Parliament and legislation: Perhaps Westminster is more powerful than you think?

Dan GoverMeg-Russell

Government defeats on the floor of the Commons, as seen last week, remain exceptionally rare, perpetuating assumptions that parliament is relatively weak. However, through analysis of 4361 amendments to 12 government bills, and over 120 interviews, Daniel Gover and Meg Russell find empirical evidence that parliament has significantly greater influence on government policy than is often assumed.

The Westminster parliament occupies a highly visible place within British politics and policymaking. Despite this, the conventional wisdom is that parliament’s impact on public policy is relatively weak. In recent years, Westminster has been dismissed by commentators as ‘an elaborate rubber-stamp’, ‘a legislature on its knees’, and even ‘God’s gift to dictatorship’. This pessimistic account has been largely shared by academics, albeit with greater nuance, who have tended to regard Westminster as an extreme example of an executive-dominated legislature. One of the primary reasons for this assessment is that there are few explicit signs of conflict between parliament and the executive. For example, government defeats on the floor of the Commons, as was seen last week over Europe, remain exceptionally rare.

Yet recent research has begun to challenge this consensus. One of the central strands to this new research agenda is our own major investigation into the Westminster legislative process – the first results from which were recently published in Parliamentary Affairs. Our study is based around detailed analysis of the passage through parliament of 12 case study bills: seven from 2005-10 under Labour, and five from 2010-12 under the coalition. The bills were selected to reflect the diversity of legislation considered by parliament. Some were high-profile and contentious, such as Labour’s Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill, its Identity Cards Bill, and the coalition’s Public Bodies Bill. But others were more routine and less controversial, on which different dynamics might be expected to apply, such as the coalition’s Budget Responsibility and National Audit Bill and Labour’s Energy Bill. Our research involved painstaking analysis of the origins and outcomes of over 4000 legislative amendments proposed to these bills, as well as around 120 interviews with key actors on them including ministers and their shadows, backbenchers, civil servants, and outside pressure groups. Our findings strongly suggest that the Westminster parliament is far more influential on legislation than is often assumed.

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The Queen’s Sorpasso

bob-morris

9 September 2015 marks the day Elizabeth II becomes the UK’s longest reigning monarch. Bob Morris takes this milestone as an opportunity to reflect on the evolution of the monarchy in relation to the constitution in recent years.

Today Queen Elizabeth II’s term exceeds Victoria’s and she becomes the nation’s longest reigning monarch. The institution she heads is not subject to any current serious challenge. Indeed, it is now probably as popular as it has ever been.

Milestones like this prompt reflection and the following attempts to consider what the present reign tells us about the monarchy and the constitution.

Resisting republicanism

To state the obvious first, the monarchy has survived. That should be regarded as an achievement in itself and not assumed to be a constitutional given. The very concept of monarchy is hardly attuned to the spirit of the times – increasingly egalitarian, democratic, undeferential, worldly, multicultural, secular. Some maintain that monarchy represents a vanished feudal worldview of fixed hierarchy, deference, social immobility and religious uniformity.

Despite these claims there is, apart from small sections of the chattering classes, no serious pressure to abolish the monarchy and replace it with a republic. With the possible exception of Australia, this appears to be the position too in the other former ‘settler’ dominions of Canada and New Zealand. Nor does a concerted move against the monarchy seem likely in the twelve other Commonwealth ‘realms’ of which the Queen is head of state. Polling support in the UK for a republic has only ever once – and in evanescent special conditions – just exceeded 20 per cent. Republicanism has yet to establish any real political traction.

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In order to sustain itself, the UK must become a new and different Union

Jim-Gallagher

Jim Gallagher reflects on what the Scotland Bill tells us about the Scotland-UK relationship and devolution more broadly. He argues that the Bill presents a challenge to the unwritten constitution, and that now is the time to clarify and codify the territorial aspects to make a statement about how and why the Union hangs together.

