The new opposition: How will SNP MPs influence Westminster politics?

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Louise Thompson argues that the constitutional challenges we will see over the next 5 years will be a product of the changed composition of Parliament. Here, she specifically considers how SNP are likely to try and amend proposed constitutional reforms announced in the Queen’s Speech last week.

We are only a couple of weeks in to the 2015 Parliament, but we can already see signs of big changes from the previous Parliament, as well as some major parliamentary and constitutional challenges ahead. Last week’s Queen’s Speech proved what most commentators had already suspected; the first majority Conservative Government for nearly two decades will oversee a period of major constitutional change. This includes greater devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well as to English cities and an In-Out referendum on membership of the European Union to be held by the end of 2017. The constitutional ground is beginning to move already. The Prime Minister has already met with the Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon to discuss the devolution of more powers to the Scottish Parliament.

As returning MPs took their seats in the chamber following the Queen’s Speech last week, they were met with a sea of unfamiliar faces as 182 new Members took their seats in the chamber. There is nothing new about a high turnover of MPs – the 2010 General Election saw an even higher turnover of Members. But the composition of the new intake, with record numbers of women and ethnic minority MPs, a massive drop in the number of Liberal Democrat MPs and the arrival of a much larger number of SNP MPs is very different to what the House has seen before. The challenges we will see over the next five years to the government’s planned constitutional reforms are very much a product of this changing composition.

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UK elects most diverse parliament ever but it’s still not representative

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Jennifer Hudson and Rosie Campbell assess the diversity of the new parliament and write that while the Class of 2015 has more female and BME MPs, it is still a long way from being descriptively representative of the population it serves.

Ahead of the 2015 election, broadcaster Jeremy Paxman argued that voters were being given a choice ‘between one man who was at primary school with Boris Johnson and one man who was at secondary school with him – both of whom did PPE at Oxford’.

Throughout the campaign, we’ve been gathering data on the parliamentary candidates to see if this lack of choice plays out across the board. Do the people elected to represent the UK, bear any resemblance to the public they represent?

Women on the rise

This year saw 48 more women elected that in 2010 – bringing the total number of women MPs to a record 191. Women make up 29% of newly elected MPs, up from 22% in 2010.

The Green party had the highest percentage of women candidates selected at 38%, but with chances in only a handful of seats, they had little chance of affecting parliamentary gender balance.

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English votes on English laws: much ado about nothing?

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Robert Hazell writes that if English votes for English laws were introduced, the impact would most likely be limited. He highlights that there are relatively few English laws, and that few votes in the past would have had different outcomes if EVEL had been in place.

The sound and fury generated by the debate on English votes on English laws may tend to exaggerate the likely impact of any change. There are two challenges faced by the Cabinet Committee chaired by William Hague which has been tasked with crafting a worked out policy. The first is devising a solution which is technically feasible; the second, selling that solution as being politically worthwhile. This blog post addresses the second challenge: will English votes on English laws make much difference? This is something to be explored further, when the government’s proposals are announced. The argument made here is that the questions to be asked need to go beyond the technical details, to the likely impact.

There are two reasons why English votes on English laws (EVEL) may make little difference in practice. The first is that there are relatively few English laws. We cannot confidently say how few: one of the disappointments of the McKay report was that it failed to say what proportion of bills (or clauses in bills) would be caught by its proposals. But if Hague were to ask his officials how many bills in the current parliamentary session 2014-15 might count as ‘English laws’, they would answer that there are just two: the Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Bill, and the Modern Slavery Bill.  The first makes a very minor change to the English law of negligence, the second strengthens the criminal law on human trafficking. There is also one other measure where EVEL might apply: the Bishops and Priests (Consecration and Ordination of Women) Measure, to allow the appointment of women bishops (see Bob Morris’s recent Constitution Unit post). None of these laws is going to set pulses racing in middle England.

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Party conferences and the constitution

­­­Artemis Photiadou offers an overview of what the three main parties had to say on current constitutional debates at their party conferences last month.

Few party conferences have been held against a more intense constitutional backdrop than this year’s, with the Scottish independence referendum result announced on 19 September, Labour’s conference commencing only two days later, followed by the Conservative and Liberal Democrat conferences (and UKIP’s conference from 26 – 27 September).

On devolution and the West Lothian question

With the joint pledge for further devolution made by Cameron, Clegg and Miliband to Scottish voters at the eleventh hour serving as the point of departure, the conferences were an opportunity for each party to outline their constitutional direction amid the relief of an unaltered Union.

