Michael Ryle Memorial Lecture 2015

Elections Transformed

Delivered by Sir David Butler in the Speaker’s State Apartments, 16 July 2015.

This lecture is in honour of Michael Ryle, for 36 years a Parliamentary Clerk. He had many achievements, but probably his greatest came in 1964 when he and the extraordinary Bernard Crick jointly founded the Study of Parliament Group, which for fifty years has done so much to foster understanding and reform of Parliamentary processes.

In many posts and ultimately as Clerk of Committees, Michael’s contribution to the institution which he loved went far beyond the call of duty. More than anyone, he oiled wheels and stimulated ideas, always unobtrusively. He encouraged colleagues to think more radically and provided factual support to colleagues and academics who were already inclined to be radical.

In 1989, he and John Griffith produced that great book Parliament: Functions, Practice and Procedures. He played a full part in much else that the Study of Parliament Group did – preparing evidence and organising meetings.

He was always constructive in seeking ways to improve the working of this ever-changing institution. Fighting the scepticism of his seniors, he campaigned for years for the setting up of specialist Select Committees: It was a huge contribution towards the better working of Parliament, and finally achieved in 1980. He certainly left his mark on the House of Commons.

Now I am here as a museum piece, with seventy years of writing about elections behind me.

During the rushed General Election of October 1924 my grandfather, A. F. Pollard, the Parliamentary historian who with Josh Wedgwood founded the History of Parliament Trust, was standing for that anomalous constituency, the University of London. But he was trapped in an American lecture tour, so my mother brought me into the world while managing his campaign, or should I more accurately call it his non-campaign. I have been hooked by elections ever since.

During the 1945 contest I gave my first and only campaign orations. As a very green officer too young to vote I was ordered to give a Conservative speech and then a Labour speech to battle-hardened troops in the dreary Hannover Plain.

In October 1945, demobilised by mistake, I was back at Oxford. My economics tutor, finding that I was playing with voting figures, sent me to see Ronald McCallum of Pembroke. McCallum was then writing the first of the Nuffield College election histories, launching a series that has been carried on to this day. McCallum was proudly innumerate: he said it would help the book if his prose was surrounded by some statistics.

The Appendix that I supplied changed my life. It won me a scholarship to Princeton, where I watched the Truman–Dewey contest as I hitch-hiked across the United States. It also secured me two extraordinary encounters with Winston Churchill, the first in the middle of the 1950 election campaign. Finally it won me a studentship to Nuffield College where I have remained for the last 66 years.

Enough of me. I want to turn to much larger themes: the nature of elections and the British Constitution.

It used to be said “you cannot make people good by passing laws”. Let me refute that proposition with a very local example.

Let us go back to the 1860s. At that time elections could be extraordinarily corrupt. Think of the fictional evidence of Charles Dickens in the Eatanswill contest, the electors riotous and drunken, as described in the Pickwick Papers. More realistically, read Anthony Trollope’s autobiographical account of his vain efforts to get elected as a Liberal candidate for Beverley in 1868 – out-fought and out-bought by his opponents. The election was eventually voided.

Then consider what happened next. The Elections and Corrupt Practices Act of 1868 transferred jurisdiction over controverted elections from a capricious and partisan Commons committee to a pair of High Court Judges, who speedily built up an enduring body of case law on what constituted corruption.

The three elections after the Act produced 101 petitions and 48 unseatings. Over the next thirty years the law became ever more exactly defined. As a result, the average of 16 unseatings per general election fell to two per election by the end of the century.

And from 1924 to 2010 no one was unseated for an electoral offence although, of course, in 1961, my lifelong friend Tony Benn was unseated for being a peer.

There were two other nineteenth century Acts which also helped to transform the electoral morality of the nation.

  • The Secret Ballot Act of 1872 meant that henceforth there was no means of checking whether bribed voters stayed loyal to the briber. Also it largely ended intimidation by landlords.
  • The Corrupt and Illegal Practices Act of 1883 did much to codify electoral sins. Moreover the expansion of the franchise rendered most types of corruption impracticable. There were now too many voters to bribe.

