The significance of hybrid proceedings

The House of Lords, like other legislative chambers, has had to adapt quickly to the coronavirus crisis.  Fortunately, there is the technology available now for legislatures to meet virtually.  The House initially met for some proceedings in the chamber and others virtually.  Chamber proceedings were limited to a few members being present.  With 2m social distancing, the chamber (much smaller than that of the Commons) can only accommodate 30 members.

The House has now moved to hybrid sittings, with some members being present in the chamber and others contributing virtually, screens being erected around the galleries.  This means that members who cannot be present physically can contribute virtually in any proceedings.  There is one other consequence that may not be widely recognised, but it is crucial in terms of the House carrying out its functions.  Sittings of the hybrid House, unlike those proceedings that had been held purely virtually, have the same status as normal sittings of the House.  The Mace is on the Woolsack and there must be a physical presence in the chamber of at least three members, the normal quorum for the House.  As a result, the hybrid House can take all the decisions that a normal sitting of the House can take.  The normal quorum of 30 for votes on bills and subordinate legislation is maintained.  Given the turnout in the voting that now takes place electronically, this is not a problem.

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Explaining the downfall of Margaret Thatcher

The fascinating BBC series Thatcher: A Very British Revolution, just shown again, highlighted the way in which Margaret Thatcher lost office.  There are essentially two explanations.

One is that she was brought down, as Charles Powell put it, by ‘tearoom rebels’ in the House of Commons.  That was a splendid way of expressing it.  As readers will know from an earlier post, this very much fits with the analysis I have advanced and reinforces what I have argued about the importance of informal space in legislatures.  Party leaders neglect the tearooms, dining rooms and corridors of the House of Commons at their peril.  When she was challenged for the leadership, Margaret Thatcher failed to spend time rallying supporters and waverers in the tearoom and corridors.  Michael Heseltine, in contrast, was – as Ken Baker noted – everywhere.  He and his supporters invaded the informal space.  Had Margaret Thatcher spent time there rallying supporters, she may well have won clearly on the first ballot.  Once she was four votes short, her campaign was holed below the waterline.

A contrasting view is that she was brought down by a Cabinet coup, her leading ministers getting together to agree to tell her that she would lose if she persisted.  The journalist Alan Watkins advanced this argument in his book A Conservative Coup: Fall of Margaret Thatcher.  It was a view that came to be shared by Margaret Thatcher herself.  Alan Watkins was quite rude when I argued that he was wrong and that she was doomed already because of the outcome of the first ballot.  Even if she had persisted and won a majority on the second ballot, she was already fatally wounded.  In effect, the ministers were simply speaking truth unto power.

The key arena was not the Prime Minister’s office, but the informal space in the Palace of Westminster.

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Voting electronically is easy, but should it be?

Yesterday (Monday) was a historic day in the House of Lords in that peers voted electronically.  There were four divisions.  There was a high turnout in each one and the process appeared to go smoothly.  (There had been various test votes over previous days to check that system worked.)  One could vote as soon as the division was called and one’s vote is acknowledged as soon as it is cast.

When I tweeted about the vote, one of those responsible for the system asked if I found it a smooth and straightforward process.  The answer to the question is yes.  That, though, was to comment on the practice.  It was easy to vote.  It did, though, get me thinking about the normative question.  Should it be easy to vote?  There is a moral and a political dimension.

Being made a peer is a great honour.  There is a moral obligation, as well as an expectation on the part of the House, that you will give something in return for the honour, namely contributing to the work of the House.  That includes taking part in debates, contributing to committee work, and making the effort to be present for divisions.  One has to arrange to be in London and to be in the Palace for when a division is expected.  One has to be able to get to the division lobbies within eight minutes of a vote being called.  Sometimes votes are called fairly late at night.

Now, with electronic voting, one can be anywhere in the country and no great effort is entailed in pressing a button once a vote takes place.  You hardly have to interrupt what you are doing.  I appreciate that when divisions are held physically, peers will come to vote who have been doing things elsewhere in the Palace – be in working at their desks or having a meal – but at least they are in the Palace.  There is a sense of commitment.  Now, peers who have contributed little or nothing to the proceedings of the House, be it in terms of debates, committees, or all-party groups, can simply press a button and affect outcomes.

