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.

I particularly remember New Labour coming to power. I had been in the Commons since 1992 and enjoyed the dissolution of the Major government before our eyes. But the arrival of Tony Blair and New Labour was a horrendous time for parliament. Blair, with all his great virtues, had no interest in parliament at all. At the first meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party after we’d won the election in 1997 in Church House, he made a speech which basically said, ‘Get out of the place! Get out into the country! Be our ambassadors! Go and campaign!’ That was the whole tenor of the New Labour approach to parliament. Indeed, immediately they organised what they called constituency weeks. You could just sign yourself out and the more you were out of the place, the better you were. MPs were taken off select committees so they could go and do campaigning work. I remember my complete dismay at the time, thinking ‘I don’t think this is what parliament is for, and I don’t think this is what members of parliament are for’.

Another example of that is the establishment of the Modernisation Committee in 1997, which strangely didn’t give any attention at all to what I thought the purpose of modernisation was. For example, you could say we’d like parliament to do scrutiny better, or to matter a bit more in relation to the executive. We went on changing the hours so people get home earlier, all under the name of programme motions and the rest of it. But no attention at all to what the purpose might be of seeking to change the way in which parliament operates.

So the great virtue of The Constitution Unit over these years in relation to that background is the fact that it has said ‘let’s look at some of the evidence on what parliament does, let’s look at some evidence from overseas, at what other parliaments do, let’s see how we might do certain things better and differently’. This has given rise to a series of major reports offering valuable insights.

I’m not going to say much about the House of Lords, which has been a major theme of the Unit’s work, and not least because I seem to have spent too many years of my life thinking about House of Lords reform. There’s a cartoon I used once for a book I wrote on British politics. It shows two druids standing at Stonehenge, in the mists of time, and one of them says to the other, ‘next item on the agenda, House of Lords reform’. The virtue of the work that’s been done here, and by Meg Russell pre-eminently, is to highlight what the Lords actually does, and also to shatter some myths about ideal second chambers elsewhere. There is no model to be picked off the shelf. All second chambers, it seems, create difficulties and are subject to contention. They are all organised in different ways for different purposes, and the research has brought a breath of realism, fresh air and evidence to debates in this area. The conclusion has been if you want to proceed, don’t expect a great big bang. Instead, think about positive incrementalism. We’ve had many putative big bangs, none of which have ever banged, whereas we have had small reforms that have been successful. But we’ve reached the point now that even if you accept that this is the approach, we can’t go on as we are – with the chamber getting ever larger. Unfortunately I have this sneaking suspicion that in a typical British way further House of Lords reform will come not because great reformers have proposed it, but because you can’t get a drink at the bar anymore.

On the side of the Commons, everyone says the select committees have been the great growth area of parliament in recent years and it’s true. If I look back twenty years, they are different animals in many ways – their whole profile, reputation, focus, the attention to them, is altogether different. Meg and colleagues were the first to systematically consider what select committees did and what impact they’ve had, and they found that the committees were far more influential on the whole than people had thought. They came to a figure that around 40% of things they recommended were taken on board by government. They were taken extremely seriously by government and by Whitehall, proving that those who wrote them off were wrong. Then the Unit turned its attention to legislative committees, public bill committees, seeking to highlight again how overseas experience, greater permanence and more expertise was required.

And finally, my pièce de résistance. In the wake of the expenses debacle I wrote a letter to Gordon Brown saying we should really do something about parliament, that we should set up a committee to look at how we can reform parliament and so on. On the day that Gordon Brown made his statement on constitutional reform in the Commons, Jack Straw said to me, ‘Did you know that Gordon was about to announce that he is going to set up the committee you recommended?’, and I said no. And he said ‘Did you know you were going to chair it?’, and I said no – that was a good example of the Brown government in action! But the point about that is that we created that reform, in the wake of the expenses, absolutely on the back of on the work that the Unit had done. It is because of that that we’ve got the reforms that mean select committees are now elected.

The Unit has made these huge contributions to thinking about improving parliament over these years. My concluding thought is that for reform to happen, as Meg has noted, it requires a particular set of conditions and circumstances which are not within your control. But actually being there at that moment, with the materials at hand that can service that moment, is what will produce sensible and lasting reform. That is what the Unit has done for the last twenty years, and I hope it will continue to do it for the next twenty years.

For more posts in this series based on The Constitution Unit’s 20th anniversary event, click here.

About the speaker

Tony Wright was the Labour Member of Parliament for Cannock and Burntwood from 1992 to 1997 and for Cannock Chase from 1997 to 2010, during which time he chaired the Public Administration Select Committee from 1999 to 2010 and the Reform of the House of Commons Committee in 2009. He is now Visiting Professor of Government and Public Policy at The Constitution Unit.

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