Where next for reform?

In 2013, the Electoral Reform Society published Reviving the Health of Our Democracy, in which they argued that the UK’s constitutional arrangements should be remodelled with a view to delivering three clear outcomes:

  • active participation and engagement, giving everyone the opportunity to shape the decisions that affect their lives

  • fair representation, ensuring our institutions reflect the people they serve, their choices and identities

  • good governance in the form, function and culture of democratic decision making

Many of the obvious changes that were suggested at the time of the 2013 paper have now been piloted in one form or another.

● Simplifying voter registration. The system was changed from a household-based system of registration to individual voter registration. However, far from improving electoral participation, the result of this change was a fall in voter registration.

● Lowering the voting age to 16. Sixteen-year-olds were allowed to vote in the 2014 Scottish Independence referendum and in the 2021 elections to the Scottish Parliament and Senedd — but not in UK general elections or in the 2016 UK-wide EU referendum.

● Making wider use of e-democracy. Online petitions, citizens’ assemblies and citizens’ juries have all been trialled.

● Opening up candidate selection. Although the major parties’ dalliance with primaries, public hustings and ‘one member, one vote’ offered the prospect of wider access to elected office, the reality is that in spite of a larger number of female MPs being elected, the socioeconomic profile of those elected to the Commons has not been radically altered.

Electoral reform

Electoral reform has produced more proportional results in elections to the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and Northern Ireland Assembly. The rejection of AV in the 2011 referendum indicates that there is no public appetite for the extension of reform to Westminster. First Past the Post usually delivers strong governments with a clear mandate, and it preserves the valuable link between MPs and their constituencies. Although there is general agreement that the first- past-the-post (FPTP) system used in elections to the Westminster Parliament is, at best, inequitable, there has been no tangible progress towards reform since the 2011 alternative vote (AV) referendum.

Redrawing electoral districts. The Boundary Commissions have made proposals that would see a move towards more equal parliamentary constituencies but this has stalled.In 2020.March the government quietly scrapped long held plans to cut the number of MPs in Westminster from 650 to 600 as part of a review into constituency boundaries

The under-representation of smaller parties, and the way in which the current system produces governments with a majority of seats but a minority of votes, are arguments for further reform.

2020 Saw more electoral pacts. This is seen as evidence of the dysfunctional effects of FPTP

House of Lords reform

The reformed Lords was still largely appointed which still it has limited accountability, weak democratic legitimacy and is unrepresentative. Only a fully elected second chamber, it is argued, is acceptable. However, there has been some benefit in terms of making the Lords more professional and effective in checking government power and improving legislation.

The upper house is based much more firmly on merit and experience. Its greater assertiveness in holding the government to account is an argument for leaving the Lords as it is. An elected chamber would mirror the Commons, producing a house dominated by professional politicians and reducing the range of expertise currently available.

On the other hand the Lords lacks democratic legitimacy because none of its members are elected. This is make it very unusual in comparison to most modern democracies. In 2020 the new Conservative government appointed 30 more Lord 15 were donors to the Conservative party. Prime Minister Johnson was accused of u-turning on promises to slim down the upper chamber and swelling its ranks with cronies.

2022 -Labour is considering abolishing the House of Lords and replacing it with an upper house of nations and regions, as well as handing sweeping new powers to local regions and devolved nations

Modernising the Commons. Although there have been some efforts to regulate lobbying and reform party funding since 2013, there has likely been too little movement on this front to restore confidence in politics. The Recall of MPs Act 2015, which established a mechanism considerably weaker than that operating in many states in the USA.

Petitions Committee

The UK parliament’s new collaborative e-petitions site went live in 2015. Nine petitions were submitted and 60,580 signatures were added on that single first day, 20 July 2015. Twelve months on, a total of 18,767* petitions have been submitted and millions of people have signed at least one petition.

