Should we worry if MPs seize control of the parliamentary agenda?

download.001Ahead of Tuesday’s votes on Brexit, attention has focused on the rights and wrongs of the House of Commons seeking to ‘seize control’. Meg Russell argues that there’s nothing unusual about a democratic parliament controlling its own procedure and business. Indeed, the core principle of parliamentary sovereignty already gives the Commons control by default.

With stalemate over the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal, rejected dramatically by the House of Commons on 15 January by 432 votes to 202, there is increasing talk of parliament ‘seizing control’. On Tuesday, following the Speaker’s controversial decision to allow a vote on Conservative backbencher Dominic Grieve’s amendment speeding up the timetable, MPs will vote on a series of propositions about what should happen next. These include a further proposal by Grieve that the government’s usual control of the agenda should be set aside on specified days to allow MPs to make decisions on Brexit, and a proposal from Labour’s Yvette Cooper that such control be set aside to allow time to debate a private member’s bill demanding that ministers avoid a no deal Brexit by requesting an extension to Article 50.

Consequently, some inside government have expressed concerns that the Commons, with the Speaker’s assistance, is overreaching itself. It has been reported that an internal government document warns of MPs’ moves ‘represent[ing] a clear and present danger to all government business’, and even meaning that ‘the government would lose its ability to govern’. One senior legal figure (whose career was spent inside the government) has argued that changes of this kind could set dangerous precedents for the future, even potentially dragging the monarch into a constitutional crisis (though other legal experts have firmly rebutted such claims).

So are we entering dangerous constitutional territory? What is, after all, so odd about the idea of a democratically-elected chamber gaining greater control over its own time, and its own rules? Continue reading

Is direct democracy effective? Yes, if it is citizens who start the process


In the first of a series of posts on the merits of referendums Lucas Leemann writes that landmark votes like the recent EU referendum may be the most atypical – and arguably worst – examples of direct democracy. He indicates that in cases where citizens have the ability to launch initiatives and call for referendums, it can play an important role in resolving problems on non-redistributive issues. This post was originally published before the EU referendum on Democratic Audit and is re-posted now with permission. 

While landmark votes, like the recent EU referendum, attract a lot of attention and spur debates on direct democracy they might actually be the most atypical forms of direct democracy.

Direct democracy can enrich purely representative systems and have a beneficial impact on various outcomes. For most readers, the most relevant effect of direct democracy will be on policy congruence – i.e. the extent to which policies reflect the wishes of a majority of citizens. The optimistic promise of direct democracy is exactly that it will yield policies that are ‘more’ democratic, in the sense that they are supported by a majority of the citizens.

We can distinguish two important types of direct democracy: one where governments decide to grant their citizens the right to vote on a specific measure and another where the citizens can force the government to hold such a vote. The question of who can start the direct democratic process may appear secondary at first sight but it is actually one of the most important institutional details.

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