On 26 March, its final sitting day, the House of Commons rejected government proposals to reform how the Speaker is elected at the start of the new parliament. Here Meg Russell reflects on what this teaches us about parliament, suggesting it holds two lessons. First, that the 2010 House of Commons was more resistant than its predecessors to government dominance; but second, that further reform is still needed to reduce that dominance.
Two weeks ago the House of Commons met for the last time before the general election. A debate had been scheduled by the Backbench Business Committee to allow retiring MPs to make short valedictory speeches. This might have served as the highpoint of the day – a dignified and nonpartisan moment before election hostilities began. But instead the day was hijacked by a completely unexpected and high-profile row, when Commons Leader William Hague brought forward a motion to change the procedure that the new parliament would follow to elect its Speaker. This was widely viewed as an ill-disguised attempt to unseat Speaker Bercow, sprung in a completely underhand manner. In the event, the motion was defeated by 228 votes to 202. This brought an ignominious end to Hague’s own otherwise distinguished Commons career, and saw the Commons break up with an air of bitterness. Nonetheless there was also something to celebrate in terms of the defiant independence shown by Commons backbenchers, which rounded off nicely the independent 2010-15 parliament. Yet these events also pointed towards a reform agenda for its successor parliament.
On 4 March Jack Straw and Sir George Young spoke at a Constitution Unit valedictory event where they considered how parliament has changed since the 1970s. Sam Sharp offers an overview of the discussion.
Jack Straw and Sir George Young have 77 years of parliamentary experience between them – Straw was first elected in 1979, and Young in 1974. With both set to retire in May, they reflected on how parliament has changed since they joined in the seventies. The event was chaired by Tony Wright, while Meg Russell provided a ‘myth busting’ role. Both speakers described a parliament that has changed for the better, in both its culture and efficiency.
For Jack Straw one of the biggest changes has been in the atmosphere of the House of Commons. He remembered previously having to ‘swim through thick clouds of smoke’, with the chamber itself being the only complete escape. Alcohol abuse was also prevalent and Tony Wright recalled actually once carrying a passed out member through the division lobby. In general, parliament was very white and male with a Gentleman’s Club culture and the few women present were very much made to feel like outsiders. Straw argued that the change in the gender balance, although ‘not far enough’, has ‘actually changed how the House feels’.
Last week saw a Westminster Hall debate to discuss the report of the Speaker’s Commission on Digital Democracy. Andy Williamson argues that while concrete steps are being taken to implement some of the recommendations, greater drive will be needed to create a coherent long-term programme for the digital modernisation of Parliament.
Cristina Leston-Bandeira looks back at a year spent considering the options for the use of digital in UK government. She highlights key lessons that emerged from the process and introduces the report published on 26 January 2015.
Last month’s launch of the report of the Speaker’s Digital Democracy Commission (DDC) marks the end of an extraordinarily interesting year for us Commissioners. The DDC was established by the Speaker of the House of Commons to explore the potential of digital technology to support a modern and inclusive parliamentary democracy. Throughout the year we have collated evidence, listened to people and organised workshops across the whole of the country from all walks of life, as well as internationally. The report reflects this. It shows the diversity of views we have received on many issues from the making of legislation to the language of parliament.
As an academic used to interacting mainly with students, other academics and parliaments (I know, a very secluded world…), it has been a truly fascinating year. To hear what people think (or more likely do not think) of parliament in so many contexts has been a true privilege. From this the main thing I retain is that for most of us parliament is indistinguishable from government; most people assume parliament is government. Although theoretically I already knew this, this past year has made this all the more patent and visible to me.
This week the Constitution Unit publishes a new report arguing that the time has come to regulate prime ministerial appointments to the House of Lords – to prevent the chamber’s size escalating further, and prevent government manipulating its membership. The report argues that, despite large-scale Lords reform being awaited, this step is urgent ahead of the general election in May 2015. Here Meg Russell, the report’s lead author, sets out the key points.
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Recent years have seen endless stories about the growing size of the House of Lords (e.g. here and here). Since 1999, when the Lords was reformed to remove most hereditary peers, its membership has grown by one third – from 666 members to nearly 850 (see graph). This has caused not only media embarrassment, but concerns among the chamber’s members about its ability to function effectively. In 2013 the Lord Speaker suggested that ‘if we don’t reform and shrink our numbers, the Lords will collapse under its own weight'; last year she pointed out that debates are ‘coming under increasing time pressure as more members wish to speak, all to the detriment of our ability to hold the government to account’ (pay wall). In a full day debate on the size of the chamber last month, a former Conservative Chief Whip noted that ‘we all agree that the House cannot go on growing as it has been doing’. Yet just last weekend the Sunday Times (pay wall) claimed that a new list of up to 60 peers was likely to be announced following the general election in May 2015.
As the election approaches, Peter Riddell explores the very real prospect of a minority government and considers the challenges which would be likely to arise from such a scenario.
Paul Goodman was right to argue on Conservative Home in November that a minority government may be more likely than a full-blown coalition if there is a hung parliament next May. The bruises from the current coalition and changes in party strengths since 2010 have shifted expectations against a further coalition. And a lot of thought is now under way as to how a minority government would function, and how long it might last.
First, if you thought the ‘five days in May’ of 2010 tested the political and media worlds’ patience, we could be in for an even longer wait in five months’ time. At least in 2010, the first and third parties in terms of numbers of MPs added up to a clear Commons majority. But some recent polls suggest that the first and third parties may not pass the winning post for an overall majority, even discounting the handful of Sinn Fein MPs who will not take their seats.
That calculation makes much harder not only the formation of a coalition, but also reaching an informal arrangement. A multi-party deal is possible, but in theory only since the fourth, fifth and sixth parties, whether the SNP, DUP or UKIP have nothing to gain by allying with the larger parties. Of course, the SNP could be ahead of the Lib Dems on some projections, which makes a deal even less likely. And that could takes us back a century to when the Irish Nationalists held the balance of power.
On 14 December Michael Kenny, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary, spoke at a Unit seminar on English nationhood and the current debate around the English Question in British politics. Sally Symington reports on the event.
Michael Kenny’s talk ‘Understanding the Resurgence of English National Identity’ placed the current policy debate about the English Question in a wider context and brought to bear some of the values associated with English national sentiment upon some of the proposed solutions. Kenny drew on the results of his research project (sponsored by the Leverhulme Trust) which are detailed in his recent book ‘The Politics of English Nationhood’. The analysis triangulated quantitative polling data and qualitative research regarding the kinds of meaning people attach to their English identity in order to give a deeper and more rounded understanding of the issues. Kenny also discussed the territorial political dynamics which have contributed to the situation whereby the Conservative party makes the idea of English Votes for English Laws (EVEL) a salient part of its political and electoral appeal.
Kenny argued that it is important to distinguish between, on the one hand, a politicised English nationalism (apparent in attitudes of about 25% of the population) and a much broader and more significant pattern involving shifting forms of national self-awareness. In his opinion, the rise in English national consciousness pre-dates devolution; indeed it can be traced back to the early-mid 1990s and arguably even to the 1930s. The European issue, the bumpy shift to post-industrial economy and debates about the viability of the UK all contributed to growing English consciousness and since 2006-07 have been supplemented by a populist, grievance fuelled notion of a ‘golden-age’ for England. However, Kenny saw the broad consensus of ‘English’ identity break down in London where the prevalence of ethnic minorities results in a much higher rate of self-identification as ‘British’; this is one of the antinomies of England to which Kenny referred in respect of English nationalism.