The system established that petitions with a threshold of 100,000 signatures should be considered for a debate and those with 10,000 signatures should receive a response from government. The Petitions Committee has hosted 20 debates in Westminster Hall on petitions with over 100,000 signatures, and the government has responded to 257 petitions (with only 17 still waiting for a government response at the time of writing). In short, a very small proportion of the petitions submitted have led to a specific action.

Brexit and Parliament

With the 31st December 2020 deadline looming, the UK and EU agreed a trade deal on Christmas Eve. The full 1,246-page EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement was published on 26th December. In the afternoon of the 29th December, MPs were presented with an 80-page EU (Future Relationship) Bill - legislation necessary to implement the new treaty. The following day, MPs and Peers were asked to fast-track the Bill through Parliament in a single day, setting aside limits imposed by the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act (2010). The Hansard Society called the proceedings a ‘farce’, while others argued that Brexit had further proven a need to expand Parliament’s role in the treaty-making process.


The 1998 act brought the UK into line with other European states by incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights into national law. It provides protection of citizens' rights without threatening parliamentary sovereignty. As the act is not entrenched, the government can modify the way it operates when required, such as the creation of control orders in 2005.

However, there is a case for strengthening the act on the grounds that governments can currently take away important liberties by a simple majority vote in Parliament. The fact that the European Convention cannot overrule Acts of Parliament means that rights can still be easily removed on by governments. The anti-terrorism measures that were enacted after the September 11 terrorist attacks on the USA were seen as a case in point, as were the measures to increase police and intelligence services powers of surveillance over private communications in 2015–16.

On the other hand Conservative critics would like to see the act replaced with a British Bill of Rights, which would make the UK Supreme Court the final judge of citizens' rights .On 3rd October 2014, the Justice Secretary, Christopher Grayling, released 'Protecting human rights in the UK', an eight-page strategy paper outlining the Conservative Party’s proposals to repeal the Human Rights Act (1998) and introduce a new Bill of Rights if they win the 2015 general election.


Opening up candidate selection. Although the major parties’ limited experiments with primaries, offered the prospect of wider access to elected office, the reality is that in spite of a larger number of female MPs being elected, the socioeconomic profile of those elected to the Commons has not been radically altered.

Party funding remains to be reformed. In March 2006, former civil servant Sir Hayden Phillips was charged with setting up an inquiry to come up with proposal for reform. It reported a year later. He recommended capping individual donations at £50,000 and capping spending for political campaigns. He also suggested increasing state funding by £25m and expanding its reach However, no subsequent government has acted on this recommendation. Pressure to make public spending cuts under the coalition government meant that this was not the time to place an additional burden on the taxpayer.


On 3rd July 2020, the First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, said that, despite the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which has required a co-ordinated response from the UK Government and three devolved administrations, he had not spoken to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson since May. Many academics have argued that the coronavirus has highlighted the need for a new machinery of intergovernmental relations, with either a strengthened Joint Ministerial Committee structure, or a new executive decision making body to enable the four governments to co-operate when their responsibilities overlap.

There were slight differences in policy from the very beginning. Sometimes, the differences were just a matter of timing, with different nations reaching the same conclusion at different speeds. For example, the UK Government ended jury trials and closed schools and colleges in England several days after Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland did the same. In other cases, the lockdown was tailored to local needs. For example, Scotland announced financial support for its fishing industry a full month before similar support was provided in England. Sometimes the devolved governments implemented the same strategy in slightly different ways. For example, England, Scotland and Wales all granted a year long business rates (taxes on any commercial properties) holiday. However, Wales limited this entitlement to properties valued under £500,000 in order to fund grants for small businesses during the lockdown.


There is a case that no more reform is needed:

· The current settlement protects the rights of citizens and recognises the desire for autonomy in the component parts of the UK. At the same time it enables the election of strong governments, which are able to act in the national interest.

· There is a lack of clear agreement on the form that any further change should take.

On the other hand:

In many respects, the current situation is incomplete and illogical. The UK is out of step with most other Western democracies in having an unelected upper house and a voting system that imperfectly reflects the preferences of the electorate.

A federal solution could remove the anomalies created by the current 'asymmetric' devolution arrangements.