The Scotland Bill calls to mind, irresistibly, the aphorism of Lampedusa: if things are to stay the same, they’ve got to change. If it is to sustain itself as a Union, the UK must become a new and different one. The Scotland Bill should be the catalyst for change, but this isn’t only about Scotland.  It is about how the UK understands itself as a territorial state. Like Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland understand the UK as a voluntary association bound together by common interests and shared experience, in many ways like a federal country. But too many at the centre of the UK see a unitary state with some untidy territorial edges. In essence this understanding is based on a half-baked notion of parliamentary sovereignty. If the UK wants to stay together, this has to change.

The Scotland Bill makes the nature of Scotland-UK relationship more explicit, and implies similar things about Wales and Northern Ireland too. The UK is a multinational state, an association whose membership is voluntary, and that is now very explicit for both Northern Ireland and Scotland. Scotland has always had its own institutions, separate from the UK’s. For first three centuries after the union, these were Scottish, but undemocratic. For the last 15 years, Scottish institutions have been accountable through the Scottish Parliament. The Scotland Bill puts it beyond doubt that this is irreversible. Devolution is permanent, and the Scottish Parliament is master in its own house: its power is paramount in devolved matters, and it controls its own composition. That is the point of the constitutional provisions of the Bill: statements of the obvious if you like, but that will be true of many constitutions–if you know how the institutions work in practice, you will find the constitutional legislation almost banal.

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Gerrymandering for democracy: An impossible goal?

In a recent report by Mathew Lawrence and Sarah Birch the Institute for Public Policy Research has made several proposals for improving the quality of British democracy. One of them involves politicising the traditionally fiercely independent and neutral Boundary Commissions, by requiring them to gerrymander constituency boundaries to produce fewer safe and more marginal seats. Ron Johnston, Charles Pattie and David Rossiter consider this proposal, and find it neither feasible nor sensible. Alternative reforms which encourage greater public participation in the electoral process are needed.

In their recent IPPR report The Democracy Commission Mathew Lawrence and Sarah Birch propose four ways to improve the quality of British democracy, ranging from introducing the single transferrable vote in local government elections in England and Wales to establishing a ‘Democracy Commission’ to facilitate participation. Their proposals seek to tackle the unrepresentativeness of the House of Commons, brought about in part by the first-past-the-post system, which produces disproportional electoral outcomes with some parties substantially over-represented there relative to their vote shares and others even more substantially under-represented; one party predominates in the complement of MPs returned from most regions, even though it lacks even a majority of votes there.

One of the reasons they suggest for this disproportionality is that there are too many safe seats and too few marginal ones. Electioneering focuses very much on the latter as there is little incentive for parties to encourage participation in places where the outcome is a foregone conclusion. So one of the IPPR proposals is that the rules implemented by the four Boundary Commissions that recommend the boundaries of Parliamentary constituencies should be changed. In effect, the Commissions would be instructed to undertake a form of gerrymandering by seeking:

‘… to redraw a ‘safe’ seat to make it a ‘marginal’. ‘Gerrymandering’ safe seats out of existence where possible will increase the competitiveness of elections and reduce the oversized electoral power that voters in marginals currently have, and as a result is likely to improve participation rates.’

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The Lords’ declining reputation: The evidence

Meg-Russell

This week the House of Lords has been in the news for all the wrong reasons – with widespread criticism of David Cameron’s latest round of appointments, which have seen the already oversized chamber grow further still. Such negative stories have become common since Cameron became Prime Minister. Meg Russell reports on updated research about media representations of the Lords, and shows definitively the damaging effects that uncontrolled prime ministerial appointments have had on the chamber’s reputation since 2010.

