The policy power of the Westminster parliament: The empirical evidence


The UK parliament continues to be dismissed as powerless in many academic and popular accounts. Drawing on a large body of quantitative and qualitative research conducted over more than 15 years, a recent article by Meg Russell and Philip Cowley argued that the Westminster parliament is in fact an institution with significant policy influence. Meg Russell summarises here.

In the study of public policy, legislatures tend to be portrayed as relatively weak institutions. This applies to the UK parliament in particular. The classic comparative view associates the Westminster model, of which the UK is seen as the emblematic case, with centralised executive power and an acquiescent legislature. Assumptions of Westminster’s weakness are not, however, confined to comparative scholars or to the recent past. In a 2011 article Matthew Flinders and Alexandra Kelso traced gloom-laden statements of British parliamentary powerlessness back over a century and more. Meanwhile, a public policy textbook published in 2012 reflected the view of many scholars in the field when stating that ‘Despite the name “parliamentary democracy”, the parliament plays only a limited role in decision-making in the British Westminster model’ (p. 139).

Yet in recent years scholars specialising in the study of the UK parliament have found evidence of significant parliamentary influence on the policy process. This may in part be due to changes in parliamentary structures and behaviour, but also simply result from more exhaustive research approaches. I have contributed to this literature through my work on the House of Lords, and the policy impact of the Westminster parliament. Professor Philip Cowley has also contributed greatly, particularly through his work on the Commons. In a recent article in the journal Governance we drew these various strands together – using four large quantitative data sets, complemented by more than 500 interviews with key parliamentary and government actors – to demonstrate that Westminster’s influence is both substantial and probably rising. We conclude that parliament’s critics make two key mistakes – by concentrating largely on the decision-making stage of the policy process, and focusing almost exclusively on visible parliamentary impact (e.g. government defeats on legislation). We broaden the focus to take into account both visible and less visible impact, with a particular interest in anticipated reactions. Our arguments are summarised in this post.

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Northern Ireland’s ‘Fresh Start’ agreement will bring short term stability but does not itself resolve the underlying problems


Alan Whysall discusses developments last week in Northern Ireland, arguing that the ‘Fresh Start’ agreement will bring stability in the short term but does not itself resolve the underlying problems. This blog follows up earlier posts outlining Northern Ireland’s current political difficulties here, and possible ways forward here and here.

After some months of stand off, and ten weeks of negotiations involving the main parties and the British and Irish governments, things moved quickly last week. A political deal on most of the problematic issues in the Stormont House Agreement (SHA) of last December, and more recent concerns about paramilitarism, was announced by the First Minister and deputy First Minister on Wednesday. The Assembly quickly moved on Thursday to give effect to it. Then the First Minister, Peter Robinson, announced his departure from that office and the leadership of the Democratic Unionist Party, probably around the turn of the year.

Immediate threats to stability at Stormont now appear to be averted, at least until after the Assembly elections next May. If, as appears likely, the DUP and Sinn Féin are again working closely together, a positive momentum in politics (as in 2010-12) may bring advances. But serious potential challenges lie ahead. And the ‘Fresh Start’ the deal claims to be will need a new approach to create the right political conditions.

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Votes at 16: What effect would it have on the EU referendum?

me 2015 (large)

The House of Lords has amended the EU Referendum Bill to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in the forthcoming EU referendum. The issue will now return to the Commons, but what difference would such an extension to the franchise make? Alan Renwick and Barney McCay examine the evidence.

The House of Lords yesterday voted by 293 to 211 to allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote in the forthcoming EU referendum, meaning that the issue will return to the Commons. The Electoral Commission has said that if 16- to 18-year-olds are given the vote the referendum could be delayed by as much as 12 months. But how might it affect the referendum’s outcome? We cannot know for sure but by piecing together evidence from various sources we can develop some ballpark estimates.

How many extra electors?

The first question is how many extra eligible voters there would be if 16- and 17-year-olds entered the electorate.  In 2014, there were 1,534,192 16- and 17-year-olds in the UK, while the number aged 18 or over was 50,909,098, putting 16- and 17-year-olds at 2.9 per cent of the 16+ population.  The ONS estimates that this percentage will fall to 2.8 per cent by 2016.

