Joshua H. Packman

89 Texas L. Rev. 1229

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In this note, Packman discusses the pending Parliamentary Voting Systems and Constituencies Bill (PVS Bill), which is aimed at British electoral reform in response to the 2010 hung parliamentary election.  The PVS Bill provides for a referendum on switching from the first-past-the-post electoral system to the alternative vote and would also reduce the size of Parliament to 600 members.

Packman first examines the effect of the PVS Bill on the British Constitution by virtue of the referendum.  One important part of the British Constitution, according to Packman, is the doctrine of the sovereignty of Parliament.  Packman discusses different aspects of this doctrine, and notes that he is taking a simplistic view for the purposes of the Note that Parliament is the supreme legislative authority and its sovereignty is the core principle of the British Constitution.

Packman then introduces Bruce Ackerman’s thoughts on an alternative source of constitutional legitimacy: the referendum.  This would potentially vitiate parliamentary sovereignty, but Packman argues that this outcome is not preordained.  Packman finds that the PVS Bill as a referendum only partly diminishes the sovereignty of Parliament.

Packman then analyzes the constitutional effects of switching the electoral system to the alternative vote, which he argues represents a major reform of the British Constitution and a threat to parliamentary sovereignty.  He first provides an overview of the system and theory of government that exists under the current British Constitution.  He then looks at how the PVS Bill would change this system.  As such, Packman writes that the PVS Bill, by substantially reducing the number of seats won by the majority party, would effectively transform Parliament from a government of “front benchers” into a government of “backbenchers” by increasing the relative power of each member of the majority party vis-à-vis the Prime Minister and the Cabinet.

This is not the first time that Parliament has attempted to change the voting system, concludes Packman. And if it fails, it will surely not be the last.  Such alterations reflect underlying changes in the values embodied in the British Constitution, and the alternative votes represent a change from government based on parliamentary sovereignty to government based on popular sovereignty.