3rd June 2013
The progress of the latest parliamentary ‘scandal’ is following a depressingly familiar script. After media revelations come the cries of “something must be done!” Then enter ministers with their brilliant ‘back-of-the-envelope’ solutions – remember Gordon Brown’s hilarious video on how to solve the expenses crisis? – and their promises of swift, firm government legislation. All accompanied by … virtual silence from those actually responsible for Parliament and its two Houses.
So the stage is set for a government bill which will do as much to solve the perceived problems as the 2009 bill setting up IPSA (and its subsequent amending legislation) did for parliamentary pay and allowances regulation.
Putting to one side the horrendous complexity of regulating ‘lobbying’ (in all its manifestations, including what may properly be regarded as ‘representative democracy’) and related issues of parliamentary conduct, ethics and standards, this latest ‘scandal’ demonstrates some genuine, wider challenges for Westminster to confront. I suggest that underlying these episodes is a more fundamental malaise that Westminster fails even to recognise.
Ten years ago I wrote an article on applying ‘political marketing’ theory to the unique institutions of parliaments [“Political but not partisan: Marketing parliaments and their members”, (2003) 9 Journal of Legislative Studies 1-13]. Using such terminology, I suggest that Westminster has a world-class and priceless ‘brand’, but, in practice, it is a ‘product’ which has not lived up to this AAA rating, and has thereby inevitably devalued the brand.
Over recent years Westminster has made great strides – albeit from an abysmally low base – in raising awareness among the public, but has this resulted in a meaningful increase in public support and trust? The answer must be a resounding ‘No’. Why is that? The obvious conclusion must be that letting the public learn more about Parliament and how it works has simply revealed a failing institution. There is little point, and actually counterproductive, in active public marketing until you are satisfied you have a product of which you can be proud.
True parliamentary reform can only happen if Westminster has genuine institutional autonomy, underpinned by robust and coherent principles and operated by a partnership of members and staff dedicated primarily to the idea of Parliament as the servant of the public it represents, not the plaything of the Executive or special interests. Such a body can be robust enough to do its vital constitutional functions effectively and to deal properly with any external or internal ‘crises’ – especially those dealing with standards and conduct issues – in a proactive and rational way.
If Westminster already had such attributes, the corrosive culture that allowed the expenses scandal to grow and then explode would not have existed. Parliament and its members would have been open, transparent, responsible and fully accountable to its public. Instances of alleged misconduct could have been dealt with without media frenzies, moral panics, and knee-jerk government legislating.
So the public’s cry to its democratic representatives should not be ‘something must be done!” but “Parliament, heal thyself”.
This raises another point ie the relation of the executive to the legislature–so if there are large numbers on the government payroll sat in the House of Commons, how effective can be the control and accountability functions? How about the recall model for cases of “serious misconduct” of MPs? Many of these ideas meet with resistance and are difficult to put through in practice. How to get principled MPs in the first place? Training increasing awareness in the parties? Despite the slow nature of progress on parliamentary reform things have nevertheless changed significantly over the last years as mentioned above. Clearly more needs to be done
A very interesting article,and you are spot on. We need more principled MPs like Frank Field and Douglas Carswell who are prepared to hold government to account. Too many put their own careers first, without thought to the national interest, and vote according to the party line. Until 1918, MPs who were promoted to the executive had to resign their seat and seek their constituents’ approval in a by-election first. Perhaps this custom should be revived.
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“Standards have increased but expectations too. That point was made by the Nolan committee in the 90s. So MPs are not worse but have to conform to professionalism.”
Agreed. My point is not that things have got worse in Westminster, but that, like FoI, developments like a more activist mass media and new instruments of ‘direct democracy’ like social media, the growth of Parliament’s own ‘outreach’ and (to a limited degree) public engagement programmes may serve to highlight the existing failings, as well as feeding increased expectations. These programmes are necessary but not sufficient for a better, more effective parliament, if they do not lead to self-examination and a willingness to learn, change and improve. Westminster is catching up late on ‘transparency’ but still lags on ‘openness’, ‘responsiveness’, ‘accountability’ and true engagement. It’s still a ‘look but don’t touch’ culture, in the main.
If the UK Parliament, as the central democratic and constitutional forum in our system of government, improved itself – in partnership with the people, the executive and its other actors – it would become something worth telling everyone about and getting them to participate in, and engagement/outreach would become part of a virtuous circle of self-improvement, not a potential contributor to a vicious circle of malaise and distrust.
Parliamentary standards, codes of conduct and ethics can help improve the culture in legislatures (see OSCE Report on our Homepage), and it can help raise awareness and give people criteria by which to judge MPs. At least it seems in the UK that the parliamentarian concerned resigns the Whip until the case is looked into. That does not always happen elsewhere and MPs cling to their posts until the last. What you also need is a responsible press and ethics regime for the mass media. Many of the loopholes eg on expenses etc are blocked but there are always the black sheep that make it bad for the whole profession. Standards have increased but expectations too. That point was made by the Nolan committee in the 90s. So MPs are not worse but have to conform to professionalism