A few years ago, I had an amicable dispute in the columns of The Times with Lord Lexden about which Act did most to purify elections. Was it, as I argued, 1868 – the transfer to the courts? Or was it, as Lord Lexden suggested, 1883 – the codification of what can and can’t be done? And I know that some others would argue for the Secret Ballot Act of 1872. I doubt if consensus on which was most important is achievable.

It is remarkable how little has changed in election law since the 19th century. The conduct of the polling station and the count are much as they were back then. A very large proportion of the cases in those bibles of election law, Parker and Schofield, is based on nineteenth century precedents.

The franchise has been extended to women and to the young while the business vote and the university vote have been abolished. Postal voting has become easier, altering polling day itself and limiting the ability of politicians to swing votes in the last days of the campaign.

But how different have elections become during my lifetime? The running of contests has evolved far more than the legal framework. The very culture of elections is totally different nowadays.

The results were first analysed on television in 1950. But it was not till 1959 that the cut and thrust of the campaign was shown and heard on air.

I am clear that 1959 was the most revolutionary year in recent electoral history. Television coverage was egged on by Granada; they and others among the new commercial companies experimented with fresh formats. The pressure of independent television forced the BBC to abandon the former Reithian doctrine that only silence could guarantee political neutrality. It seems an absurdly puritanical idea now.

One example: Back during the 1951 election a programme on childbirth was banned lest it appeared as pro-NHS and therefore pro-Labour.

Every election since then has seen innovations. Battlebuses and portable telephones changed things in the 1970s and 1980s. The Internet took over from the end of the 1990s. Gone was the old quiet world when even senior ministers managed their own campaign diaries. We saw far fewer ministers in this year’s election, for example, than in the mid-60s when Ian Macleod told me he never much bothered about party headquarters.

Past customs have given way to the impressive centralisation and media management that we saw earlier this summer. The importation of technical advisers from America and Australia has been a feature of the last twenty years. It is paradoxical that while the facilities and new technologies made possible instant reporting from anywhere, the practice is to focus even more on a central Party message, delivered by leaders and, at most, one or two of their most senior colleagues. Front benchers learn that they cannot reach the headlines or even the minor news stories unless they make a real gaffe and careful management prevents that happening – although it is possible that Twitter has made a gaffe easier to commit and perhaps easier for the media to find.

The issues of politics have changed from year to year. Nationalisation and the Empire, dominant in the 1950s, have given way to public spending and immigration. Bill Clinton’s admonition in his 1992 campaign predominates in national campaigning: “It’s the economy, Stupid” that still permeates every British manifesto.

Now pause for a moment to consider the politicians’ target – the electorate and how much it has been transformed over the last sixty years.

Few of the changes have been made by conscious political action. For the most part they just happened, irrespective of governmental or party policies.

Here are some points that stand out – from these figures which record some of the changes in the electorate over the 65 years, since 1950.

  • Population up 20%
  • Expectation of life: up 13 years
  • Non-white population up from virtually zero to 16%
  • Home ownership up from under a third to over two thirds
  • Television ownership up from nothing to saturation
  • People describing themselves as “Working-class” down from nearly half to under a third
  • Internet users leaping from nothing to 75%
  • Women in paid work doubled
  • School leavers in continuing education up from 6% to 47% while the school leaving age moved from 14 to 18
  • Finally and most important, the number of heavy industry workers is down from 39% to 10%

Year by year the politicians have had to adapt to this changing electorate (although they haven’t always succeeded).

The electorate has also become more volatile.

In the 1960s four-fifths of major party supporters told our British Electoral Survey that they supported their party “very strongly” or “fairly strongly”. Fifty years later that prooportion had been halved.

In 1950 over half of the electorate claimed to have been canvassed on their doorstep. Fifty years later that figure had halved.

On another point, it is worth remembering that unexpected results have been the norm rather than the exception. We shouldn’t have been so surprised by how surprised we were this year.