David Cameron, as well as the other two party leaders, used his speech to confirm that the joint pledge will be honoured. At the same time, however, he also argued that only English MPs should vote on laws that only affect England – the Conservative party’s response to the age-old ‘West Lothian question’. References to the question, and commitments to this solution, have found their way to all three Conservative manifestos since the establishment of the Scottish Parliament in 1999 so it was perhaps unsurprising. But it was nonetheless presented with renewed purpose: the decision to bring up the matter alongside further devolution served to appease Conservative backbenchers who were not consulted over the joint pledge, and which many found unbalanced, but also as a defence against UKIP.

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How often do prime ministers bow to the will of parliament? Actually, all the time

30th August 2013

David Cameron‘s defeat last night in the Commons on his motion on military intervention in Syria has been met with shock, and correctly seen as a very visible assertion of parliamentary power. But, although such confrontations are unusual, it would be wrong to assume that parliamentary checks on government ambitions are the exception. In fact, they happen all the time.

Two things are unusual about yesterday’s events. First, and most widely commented upon, they address the difficult and high-profile question of peace and war. Historically, the ability to deploy troops has been seen as part of the ‘royal prerogative’ – whereby the executive can act without explicit parliamentary consent. This came under particular pressure in the run-up to the 2003 Iraq war, when Robin Cook (Leader of the House of Commons) and Jack Straw (Foreign Secretary) persuaded Tony Blair that he should not proceed without the clear support of MPs. The result, on 18 March 2003, saw ‘the largest [vote] against the whip by government MPs since the beginning of modern British politics‘ – 139 Labour MPs defied the whip – but the Prime Minister still managed to win the vote with Conservative support. Subsequently there has been pressure to entrench a convention that parliamentary consent is required for the deployment of troops, with reports from one parliamentary committee and then another . Gordon Brown, and subsequently the coalition, have been sympathetic to such calls, but – as the second of these reports explores – the issues are complex. In 2011 David Cameron sought parliamentary approval for action in Libya, which was forthcoming – but only after the event. This sparked calls from a third committee to clarify the situation. But in short, a rejection by the Commons of such a proposal is unprecedented in recent times – at least because it has so rarely been asked the question. A useful briefing by the House of Commons Library documents how Commons debates on earlier conflicts – including Suez and the Falklands war – were generally taken without a substantive vote.

The other thing that is unusual is for a government to have to back down so publicly, on any kind of policy, in the face of parliamentary opposition. But this is not unheard of, including under the coalition. Most obviously, Nick Clegg’s Lords reform proposals were withdrawn when it became clear that he faced certain defeat in the Commons on the necessary programme motion. Earlier, the coalition’s Health and Social Care Bill had been withdrawn for a ‘pause’, due to resistance – particularly from the Liberal Democrats. Tony Blair also faced problems, notably being forced to implement a ban on foxhunting that he did not himself support, and being pressured into a free vote on a total ban on smoking in public places, leading to a reversal of government policy. All of these events took place in the very public arena of the House of Commons. What is more routine is for government to withdraw proposals following defeat in the House of Lords . As I document in my recent book, a key consideration for ministers in deciding whether to accept a Lords defeat is what the Commons will bear. When there is clear resistance from government backbenchers (as Brown faced over his proposals to detain terror suspects without charge for 42 days), plans are usually dropped to avoid possible Commons humiliation.

But this leads to the key point – which is that the real power of parliament is primarily exercised behind-the-scenes, through ministers considering what MPs are prepared to accept, and only putting proposals that they know will achieve support. When it comes to legislation, which is the topic of one of our current projects, a huge amount of effort in Whitehall goes into developing parliamentary ‘handling strategies’ to think through what will prove controversial in both the Commons and the Lords. This is very explicit in the Cabinet Office’s own guide to making legislation which also states that if ‘the Government expects to be defeated on a non-government amendment, it may wish to pre-empt a defeat by tabling a concessionary amendment’ – in other words to avoid a defeat by changing its policy before the vote. It is through these subtle and private mechanisms of communication that parliament’s primary power is felt. Indeed among our case study bills there was one – the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Bill – that the Prime Minister was said himself not to want, but which was introduced due to pressure from Labour MPs. It is the whips’ job, in particular, to keep in touch with parliamentary opinion through informal chats in corridors and tearooms, and ministers do the same in private meetings with MPs. If these mechanisms are working confrontations can be avoided, but parliamentary power is being exercised nonetheless.

Returning to the events of yesterday, what therefore appears to have gone wrong is communication inside the Conservative party. It is obviously more difficult for whips to keep on top of opinion during a parliamentary recess, and this can only have exacerbated the problem. What is more surprising is that when things started to look difficult the government didn’t strike a deal with the opposition so that both sides could support one resolution – the words of the government resolution and the Labour resolution were strikingly similar. But does this mark the start of a new period of confrontation between government and parliament? Probably not. A smart government is in constant dialogue with parliamentarians, and when necessary trims its ambitions to avoid public splits. If Cameron didn’t know that before, he certainly knows it now.