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Reforming the Italian Senate

Roberta Damiani passport-style

The UK is far from the only country with a long-standing controversy over the composition and powers of its second chamber. In this post Roberta Damiani provides an update on the latest attempt to reform the Italian Senate. Prime Minister Matteo Renzi is proposing to significantly reduce the Senate’s powers, and to move from direct to indirect elections, but it is far from certain that he will be successful.

The House of Lords has recently come under the spotlight for challenging the elected chamber on tax credit cuts, reviving the never-ending debate about the appropriate powers of a second chamber. But the UK is not the only European country experiencing such controversy: in Italy, Prime Minister Matteo Renzi’s government is pursuing radical Senate reform. There too, both the powers and the composition of the second chamber are at stake. And there too, reformers may find that achieving major change is harder than they first imagined.

The starting point for the debate in Italy is a feature of the country’s political system that is almost unique among parliamentary democracies: so-called ‘perfect’ bicameralism. That is, the two parliamentary chambers have exactly the same powers as each other – including on financial matters, and even with respect to votes of confidence in the government. Both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate also share the legitimacy of direct election: the latter currently consists of 315 elected members, plus a few life senators, who are either former Presidents of the Republic or highly accomplished citizens appointed by the President.

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The number of ‘safe’ seats should be reduced to strengthen UK democracy and increase participation


Ron Johnston, Charles Pattie and David Rossiter have argued that an IPPR report’s proposal that constituency boundaries should be gerrymandered to produce more marginal seats would be neither feasible nor sensible. The authors of the report, Sarah Birch and Mathew Lawrence, respond here. They suggest that a boundary delimitation outcome entailing more competitive results would not necessarily be more ‘political’, but it would be more democratic.

The UK has become significantly more unequal politically over the course of the past 30 years. Whereas in the 1970s and 1980s there were only small differences in rates of electoral participation between young and old,  advantaged and disadvantaged groups, by 2015 these differences had turned into gaping chasms. Fewer than half of 18–24 year-olds voted in the recent general election, compared to nearly four-fifths of the over-65s, while three-quarters of ‘AB’ individuals who were registered to vote actually did so, against just over half of ‘DE’ registered voters.

Differential electoral participation matters for democracy. If certain sectors of the electorate are known to vote with lower frequency, politicians are less likely to consider their interests when making policy. The result is policy that fails the inclusivity test, and also increased disaffection among members of those groups who – rightly – feel neglected by politicians. Disaffection in turn strengthens alienation and reinforces electoral abstention, generating a vicious cycle of under-participation and under-representation.

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Parliamentary reform and The Constitution Unit


In the last of our series of posts adapted from presentations at the Unit’s 20th anniversary conference Tony Wright reflects on 20 years of parliamentary change and reform. He argues that parliament has become a good deal better over the past two decades, and points to Unit research as making a major contribution to bringing this about.

I am struck by the fact that if you want to campaign for office in the United States, you have to campaign against Washington. Every candidate has to be going to Washington to sort them out, to break the Washington consensus. What I notice is that this has now started to happen here. Everybody campaigning for office here seems to have to attack Westminster, or the ‘Westminster elite’. This was standard fare in Nicola Sturgeon and Nick Clegg’s general election speeches, and in the Labour leadership contest. Now this is an interesting development, and it is certainly different from twenty years ago. Even at this event today, we have been encouraged by Vernon Bogdanor to organise our thoughts around the idea that parliamentary sovereignty is a busted flush, and the serious ways that power has been cut into pieces. I would actually put a more positive spin on it, and say that there has been accountability explosion over the last twenty years. If you think back about the accountability environment then, and what it is now, we are in a different world. In that respect there is much to put in the positive ledger.

But the problem is where does parliament fit in to that changed environment? The health of our representative institutions is something that matters and getting the right relationship between the old forms of representative democracy and the new forms that we might want to develop is where the challenge comes. The mistake we make is how we think we can embrace new forms, and simply forget about these old institutional bits, when the health of our representative institutions actually matters profoundly. And in some respects – and this is why I react against this Westminster elite trope – parliament has got a good deal better over these last 20 years.

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