How much will they impact on Northern Ireland?
Firstly, it has to be acknowledged that Clegg is but the spare wheel in what is a largely Tory-driven vehicle. Whether he gets his way on this, or on anything much, is yet to be seen. But assuming he does, the following parts of his speech are of interest to the political scene in the north:
"This government will replace the House of Lords with an elected second chamber... Where members are elected by a proportional voting system."The current House of Lords is a scandalous anachronism – a mixture of inherited privilege and political appointments – that would make even a third-world banana-republic blush. And yet it has been accepted, even respected, in the semi-democratic UK right up to the twenty-first century! Irish nationalists and republicans have, of course, never accepted it – standards of democracy are clearly much higher amongst nationalists. One so-called ‘republican’ – a certain Gerry Fitt – was seduced into membership of the House of Lords, but he was barely able to show his face in Belfast again.
However, an elected House of Lords might be a completely different thing. If it was a democratic body, without the feudal and corrupt overtones of the present body, then nationalists might seek election, just as they do to the present House of Commons. It would, in effect, become another front in Northern Ireland’s on-going constitutional war. The same arguments and contests would take place – who would win more seats, nationalism or unionism, who within each block would prevail, and so on. It would, needless to say, provide another forum for Sinn Féin to boycott.
The ‘proportional voting system’ used to elect its members would obviously have to differ from that of the reformed House of Commons – otherwise the two bodies would simply be mirrors of each other. Might PR-STV in multi-member constituencies find its place here?
"This government will be putting to you, in a referendum, the choice to introduce a new voting system, called the Alternative Vote. Under that new system far more MPs will have to secure support from at least half the people who vote in their constituency... And, hand in hand with that change, there will be new constituency boundaries, reducing the number of MPs overall and creating constituencies that are more equal in size."These two changes would affect Northern Ireland significantly. Alternative Vote (AV) would mean that in each constituency the seat would be effectively guaranteed to the largest block, so the voting pacts and ‘unity’ candidates that Northern Ireland throws up would become obsolete. All parties would be encouraged to stand everywhere, in the certain knowledge that they would not be ‘splitting the vote’. In a limited number of constituencies, of course, where neither block has a clear majority, the transfers of the ‘others’ (Alliance, etc) will become vital. This means, of course, that the successful candidate would be likely to be that of the more moderate party. South Belfast would continue to return an SDLP member, but South Antrim would no longer return the odious McCrea from the DUP. Tactical voting would take place at the level of the second and subsequent preferences, so the first-preference votes would more closely show the ‘real’ strengths of each party.
The overall impact of AV would not be great, except in the few marginal seats. The party that would suffer most from it would probably be the DUP (who would lose South Antrim, and probably Upper Bann). The beneficiaries would be the UUP and the SDLP, though whether either would gain more than one seat would depend on circumstances.
The second part of Clegg’s plan for the House of Commons is a reduction in the number of seats, and that is very interesting. He provided no details on the scale of the reduction, though Cameron had earlier implied reductions that would leave Northern Ireland with about 15 seats. How they are configured is, of course, the key issue. Some seats, now marginal (North and South Belfast, for instance), could become safer for one or the other side. Others, now safe, could become marginal! The devil will be in the detail.
One further proposal in Clegg’s speech is also interesting. He said that:
"I have already commissioned work on introducing the power of recall. If your MP is corrupt, you will be able to sack them. You will need the support of 10% of people living in the constituency... And your MP will have had to have been found guilty of serious wrongdoing..."Now while he refers to ‘serious wrongdoing’, it would not be a stretch to include some form of penalisation for abstentionism in this context. If Clegg’s Great Reform Act decides to make the refusal to take a seat a ‘serious wrongdoing’, then the angry unionist voters – in all cases at least 10% – in the seats (now 5, perhaps fewer in future if the number of seats is reduced) held by Sinn Féin could instigate a ‘recall’ of the Sinn Féin member. This would certainly stir up a hornets nest.
Clegg’s plans are, of course, very preliminary, and there's many a slip 'twixt the cup and the lip. This is an issue – or series of issues – to watch closely.