of seats are “safe” in the sense that they will, in the ordinary course of things, return a member from a particular party, this effectively means that the election is under the control of the local party in relation to a large number of seats.

2. Is the present electoral system in need of reform?

This depends on your point of view. The fact that the present system has remained largely unaltered for a significant period of time might suggest that it is basically sound and if it seems to work then there is a strong case for leaving it alone. You will need to evaluate the arguments for preserving the present system to decide whether this view is sound. Particularly strong arguments relate to the link between the MP and the constituency, the simplicity of the system and the fact that it tends to produce a working majority for the government.  These need to be weighed against the competing arguments, especially those relating to the limitations of the present system in terms of the lack of correlation between votes cast and seats obtained, the argument that having a government with a large majority is not necessarily desirable and the argument that smaller parties should be represented more proportionately. Even if you conclude that the present system is in need of reform you then have to decide what system might replace it: the various systems, of proportional representation or some mixed system, need to be evaluated.  Ultimately, the question is resolved on the basis of the values you think are most important for the electoral system to display.

3. What are the functions of Parliament?

This can be divided in a number of ways.  Parliament generally carries out a number of functions, including the making of legislation, debates and generally holding the government to account through these and other mechanisms, such as select committees and questions. As a national institution Parliament is a focus for the discussion of national issues. Individual members of parliament may use their position to deal with matters raised by their constituents, for example by raising the matter with a minister, tabling a question, putting forward a private member’s bill or communicating with an individual or body on behalf of the constituent. Resolving problems, whether individual or collective, has traditionally been a major function of Parliament, which also, until the Supreme Court came into operation, housed the final appeal court.

4. How successfully do you think it carries out these functions?

It is worth remembering that the government has a majority in the House of Commons and that this inevitably means that the ability of the opposition parties to hold the government to account will be limited. Further, the superiority of the House of Commons over the House of Lords means that the government’s dominance extends to the whole of Parliament. This limitation extends to the activities of Parliament, including the making of legislation, but when looked at solely in theory fails to take into account the reality that the government for political reasons must take account of objections of the opposition parties and the House of Lords to its policies.

5. What functions does the present House of Lords perform and how successfully do you think it carries them out?

The functions of the House of Lords largely mirror and complement those of the House of Commons: the Lords engage in the making of legislation, debates and scrutiny of the government. On this last point, it is worth remembering that some government ministers will be members of the House of Lords. The House of Lords also, although this was a constitutional oddity that has now disappeared, housed the final appeal court in the domestic legal system. However, this ceased to be the case when the Supreme Court became operational.

6. Would a reformed House of Lords improve the working of Parliament or are the present arrangements satisfactory?

When the former Prime Minister, John Major, was asked about this, his response was to quote the old maxim “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it”. As with many aspects of the British constitution the idea of having a chamber of the legislature composed of people largely there because of the circumstances of their birth or because they had been appointed by the government of the day might seem to be a recipe for ineffectiveness, but it could be argued that it brings into the political process those who might not otherwise become involved and thus brings a wider range of expertise to the deliberations of the House. However, whilst it may appear to work, it is offensive to democratic principles to have a chamber composed in this way and hence the moves to reform the House of Lords along democratic lines. Whilst the final form of the future criteria for membership has not been decided it seems clear that elected members will be a feature, though what proportion of the House will be elected is as yet undecided. The real issue is the power exercised by the House of Lords relative to the power of the House of Commons. At present the House of Commons enjoys superiority, confirmed in the Parliament Acts 1911–1949.  However, the question for the future would be whether a reformed House of Lords would be entitled to exercise greater power than it does at present on the back of its greater democratic mandate.