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The Liberal Democrats should learn from the coalition's constitutional reform failures

The general election could give the Lib Dems a chance to influence government policy.

Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey delivering his keynote speech during the Liberal Democrat conference at the Bournemouth Conference Centre
Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey delivering his keynote speech during party conference. The party has set out ambitious plans for constitutional reform.

While the Liberal Democrats used their party conference to set out ambitious plans for constitutional reform, Jess Sargeant says the party should start planning now for how it could achieve lasting change

Constitutional reform was high on the agenda at the Liberal Democrat party conference in Bournemouth. Long-standing commitments to introduce a written constitution, reform the House of Lords, and create a federal UK were endorsed on the conference floor, while calls to introduce proportional representation for the House of Commons were met with raucous cheers in the auditorium and in fringe meetings.  

These constitutional ambitions will no doubt feature in the party’s next general election manifesto and, should the election result give the Lib Dems a say in how the next government is formed, the party will want to bring as many as possible to the negotiating table. To stand any chance of delivering meaningful change, however, the Lib Dems should reflect on their failure to do so during the 2010–15 coalition. 

The Lib Dems should focus on their distinct asks in areas of political consensus 

Constitutional reform was a big theme of the coalition negotiations. Some Lib Dem policies were successful – including MP recall and changes to the line of succession. But otherwise progress was limited – the public rejected the introduction of the alternative vote system in a referendum, House of Lords reform failed after a Tory backbench rebellion and the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011, through passed, was later repealed.  

As our final report of the Review of the UK Constitution concluded, constitutional change implemented on the basis of minority support, without broad political consensus, is vulnerable to failure or reversal. So, the Liberal Democrats should, if the opportunity arises again, focus on those areas where there is cross-party consensus. Both Labour and the Conservatives also plan to devolve power within England, the Labour Party shares the Lib Dem ambition to reform or replace the House of Lords 6 White H, House of Lords reform is an ermine-clad headache for Starmer, Financial Times, 8 September 2023, and all parties want to improve the functioning of parliament and improve mechanisms for upholding standards. The Lib Dems should think about their distinctive asks in these areas. 

If proportional representation is a red line, then process will be key 

Proportional representation remains a priority for the Lib Dems. But, as the 2011 AV referendum showed, attempting to reform the UK’s voting system is far from easy. Resoundingly defeated, pro-AV campaigners blamed the option put the people, the timing of the vote, and how difficult it was to “sell a solution when the British people don't see a problem.” 8 Stratton A, AV referendum: Yes campaign handed thumping defeat | Alternative vote, The Guardian, 7 May 2011,

So if the introduction of proportional representation is a Lib Dem red line, then the party needs to work out now how it would secure the political commitment to change, and the process for achieving it. A key question would be what system would replace first past the post; there are many different options including the additional member system used in Scotland and Wales, single transferable vote used in Northern Ireland, or party list formerly used for European Parliament elections – and proponents of electoral reform are deeply divided on the right course of action. A process will be needed to choose a preferred option – rather than settling on a solution in behind-closed-door party negotiations. 

Reformers would also need to ensure that any change commanded public support and widespread legitimacy – such as through a citizens’ assembly or referendum – especially if it were only included in the minority party’s manifesto. Without public endorsement and political commitment, any change to the system could prove short-lived – the recent switch to first past the post, from a supplementary vote system, for mayoral elections shows how easily a governing party can switch electoral systems otherwise.

Changing the voting system would also have significant implications for the operation of government, parliament, and the union. The Lib Dems should consider – and set out – what reforms to the process of government formation, decision making and the operation of parliament would be needed to deliver the potential benefits of a more proportional voting system.  

There are ways to strengthen the constitution without a single written document 

Another flagship Liberal Democrat policy is the introduction of a written constitution – but in the context of the economic challenges and crises in public services facing the country, such a huge task would consume political capital and governing capacity, when the public will likely have more pressing concerns. But the constitution can be strengthened and clarified – with our Review of the UK Constitution setting out detailed proposals. 

We recommend creating a category of constitutional acts which require additional scrutiny and have additional protection, the creation of a new constitutional body – a Parliamentary Committee on the Constitution – to express an authoritative view on the constitution and challenge actors that seek to circumvent it, and measures strengthening constitutional guidance to bring great clarity to the rules. These proposals, while falling short of a written constitution, would give additional protection to the devolution settlement and stabilise relations between the four governments of the UK. They are also eminently more achievable in the short term, and could lay essential groundwork for more radical reform in the future. 

After the next general election, the Liberal Democrats may yet be presented with a chance to shape the policies – and priorities – of the next government, and these are opportunities that rarely come around. So if the party wants to achieve lasting constitutional change, then now is the time to plan for how – and how quickly – that can be achieved, learning lessons from the past.   

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