· Citizens need greater clarity on the nature of their rights, and stronger protection against arbitrary government actions.


Criticisms of Labour's reforms

There are two broad fronts of criticism directed at the reforms of Blair's Labour government: that the reforms were inadequate (from the Liberal Democrat perspective) and that the reforms have gone too far (traditionally, the Conservative view).

The reforms were inadequate and incomplete

This is a liberal argument:

· Too much of the programme was not completed, notably electoral reform and the introduction of a more democratic House of Lords. This has led to a great deal of discontent and a feeling that Britain remains fundamentally undemocratic.

· It is also argued that the HRA is inadequate because it is not binding on the UK Parliament. This means that rights remain under threat (notably in the face of anti­terrorism legislation). Many liberals suggest that the only adequate answer will be the introduction of a codified constitution.

· Despite devolution, power in the UK is too centralised.

· The key argument concerns the power of government, which liberals see as excessive. They argue for even more reform of both Houses of Parliament, a stronger Bill of Rights and curbs on the prime minister's power to restore the balance back towards the people and their elected representatives.

· The failure to introduce electoral reform is seen as a major failing. Without electoral reform, it is said, Parliament will never be truly representative.

The reforms went too for

This is an argument presented by traditional Conservatives:

· The Human Rights Act is too much of a constraint on the powers of the government and Parliament. Furthermore, its terms are determined outside the UK, at the Council of Europe, and enforcement is ultimately by a European court.

· The House of Lords is little more than a chamber of political 'placemen' and is not independent enough of party control.

· Devolution has threatened the unity of the UK.

· The Supreme Court puts too much power in the hands of unelected, unaccountable judges.

The reforms reshaped existing constitutional arrangements but did not address deeper problems. In particular, the reforms failed to provide a solution to the problem of elective dictatorship, arguably the central weakness of the UK’s constitutional system. The major ‘hole’ in the Blair reforms was the lack of substantive parliamentary reform. It was notable that the government retreated on the issues that could have brought this about – electoral reform at Westminster, and an elected and more powerful second chamber. Also, no mention was made of the possibility of a codified constitution or an entrenched bill of rights.


The Johnson government planned to introduce constitutional reforms that it claimed were addressing problems created by earlier changes, including:

● Repealing the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, which had served to limit the use of confidence votes and the prime minister’s power to call a general election.

● Ending ‘English votes for English laws’, which established a veto for English MPs that was never used and created two categories of MPs.

● Replacing the supplementary vote system used in mayoral elections with first-past-the-post.

● Restricting judicial review, limiting the ability of the courts to overturn decisions made by elected governments. Critics argued that the government was removing checks and barriers and restricting rights including:

● Weakening parliamentary scrutiny, by increasing the use of secondary legislation and limiting the time available to debate bills.

● Appointing new Conservative peers, contrary to earlier efforts to reduce the size of the House of Lords.

● Adopting a more robust unionism, ignoring the devolved institutions’ concerns about Brexit legislation.

● Curtailing the rights of citizens, by restricting rights to protest and introducing voter ID requirements for elections.

The fact that the government dropped plans to set up a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission only served to reinforce the feeling that changes were again being made without an overarching vision. Given that there is still considerable debate over precisely where constitutional reform should be headed, it is perhaps unsurprising that the route towards that final destination remains similarly unclear. Back in 2015, the constitutional writer Vernon Bogdanor suggested that one way out of the impasse might be to establish a US-style constitutional convention. Such a proposal came to the fore again in 2021, with the fallout from the Covid-19 pandemic and the realities of Brexit having seemingly widened existing fissures between the UK’s constituent parts. On 31 January 2021, it was reported that Labour Leader Keir Starmer was coming under increasing pressure to back a raft of proposals set out by Labour peer Pauline Bryan, in her report Remaking the British State. Baroness Bryan’s recommendations included: ● a UK-wide constitutional convention bolstered by citizens’ assemblies to investigate options for reform ● a written constitution that would greatly reduce the monarch’s powers