Tuesday, January 05, 2010

The UK's backward electoral laws

Writing in the Guardian, Martin Kettle takes issue with the UK government's apparent refusal to hold a by-election to fill the seat of dead Labour MP David Taylor. Their reason? Because there will be an election within six months. To New Zealand eyes, this looks entirely uncontroversial - we codified the six month rule into law long ago - but to Kettle it is outrageous. And to some extent, he has a point - because the UK law is not codified, and so open to manipulation by the government of the day:

What makes this particularly egregious is that there isn't, in fact, a six-month rule at all. What there is, according to Labour, is a convention that there is no need to call a byelection that becomes due within six months of a possible general election. In theory, you can see the case for such a convention, because there seems little point in putting everyone to the cost and effort of holding a byelection merely for the new MP to do an about-turn and head straight back out on the hustings for a general election contest only a few weeks later.

Yet as I say, there isn't actually such a rule at all. Labour has in fact summoned this so-called rule up to suit its own interests. The so-called six-month rule is a rule with the same legal and moral status as the rule that said an MP could claim on expenses for his duck house to be renewed, or to have his moat cleaned, or to mend his bell tower. It is a rule, in other words, that should not exist, even if it did, which as it happens it doesn't anyway. If you get my drift.

What there is, according to the House of Commons library, is a convention that byelection writs "should be moved within about three months of the seat becoming vacant", though this is "not a statutory or a parliamentary requirement". There is no rule of the sort behind which Labour is proposing to hide for the next four or five months.

The same House of Commons library research note points out that a vacancy on e.g. the death of a member is not automatic, but requires the House to pass a motion to issue a writ. Which leaves open the possibility of them simply not passing one if they don't feel like it (or, in the case of former Speaker Michael Martin, not passing one for a few months because the polls were bad and it wasn't politically convenient to fight a by-election then). To have this sort of situation in a supposedly modern democracy is simply breathtaking - but then, given the archaic nature of the rest of their system (an unfair voting system with unequal electorates), it shouldn't be surprising.

Browsing around, the UK's core electoral laws are scattered across dozens of acts, some of which date back to the seventeenth century. The result is a tangled mess which (as seen above) fails to properly cover everyday situations (another example: MP's can't resign. Oh, they do, but technically they're all disqualified from the House for accepting a bribe from the monarch. Though given their recent expenses scandal, that's actually rather apt). The entire system needs to be repealed, reformed, and modernised in a single place. And while they're at it, maybe they could bring in proportional representation as well...