Describing Britain as “a fractured democracy,” British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg outlined a sweeping package of measures on Monday that he said would restore shattered public confidence, including a referendum on May 5 next year on a new voting system for Parliament.
The measures will include a bill to eliminate the prime minister’s traditional power to call a new election at any time during the five-year life of each parliament, among the prerogatives that have given British prime ministers a wide and sometimes overbearing authority in their dealings with legislators.
The bill, to go before the House of Commons this month, would provide for a fixed five-year term for parliaments and require a two-thirds vote by Commons members to force a new election when a government loses a confidence vote within those five years. An election would also be called if a government fell and no new government was formed within 14 days.
Speaking before the Commons, Clegg, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, partners with the Conservatives in the two-month-old government, called the changes an effort to “restore the trust in our political system that has been tested to its limits in recent times” by, among other things, last year’s scandal over abuses of parliamentary expenses.
“If anything was clear at the general election,” he said, “it was that more and more people realized that our political system was broken and needs to be fixed.”
A pledge by the Conservatives to hold a referendum on a new voting system was the price Clegg extracted for leading his party, the Liberal Democrats, into the coalition after the May election. The Liberals, Britain’s perennial third-place party, believe that the “alternative vote” system on which voters are to decide would give them a fairer share of seats than the current system.
Under the alternative system, ballots would list all candidates, and voters would mark their order of preference, instead of choosing only one. If no candidate received more than 50 percent of first-preference votes, the candidate with the fewest such votes would drop out. Candidates chosen second by voters who had marked the eliminated candidate as their first preference would have those second-preference votes added to their totals until a candidate reached the 50 percent mark.
Other proposed changes include a reduction of 50 seats in the 650-seat House of Commons; a redrawing of district boundaries to limit to 5 percent the variation between the number of voters in each district; a new recall power for voters when a lawmaker is found guilty of “serious wrongdoing”; a requirement that the House of Lords be either wholly or partly elected; and tighter rules for lobbyists, including that they enroll in a new parliamentary register.
The changes are expected to face strong opposition from powerful factions in the three major parties. They will also be a major test for the new government: The Conservatives, led by British Prime Minister David Cameron, have pledged to oppose the voting system changes that the Liberals support.
The Labour Party, ousted from office in May after 13 years in power, opposes equalizing the number of voters in each district, a change that voting experts say could cost it as many as 30 seats. Labour is also split on other voting system changes that many members of Parliament, like the Conservatives, fear could benefit the Liberals.
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