The policy power of the Westminster parliament: The empirical evidence

Meg-Russell

The UK parliament continues to be dismissed as powerless in many academic and popular accounts. Drawing on a large body of quantitative and qualitative research conducted over more than 15 years, a recent article by Meg Russell and Philip Cowley argued that the Westminster parliament is in fact an institution with significant policy influence. Meg Russell summarises here.

In the study of public policy, legislatures tend to be portrayed as relatively weak institutions. This applies to the UK parliament in particular. The classic comparative view associates the Westminster model, of which the UK is seen as the emblematic case, with centralised executive power and an acquiescent legislature. Assumptions of Westminster’s weakness are not, however, confined to comparative scholars or to the recent past. In a 2011 article Matthew Flinders and Alexandra Kelso traced gloom-laden statements of British parliamentary powerlessness back over a century and more. Meanwhile, a public policy textbook published in 2012 reflected the view of many scholars in the field when stating that ‘Despite the name “parliamentary democracy”, the parliament plays only a limited role in decision-making in the British Westminster model’ (p. 139).

Yet in recent years scholars specialising in the study of the UK parliament have found evidence of significant parliamentary influence on the policy process. This may in part be due to changes in parliamentary structures and behaviour, but also simply result from more exhaustive research approaches. I have contributed to this literature through my work on the House of Lords, and the policy impact of the Westminster parliament. Professor Philip Cowley has also contributed greatly, particularly through his work on the Commons. In a recent article in the journal Governance we drew these various strands together – using four large quantitative data sets, complemented by more than 500 interviews with key parliamentary and government actors – to demonstrate that Westminster’s influence is both substantial and probably rising. We conclude that parliament’s critics make two key mistakes – by concentrating largely on the decision-making stage of the policy process, and focusing almost exclusively on visible parliamentary impact (e.g. government defeats on legislation). We broaden the focus to take into account both visible and less visible impact, with a particular interest in anticipated reactions. Our arguments are summarised in this post.

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Parliamentary reform and The Constitution Unit

tony-wright

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.

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Project launch: the role of special advisers

PRESS NOTICE

Thursday 3 May: for immediate release

The Constitution Unit launches a new project on the role of special advisers (Spads) to ministers. Are they sufficiently accountable? And are they making government more responsive?

The recent resignation of Adam Smith, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s special adviser, raises important issues not just about the accountability of special advisers, but what their role in government is, say researchers at UCL’s respected Constitution Unit.

The Unit has begun a 15 month long project examining the issue of special advisers. It will ask some basic questions, which have rarely been asked: who are special advisers, what do they, and why it is that ministers regard special advisers as a vital resource?

Professor Robert Hazell, Director of the Constitution Unit, says: ‘The resignation of Adam Smith has raised questions about the accountability of special advisers: to whom are they responsible? And what is the appropriate role of the minister under which they work? These questions are not new and they will continue to be asked. Special advisers have now become a fixture in Whitehall, and so we need to ask some more fundamental questions. The role of special advisers is little understood: special advisers are seen as spin doctors, politicians in waiting, or wielding an inappropriate amount of power.’

Dr Ben Yong, lead researcher on the special advisers project, adds: ‘Leaving aside the current controversies over accountability, spads are here to stay. The number of spads has increased under the Coalition from 66 in 2010 to 83 in 2012. That is more than Gordon Brown ever had, and almost as many as Tony Blair had in his heyday. Accountability is important, but we also need to start asking questions about who spads are, what they do, and why ministers continue to appoint them.’

The project will examine the 350-odd special advisers in the period 1997-2012, looking at their history prior to government, and their activity following their time in government. This will also include interviews with former and current special advisers, their ministers and the civil servants who had contact with them. The aim is to ask not just how special advisers can be held accountable, but also how they can made more effective.

This project is funded by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust. Ongoing updates on the project will available here:

 

Notes for editors

  • Robert Hazell is Professor of British Politics and Government and Director of the Constitution Unit. He is available for interview: contact r.hazell@ucl.ac.uk
  • Dr Ben Yong is a research associate at the Constitution Unit. He is available for interview: contact b.yong@ucl.ac.uk