In twelve of the last twenty general elections the outcome has defied the prophets – and the pollsters.

  • In three elections (’45, ’66 and ’97) there was a Labour victory of totally unexpected proportions.
  • In three others (’50, ’64 and October ’74) an expected Labour victory was achieved by only a single-figure margin.
  • In four contests (’59, ’70, ’92, and 2015) there was a Conservative victory that was either totally unexpected or of unexpected scale.
  • And in two elections (February ’74 and 2010) there was a hung parliament that few anticipated.

The lesson from these outcomes is perhaps that political science is even less of a science than we thought it was. Voters routinely defy our expectations, perhaps even misleading themselves when they answer opinion pollsters.

Let me turn from elections to the Constitution.

In my lifetime (and in Michael Ryle’s too) there have been fundamental changes in the nature of government as well as in the conduct of elections. The basic assumptions about the British Constitution with which we grew up have been quietly transformed.

I would like to put the developments in our situation into a wider Constitutional context. Sixty years ago a middle of the road teacher of politics could sum up the government of Britain in one portmanteau sentence.

It goes like this:

Britain is (1) governed under an (2) unwritten constitution that is (3) unitary, and (4) centralised, by a (5) Cabinet that is (6) individually responsible and (7) collectively responsible to a (8) Sovereign Parliament, dominated by (9) two disciplined parties, chosen (10) first-past-the-post by (11) a stable electorate.

Each of the eleven propositions implicit in that sentence has come under challenge during the last half-century, and I think it’s worthwhile going through them point by point, to see the extent of the change that we have witnessed.

(1) Britain is governed. Yes, Britain is governed but by whom or what? Scepticism about how far Britain is governed from Westminster can be attributed not only to the obvious facts of global politics and trade, but also to the way government decisions are portrayed on television and in the press. Declining respect for politicians as a class has weakened faith in the efficacy of government.

(2) An unwritten constitution. A century ago Austen Chamberlain could say “unconstitutional is just a term used in politics when the other fellow does something you don’t like”. Over the last three centuries Montesquieu, Blackstone, Bagehot, and now Bogdanor, have talked about “the Constitution” but, despite Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights, and the Great Reform Act, there never was a document which politicians or judges could consult in order to determine what was constitutionally proper in a time of crisis. There has never been a serious demand for a comprehensive written constitution.

However, since 1972 the United Kingdom has subscribed to the Treaty of Rome and its successors. In 1998 the Scotland Act, the Government of Wales Act, and the Human Rights Act set further limits to the things that the government at Westminster can do. Many of the rules of the game are still unwritten but much is now set down in de facto unrepealable law which the judges in London, Luxembourg, or Strasbourg can – and do – interpret.

(3). Unitary – does Britain have a separation of powers?Fifty years ago it was possible to agree with Bagehot that Montesquieu and Blackstone were fundamentally wrong and that there was no “separation of powers” between Executive, Legislature and Judiciary in Britain. The Executive and the Legislature were merged, buckled together through a Cabinet dependent on parliamentary approval. In contrast to the United States, parliamentary actions could not be overridden by a Judiciary which was only concerned with the application of established civil and criminal law.

Today there is more conflict between executive and legislature. Party rebellions in the Commons have increased significantly. The Upper House, where no single party Government can rely on permanent majority, presents much more of a problem to the government.

But the separation of the judiciary has become even more important. Government policies have been increasingly challenged under European Union law and still more under the European Convention of Human Rights which, since the Human Rights Act 1998, has produced significant cases for British courts to consider. Even domestically the activism of judges has increased. The number of judicial review cases expanded tenfold in the last three decades. The transformation of the role of Lord Chancellor and the decision to set up a Supreme Court separate from the House of Lords each have far reaching implications, many still becoming apparent: the transfer of judicial appointments from the Lord Chancellor to the Lord Chief Justice adds to the Separation of Powers. The work of the Supreme Court is more visible and externally accountable than the Appellate Committee ever was. The growth in the influence of the judiciary means that today’s student of British government needs to be versed in law to an extent unimaginable in the 1950s.