The political dimension is that electronic voting may strengthen the position of the political parties.  By voting electronically, you are hidden from the whips – they only know how you have voted after the event.  Some may argue that this may embolden members to be more independent in their voting behaviour.  In practice, peers with a strong view on an issue will vote as they think fit, regardless of whether whips are physically around or not.  The more important point to my mind is that you are not seen by other peers either.  You do not get an opportunity to sense the mood of the House; you are not able to chat to others after a minister has replied to a debate and listen to colleagues who are the experts on the subject.  You may think twice if you see the leading figure in the field heading to the other lobby.  Even if not in for the debate itself (though you may have watched it on the screen), just meeting with other peers on the way to the lobby can make a difference.  The act of voting in the lobbies also has an independent benefit in terms of seeing colleagues who otherwise you do not get an opportunity to see and may result in information being exchanged that makes a difference to thinking and behaviour.  With electronic voting, the only voting cue is likely to be that provided by the whips.  You are no longer part of a collaborative deliberation, but operating as a discrete entity.

It may be that, as electronic voting continues, peers develop ways of using social media to substitute for meeting in the House, but I think there are important consequences to the new method of voting that merit reflection.

This is not to say that we should be voting physically in the lobbies – voting electronically is a necessary expedient in the present crisis.  Not being able to vote in recent weeks has strengthened the executive.  The point I am making is that one should be wary of seeing it, not least the ease of voting, as an unalloyed good.  Should we actually be thinking of imposing conditions, perhaps by requiring peers to log on from the start of a debate?

Now, if I tabled a motion ‘That this House treats with caution the method of voting electronically’ and then forced a vote on it…

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Parliaments and referendums

As readers may have seen from earlier posts, I have various publications in the pipeline.  These include books – Governing Britain and the edited volume The Impact of Legislatures – as well as chapters and articles.  One chapter I penned is on ‘Parliaments and Referendums’ for the forthcoming Palgrave Handbook of European Referendums, being edited by Julie Smith (Baroness Smith of Newnham).  The chapter is a long one.  I thought I would offer an extended abstract:

Some nations provide that the decision to hold a referendum rests with an authority other than the legislature. Where legislatures have the power to provide for referendums, the power has tended to be least employed in parliamentary systems, especially Westminster-type systems.  They have also tended to be less utilised in northern Europe, broadly defined, than in southern Europe.

However, the distinctions are becoming less pronounced, with more parliaments legislating for referendums.  Four types of relationship of legislatures to referendums are identified.  1. Subordination of parliaments, where the constitution confers authority on another body to trigger a referendum or makes no provision for one being held.  2. Non-decision making, where legislatures have the power to legislate for referendums, but where the issue has never come on to the parliamentary agenda.  3. Rejection, where proposals to hold referendums have been on the parliamentary agenda, but have been rejected.  4. Utilisation, where parliaments have utilised the power to trigger referendums. In recent years, there has been a move to greater utilisation of referendums to resolve contested issues, especially constitutional issues, not resolvable through traditional party conflict.  Enthusiasm for referendums may now be diminishing as governments that have sought them have not necessarily achieved the results they expected.  Although governments usually take the initiative in proposing referendums, legislatures may come to the fore at a second-order level in determining the rules for holding them.

I may write more in due course about UK experience and the transition through non-decision making to rejection and utilisation. Then again, one could wait for the book to appear…

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Why the Conservatives lost in 1997

Last Saturday, BBC Parliament replayed their coverage on election night of the 1997 general election.  Like their replays of coverage of other elections, such as that of 1979, I found it fascinating.  I was also struck by the explanations offered by some Conservatives of why the party lost.

The tendency is for people strongly committed to a particular ideology or cause to explain failure or success in terms of one’s own prejudices.  (At the moment, for example, some people are incapable of explaining criticism of Dominic Cummings other than through the prism of Brexit.)  Data, however hard, are not allowed to stand in the way of one’s interpretation of what really explains an outcome.  Opponents of a European single currency felt that, had the party abandoned its ‘wait and see’ policy in favour of outright opposition, the election would not have been lost.  Others ascribed the loss to party infighting as well as to various scandals.

