The Constitution Unit blog in 2021: the year in review

2021 has been a fascinating time to be writing about the UK constitution, its institutions and those involved in working within them. The government, despite the pandemic, has proposed a raft of policies with constitutional implications, including a restriction of judicial review, changes to the right to protest, human rights reform and an online safety bill shorn of a previous commitment to safeguard democracy from online harms. As the year comes to an end, blog editor Dave Busfield-Birch offers a roundup of the year just gone, as well as a look at the reach of the blog through the lens of its readership statistics. 

2019 was a year of constitutional flux and tension, with a new Prime Minister, a new Brexit deal and a new parliament. In 2020, COVID-19 upset the political calculus and posed challenges aplenty for the constitution and its watchdogs. 2021 saw the country seeking to find its way as COVID-19 conditions became the new normal, within a context of a government that has persistently broken rules and violated norms (and not always to its advantage). Below are our most popular blogs from the past year, preceded by a personal selection by me, at the end of my fourth year as blog editor.

Editor’s picks

A woman’s place is in the House: reclaiming civility, tolerance and respect in political life, by Dame Laura Cox.

If I have a constitutional niche, it is parliamentary standards of conduct and the slow evolution of the standards regime at Westminster. Outside of the Unit, I provide free employment law advice to members of the public, with an emphasis on discrimination. This post was therefore always going to be included on this list.

Dame Laura, who produced a seminal report on the bullying and harassment of parliamentary staff, argues with eloquence and passion that the behaviour of too many parliamentarians is misogynistic and a cause of capable women leaving parliament, or having to accept behaviour that would not be permitted in any other workplace. She says that this is in part an institutional problem, and calls for a more open, tolerant, respectful and conciliatory politics.

‘Our travel difficulties haven’t been well-understood by the Government’: life as an MP from the smaller opposition parties during the pandemic, by Louise Thompson and Alexandra Meakin.

One of the country’s foremost experts on small parties and (in my opinion), the go-to source for analysis of Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster, team up here to fantastic effect. They outline how smaller parties have been disproportionately affected by government choices about how parliament should operate during the pandemic. They offer a warning that this might have long-term and unintended consequences: failure to enable the voices of MPs from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales to be heard may lead to constituents in these nations feeling voiceless in an institution that no longer represents them.

The post is one of a long-running series on the impact of COVID-19 on our constitution and its institutions.

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The draft Online Safety Bill: the view of the Joint Committee

The government’s draft Online Safety Bill has been subjected to pre-legislative scrutiny by a joint committee of MPs and peers: an unusual procedural step. Following on from publication of its report, committee chair Damian Collins outlines its key findings and recommendations.

On 14 December the Joint Committee on the Draft Online Safety Bill, which I chair, published our final report on the government’s plans to ‘make the UK the safest place in the world to be online.’

Keen followers of Westminster will know that a pre-legislative, joint committee of the House of Lords and House of Commons is a rare creature, brought into existence little more than once in the duration of a four-year parliament. When there are high levels of interest in a draft bill across all parties and both chambers, such a committee can prove a useful tool to stress test its most critical clauses. Given that the Communications Act 2003, which established Ofcom, was subject to such scrutiny under the chairmanship of Lord (David) Puttnam, it is fitting that the next major reform in media regulation should have followed the same path.

For me this started in 2018, when I chaired a House of Commons inquiry into Disinformation and ‘Fake News’, followed by another in 2019 into Immersive and Addictive Technologies. These were conducted by the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee and called out big tech companies for being ‘digital gangsters’ with users’ privacy and safety, and recommended that the UK set up an independent regulator to hold them to account for any harms they caused.

Fast-forward to 2021, and the government set out to do this, publishing a draft Online Safety Bill in the spring, and setting up a Joint Committee in the summer to scrutinise the proposed legislation. Composed of some of the most longstanding experts in parliament on tech policy, media regulation, civil liberties and business governance, we set straight to work. Over the last five months we have held 30 hours of public evidence sessions and read more than 200 pieces of written evidence. We have spoken with over 50 witnesses: ministers, academics, civil society campaigners, industry executives, whistleblowers, and many other parliamentarians, from the UK and abroad. After many hours of closed deliberations, we unanimously agreed on 127 recommendations.

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Should we be allowed to see MPs’ voting records?

Sites like TheyWorkForYou have led to a greater use of parliamentary voting records as a means of holding MPs to account, but it can also lead to misunderstandings about the position taken by the person voting, and to those absent due to maternity or illness being branded lazy. Ben Worthy and Cat Morgan discuss how their research has highlighted some of the problems and benefits of this additional data being made more readily available.

Watching Westminster has got a great deal easier. Since 2005, a whole array of new formal and informal disclosure tools mean we can watch, analyse and verify what MPs and peers are doing much more easily, often at the push of a button. Our Leverhulme project looks across this shifting landscape of searchable digital platforms of MPs’ expenses data, register of interests declarations, and Freedom of Information  requests.  

Most famously, at the centre of these transparency ecosystems stands TheyWorkForYou (TWFY), which monitors MPs’ voting and other activities. Created by volunteers in 2004 and run by mySociety since 2005, it allows us to see individual MPs’ (and peers’) voting records far more easily than in the past. For each MP it offers up, as the website describes, ‘a summary of their stances on important policy areas such as combating climate change or reforming the NHS’, described with phrases such as ‘generally voted for’, ‘always voted against’, and ‘never voted for’. Elsewhere it lists their full record, appearances, and declarations on the register of interests. It averages around 200,000 to 300,000 monthly visits, though this jumps amid elections or scandals.

And some MPs are not happy. A tweet by John Ashmore summarised, perhaps rather too pithily, the two reasons for their unhappiness or concern:

The first worry is that the voting data offers a distorted view. It doesn’t discriminate, for example, between certain types of votes and over-simplifies the rather complex realities. This means, as Stephen Bush recently explained, Green MP Caroline Lucas appears to have ‘voted a mixture of for and against greater regulation of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) to extract shale gas’ because she opposed, and voted against, legislation she considered too weak. Some of the most controversial votes, such as the Free School Meals vote, only make sense in the light of the fact it was an Opposition Day vote, something the site doesn’t explain either. Our research has shown how the data is biased and unevenly focused on, for example, high profile or controversial MPs or particular votes. Aggregated data easily becomes a metric to measure, compare and create yardsticks for what constitutes a ‘good’ or ‘bad‘ MP, giving the illusion of objectivity and measurability.

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The effects of early elections on satisfaction with democracy

As the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill makes its way through parliament, Edward Morgan-Jones and Matthew Loveless report on the results of their recently published comparative study, which explores the impact of the rules surrounding the dissolution of parliament and early election calling on citizen satisfaction with democracy.  

The Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill seeks to repeal the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011 and returns to the UK Prime Minister the right to call early elections at any time, without the approval of parliament. This is a return to the to the UK’s traditional constitutional practice for dissolving parliament. The Fixed-term Parliaments Act changed this practice by limiting early election calling to occasions when either two-thirds of MPs vote for a parliamentary dissolution or the government fails a confidence vote and no alternative government can be found.

Returning to the prime minister the ability to call early elections whenever they wish increases the likelihood that early elections will be called for partisan and strategic reasons, that these elections will be called in conditions that favour the incumbent, and also makes it more likely that the prime ministers’ party will win such elections.

Our comparative analysis of constitutional rules governing early election calling in 26 European countries sheds light on the extent that we might be able to expect returning prime ministerial discretion to call elections to be associated with higher or lower degrees of democratic satisfaction.

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