(4) Centralised. Is it right to talk about a centralised United Kingdom the way we used to? The overwhelming bulk of public business used to be conducted in London. In the last 30 years it has moved increasingly to Brussels as well as to Edinburgh and Cardiff (and indeed to the Greater London Council and perhaps in future to the Northern Power House). There has also been a great deal of administrative devolution to provincial centres. For a while the possibility of elected English regional authorities joined the political agenda. The formal dominance of Westminster and Whitehall has significantly diminished.

(5) Cabinet: How much does the full Cabinet actually matter?The Cabinet meets for many fewer hours than it did forty years ago. Far fewer papers are subject to full discussion with all ministers present; the number of papers fell from 326 in 1950 – to just 10 papers fifty years later. Government decisions now tend to be announced in the name of the Prime Minister rather than the Cabinet, often with senior ministers having had no opportunity to see or comment on them. Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, by their own unilateral changes in practice, demoted the Cabinet. Membership of the Cabinet still gives a politician status, but the idea that government decisions all emanate from serious collective discussion around the Cabinet table is now seen as absurd.

(6) To what extent do Ministers abide by collective responsiblity?
The old adage was that “any minister who disagrees with government policy must resign – or at least keep silent” for the old reason “we must all hang together lest we hang separately”. But leaks about ministers’ disagreements and reservations have vastly increased and the fact that so much less is now debated in full Cabinet means that the doctrine has been seriously eroded, even though recent decades have still seen principled resignations over collective responsibility (e.g. Heseltine 1986, Lawson 1989, Howe 1990, Cook 2003). It is ironic that we have more leaks about disagreements, but many fewer discussions and papers about which to disagree.

(7) Do Cabinet Ministers take Individual responsibility? There used to be a doctrine that “for every action of a servant of the Crown a minister is answerable to Parliament” and “ministers take both the praise and the blame for policies and administration while civil servants remain anonymous.” The doctrine still stands, but it has been weakened by the more frequent appearance of officials in public and testifying before Select Committees, as well as by civil service tasks being hived off to agencies and regulators which are designed to operate quasi-autonomously of Whitehall and of their Minister. It has also been weakened by ministers passing the buck to officials with contorted arguments about the division between policy and administration. Public servants worry about their decline in status and ask for a Civil Service Act to clarify it.

(8) Sovereign Parliament. Is Parliament still sovereign?
The absolute sovereignty of Parliament, idealised by Blackstone and Dicey and Jennings, has been much reduced. Since Britain’s adherence to the Treaty of Rome in 1972, authority has passed increasingly to European institutions. Separately, the European Convention of Human Rights, ratified in 1950, has (especially after the Human Rights Act 1998) increasingly guided British courts. Authority over many matters has been moved to Independent Agencies and Commissions which are answerable to Parliament only in indirect ways. Since 1998 the Scottish Parliament has regained many of the powers that it transferred to London in 1707. Referendums do in practice move power from the legislature to the people . The absolute sovereignty of Parliament looks more and more mythical.

(9) Our portmanteau sentence mentions “Two disciplined parties”. Only two General Elections since 1945 have failed to produce a clear single party majority. In 1955, 97 per cent of the vote was divided between Conservative and Labour and all but seven of the 630 MPs belonged to those parties. Since 2001 only about two-thirds of the vote has been won by those parties. The number of MPs attached to neither of the Big Two has averaged 80. In nine Parliaments since 1945 that number would have been enough to deny any single party a clear majority. The possibility of a hung Parliament has greatly increased and of course it actually occurred in 2010. Moreover party discipline has weakened. MPs just don’t do what they’re told anymore. In the 1940s, only two per cent of parliamentary divisions saw breaches of party discipline on the Government side. In the last Parliament it was 35 per cent.