This has been a disastrous news week for the Lords. David Cameron’s appointment of an additional 45 new peers has met with universal media condemnation. We have been told that the Lords is an ‘obese, obsolescent body’ (Telegraph) or an ‘upper house of sleaze and cronyism’ (Sunday Express), that ‘the bloated Upper House has become a laughing stock’ (Mail) or ‘a national embarrassment’ (Sunday Times), and that there is a need to ‘cut the bloated House of Lords down to size’ (FT). The Mirror greeted the appointments with the headline ‘Just when you thought the House of Lords couldn’t get worse’, while one columnist in the Guardian suggested that ‘the latest list of dissolution honours is so self-parodically venal that it resembles a dare’. An analysis of the week’s coverage by media-watcher Roy Greenslade concluded that ‘National newspapers of the left, right and centre were united in their disgust’. As an Observer commentator put it, ‘where is there left to go when Polly Toynbee of the Guardian and Quentin Letts in the Mail find themselves in perfect agreement?’

This is a deeply depressing situation. Such stories can only serve to drive down trust in the House of Lords, and thus more generally in parliament, and indeed probably in politics as a whole. The growing size of the chamber is already threatening its effectiveness. If the Lords is derided, and becomes ever less well respected, this too risks making it increasingly less capable of carrying out its important tasks of scrutinising legislation and holding the government to account.

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Is David Cameron actually seeking to destroy the Lords?

Meg-Russell

Yesterday’s new peerage appointments attracted almost universal criticism for further adding to the inexorable growth in size of the House of Lords under David Cameron. But could the gradual erosion of the Lords’ reputation actually benefit the government by weakening parliament? Might it even be a deliberate plan? And – given that the Prime Minister holds all the cards – what can be done about it? Meg Russell comments.

Click here to access a printer-friendly PDF of this post.

This post has an eye-catching title, but it isn’t a joke – my question is deadly serious. David Cameron’s list of 45 new appointments to the Lords, announced this week, has attracted predictable wails of outrage – from the media, from opposition parties , and indeed from myself. His Lords appointments in the last five years have been completely disproportionate. As I demonstrated in a report earlier this year, he has created new peers at a faster rate than any other Prime Minister since life peerages began in 1958. Although growth in the size of the chamber has always been a problem, since 2010 it has escalated to new proportions. As is clear from my well-rehearsed graph, updated for this week’s appointments, the upward trajectory increased sharply from 2010. In the 11 years of Labour government from 1999-2010 the chamber grew by 40-70 members (depending how you measure it); in the five short years since Cameron took office, it has grown by two to three times as much.

HoL Aug 15 1

Note: ‘Actual eligible membership’ includes those on leave of absence and otherwise temporarily excluded from the chamber, all of whom could potentially return. Source: House of Lords Information Office figures from January each year, updated with 2015 appointments.

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Elections, referendums, political parties and the Constitution Unit

Alan-Renwick-thumb

In the third of our series of posts adapted from presentations at the Unit’s 20th anniversary conference, Alan Renwick documents on how the UK’s electoral framework has evolved since 1995 and illustrates how the Unit has shaped the implementation of changes. Looking forward, he identifies the franchise and the current gulf between citizens and politicians as key areas for future research.

Respondent Ben Seyd adds that the TV leader debates during the election would also benefit from clear guidelines and Jenny Watson reflects on how the Electoral Commission is building on the foundations that the Unit helped to establish.

Electoral law in the UK is sometimes described as unchanging. Speaking in 2011, for example, David Cameron declared that, ‘Throughout history, it [the electoral system] has risen to the demands of the time’. But this is inaccurate. In fact, if we contrast the electoral framework in place today with that in place in 1995, we find many changes.

Transformation of elections and referendums in 1995

Regarding the core of the electoral system, in 1995, all elections in Great Britain used First Past the Post (FPTP); other systems were used only in Northern Ireland. Today, by contrast, voters in Northern Ireland are unique in having to deal with only one system other than FPTP. Three different forms of proportional representation are used: for European Parliament elections in Great Britain; for elections to the Scottish Parliament and Welsh and London Assemblies; and for Scottish local elections and most elections in Northern Ireland. The supplementary vote is used for mayors and/or Police and Crime Commissioners throughout England and Wales. Even the Alternative Vote system – rejected by voters for Westminster elections in the 2011 referendum – is used for local council by-elections in Scotland.

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