Iain Mansfield is Director of Research at Policy Exchange
A challenge for all of us who believe in Parliamentary sovereignty is that any Parliament can, in theory, change the basic rules of the political game. Such concerns have come into sharp focus with Keir Starmer’s proposals to drop the voting age from 18 to 16 and, perhaps, extend the Parliamentary franchise to EU citizens.
In the case of a hung parliament, even more radical changes could be in view, with the Liberal Democrats likely to demand a shift to Proportional Representation as the price for their cooperation – disregarding the decisive national referendum in 2011, where the British people resolved to keep our existing first-past-the-post system for Parliament.
Not all changes to the franchise are wrong, of course. The two Great Reform Acts, or the Representation of the People Act (1928), which granted women the right to vote on equal terms to men, were clearly positive measures. Parliament must retain the authority to alter the franchise or voting system. But the question remains: how can one prevent a government from deliberately gerrymandering the system to give itself an unfair structural advantage?
It should not be forgotten that in 2019, when a Bill to call an early general election was before Parliament, Jeremy Corbyn and other MPs sought to amend the Bill to lower the voting age to 16, aiming to force through a controversial, partisan change to the voting rules in order to rig the election in their favour. Mercifully, Lindsay Hoyle, ruled the amendment out of scope and the Bill was able to proceed – and the 2019 election likewise. It is clear, however, that more formal safeguards are needed.
In Policy Exchange’s latest report, What do we Want from the King’s Speech, we propose that the best way to do this would be for Parliament to enact a Referendum Lock, ensuring that any attempt to change the voting system or lower the voting age must first be approved by the British people in a referendum. This would form a constitutional and political constraint on future Parliaments not to legislate about these matters without first seeking popular support.
The case for referendums is sometimes overstated. People have, variously, suggested that there should be referenda on Net Zero, or on legalising same-sex marriage, or on a host of other matters. In most cases, such demands are misguided. Following the Burkean principle that MPs are trustees, not delegates, in most areas it is Parliament who should decide what is best – and MPs who should be held to account for their decisions at the next election.
The exception to this concerns fundamental constitutional matters, for such underlie democracy itself. This would include matters such as Brexit, Scottish independence – and measures to change the voting age or method of voting. It would also include measures such as creating a new chamber of elected politicians in place of the House of Lords. Such major changes to parliamentary democracy should not be made without the clear support of the British people.
No Parliament may legally bind its successors, but each Parliament exercises its law-making authority within the context of the political constitution. Our proposed Parliamentary Franchise (Referendum Lock) Bill would be similar to the relevant provisions of the European Union Act 2011, which required the support of the electorate in a referendum before the UK could transfer further powers to the EU, or to the Scotland Act, as amended in 2016, in which Parliament has recorded its political commitment not to abolish the Scottish Parliament without the support of the Scottish people. This statutory provision has no legal force – it is not intended to and does not limit Parliament’s freedom in law to abolish the Scottish Parliament – but it clearly changes the constitutional context in which later Parliaments act.
With Labour openly talking about lowering the voting age to sixteen, a move without bipartisan support that would be clearly in their self-interest, and with other parties proposing even more radical changes, the Government should act now to safeguard our democracy. The Welsh Labour Government and the SNP Scottish Government have already legislated to allow all resident foreigners to vote in local and devolved elections.
The Parliamentary Franchise (Referendum Lock) Bill would safeguard our existing democratic system by raising the political cost for a future Parliament to change the parliamentary franchise (enabling persons aged under 18 years or EU citizens other than citizens of the Republic of Ireland or Malta to vote) or to change the voting system (replacing First Past the Post with some other system) without holding a referendum.
The Bill is just one of fourteen bills comprised in our new report, referred to above, which sets out an ambitious agenda for the Government to fulfil their mission of change before the next general election.
Most important is for the Conservatives to create new hope for young people through a bold and ambitious programme of house building. Although Labour is trying to position themselves as the party of home-ownership, the truth is rather different. In September, when the Government brought forward measures to reform the ‘Nutrient Neutrality’ rules, Labour voted to block the construction of 100,000 homes that had already achieved planning permission. The Government should therefore put the Opposition to the test, by confronting them with serious, credible legislation to increase the housing supply – and seeing if they will back it.
Specifically, the report proposes a right to build in urban areas, which would grant planning permission in principle to all of those within a city to densify existing sites. Councils without an up to date local plan, the guide to how many homes they would build, would also be expected to adopt a position in favour of development. Beauty and high design standards also would be integrated into new developments, with greater public and community participation in the planning process.
Alongside this, the Government needs to abolish the archaic practice of leasehold and provide for the enfranchisement of existing leaseholders on a compulsory basis. The Conservative Party of Canada has won the support of young people through its commitment to house building – and there is no reason why this Government cannot do the same.
Other important proposals include mandatory minimum sentences for prolific criminals to tackle the scourge of shoplifting, a new Energy Investment and Affordability Bill to stimulate investment in the electricity grid and a Digital Health and Care Bill to bring down waiting lists by digitising the NHS. To support skills and productivity, the Government must cap the number of taxpayer funded places at universities – many of which are currently on low value courses – and reinvest the money saved into a Skills Tax Credit to help British business train the skills we need to improve productivity.
Finally, the Government should take steps to address the growth of radical and contested political ideologies within our public services. The Government should repeal the Public Sector Equality Duty to stop the public sector wasting money on unnecessary diversity initiatives, while leaving individual protections against discrimination unchanged, and create a new, absolute, right for parents to see what is being taught to their children – and allow them to go to court if necessary to force schools to stop teaching age inappropriate or politically biased material.
Collectively, these Bills would grow Britain’s economy, improve our public services, strengthen public order and safeguard our constitution – and chart a bold course for change in advance of the coming election.