(10) First-past-the-post. The electoral system for the House of Commons remains unchanged – but since 1974 it has become the subject of active discussion. The Labour Party entered government in 1997 committed to holding a referendum on a change of the system. The referendum was never held and the pioneering Jenkins Report was not taken seriously. Nonetheless the government installed the Additional Member System for the new devolved assemblies in Scotland and Wales, as well as versions of list proportional representation for the Greater London Assembly and for the European Parliament. The Single Transferable Vote is now used for elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Alternative Vote is used in Scottish local elections; but its application to UK parliamentary elections was defeated in a 2011 referendum. The first-past-the-post electoral system for Westminster (which now works in an increasingly capricious way) can be less and less trusted to produce clear single party governments.

The image of British elections has also changed. Turnout has fallen spectacularly. The winning party’s share of the vote, and therefore its mandate, touched a new low in 2005. Labour’s 35% would, a generation earlier, have earned nota comfortable victory but an abject defeat. Anxieties over fraud and money,–that big concern of 19th century elections – have re-entered debate. The electoral system still produces legitimate governments, but it stands in less high repute; the Electoral Commission, established as a monitoring body in 2001, has made this plain.

(11) Stable electorate. Party loyalties used to be much stronger than they are today. In the 1960s, 80% of people said that they felt “very strongly” or “fairly strongly” committed to one of the three parties. By 2005 that figure had fallen to 52%. By 2012 the figure was 31%. Party membership dropped from four million in 1950 to just over half a million today.

So there are eleven principles of the Constitution profoundly modified over the last two generations.

There. So much for long term change. But you will expect me to say something about the events of this summer and the unexpected transformation of some aspects of British politics. The election produced not a hung parliament but a clear majority government.

I am going to disappoint you. I await the analysis of my old friends Dennis Kavanagh and John Curtice, and the meditations of Peter Kellner, as well as Jane Green and her colleagues at Manchester who are working on the massive 2015 British Election Study.

On 7 May I was allowed a wonderful election night, being given free rein at the BBC studio. However, they pointed out that I was very old and might perish in the excitement: I must have a minder! So I brought a very bright, tactful and computerised 18 year old grandson. When the results came in I was as surprised as everyone else at the electorate’s failure to produce that expected result – a hung parliament. I told my old pupil, John Curtice, the hero of the night, that his exit poll with Conservatives at 311 must be a mistake – and so it was – but a mild underestimate rather than a serious exaggeration.

But for now I will only observe that this year’s affair provided the oddest contest in a long life of election watching. It had more novelties and it broke more of the accepted rules of the game.

110 seats changed hands. It’s true that more seats switched in the landslides of 1945 and 1997. But these were almost entirely movement from Conservatives to Labour. This year, allowing for wins over minor parties, the Conservatives made twenty-six net gains and Labour fifteen – an unprecedented level of two-way trafficking betwen the two major parties.

This time there was the revolutionary SNP gain of 50 seats in Scotland (not a single constituency in Scotland had changed hands in 2010) and the Lib Dem loss of 49 seats almost everywhere. UKIP, with almost four million votes, getting only one seat – the harshest treatment that our capricious electoral system has ever inflicted on a nationwide party.

And (here’s a less-noticed statistic): despite the Conservative victory Labour actually won more seats from the Conservatives than the Conservatives won from Labour.

The broad regularities which I have learned to live with over many elections were disturbed. I am waiting to read a considered analysis of what really happened.

But I want to end on a broader theme … British Government does work.

This talk has been about the evolution of British elections and government during Michael Ryle’s lifetime. In fact Michael Ryle has his own monument in the thriving Select Committee system which he did so much to establish. It is true that two efforts at major changes to the Constitution have been attempted and have been unsuccessful: Lords reform, and electoral reform. And it is hard to see how this or any other Government will ever be able to cobble together the needed majority in both Chambers simultaneously, to reform the House of Lords or the electoral system. But it comforting that differing Governments have managed devolution and social change in a moderate and civilised way.

There is much to worry about in the future. But I do remain optimistic about the capacity of the inhabitants of this crumbling edifice – those two very different tribes – MPs and Clerks – to cope with the challenges ahead.