These are not irrelevant to the party’s loss in 1997, but they were essentially contributory to the loss.  In other words, they may have exacerbated the scale of the defeat, but they did not constitute the cause of the defeat.  The Conservative Party lost the 1997 general election in 1992 on ‘Black Wednesday’ and the UK’s withdrawal from the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM).  Support for the party slumped in the polls – Labour took a clear double-digit lead – and never recovered.  The party lost every by-election in the Parliament and by the end of the Parliament controlled only one county council.  The events of Black Wednesday essentially undermined the party’s claim – core to its success – of being a party of governance, a safe pair of hands in managing the nation’s economy. Once that trust is lost, it can take years rebuilding it.  It was still impacting Conservative fortunes in the 2001 general election.  Labour found the same thing after the Winter of Discontent in 1979.

Tony Blair was not responsible for Labour’s victory in 1997, though it is possible that his leadership made the size of Labour’s majority even greater than it was.  Conservative infighting, the issue of European integration, and scandal exacerbated the sheer scale of the defeat – the worst since at least 1906 – but the election was already lost.

I should add that this summarises what I wrote at the time in ‘The Conservative Party: “In Office but Not in Power”’, in Anthony King (ed), New Labour Triumphs: Britain at the Polls’. You can read the chapter for the supporting evidence.

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Sending in federal troops… Little Rock 1957

The threat by President Trump to send in federal troops to quell riots in US cities prompts me to prepare a reprint of a paper I did as a student when at the University of Pennsylvania.  I completed a research project on the decision by President Eisenhower to commit federal troops to Little Rock, Arkansas, in September 1957, to enforce a federal court order to integrate the Central High School in Little Rock.

The order was consequent to the holding of the US Supreme Court in Brown v Board of Education of Topeka that school segregation was unconstitutional, violating the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment.  Various southern states resisted desegregation, not least Arkansas under Governor Orval Faubus.  Faubus used the National Guard, ostensibly to maintain order at the central high school, but in practice to prevent desegregation taking place.  The district court ordered the removal of the troops.  This was followed by riots, a mob of one-thousand, ‘stirred up’ as Eisenhower later wrote, ‘by recent events and Governor Faubus’, attempting to storm the school to remove nine African-American pupils who had managed to slip in unseen.  Despite Eisenhower calling for the rioting to stop, the following day it was even more extensive.  The President, advised by his Attorney General, Herbert Brownell, decided that action was necessary and issued Executive Order 10730.

The order federalised the National Guard.  (Eisenhower did not want to use the National Guard in order to prevent sending brother against brother.)  A thousand paratroopers of the 101st Airborne Division were sent to enforce the district court’s order.  Faubus went on television and spoke of ‘the warm red blood of patriotic American citizens staining the cold, naked, unsheathed knives’ during the ‘military occupation’ of Arkansas.  (One demonstrator had been pricked slightly by a bayonet; another received a superficial scalp wound.)  The troops were able to ensure that desegregation went ahead.  They stayed for some months and were eventually withdrawn in May 1958.  Faubus then closed the schools, but the federal courts declared them reopened and after police had dispersed a mob of 250, African-American students were able to enter the school.

The purpose of my paper was to analyse Eisenhower’s decision in terms of the institution of the presidency and of the President.  It was an action that was seen as atypical of his presidency.  I employed different approaches to presidential power to explain the decision.  (Students will not be surprised to see the works of Neustadt, Barber and Hargrove cited.)  I concluded: ‘To understand the exercise of presidential power in committing troops to Little Rock, it is necessary to understand Eisenhower’s character.  When analysed in terms of the President’s character – his conservatism and his inbred sense of duty – then this otherwise seemingly atypical exercise of power becomes explicable and consistent with Eisenhower’s general conduct of the Presidency of the United States’.

The study was subsequently published, after my appointment to Hull, in a series of Hull Papers in Politics, published by the department.  That was before the days of word processors.  I will see if I can make it available electronically.

Making it available may have some contemporary relevance.  President Trump’s statement about sending in federal troops to enforce order appears, on the face of it, to be comparable to Eisenhower’s action.  However, once one analyses the differences in character between the two men and the decision-making process – the extent of reflection, experience and taking advice – it becomes an exercise in stark contrasts.

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Getting it down to a t…. The winner of the caption competition

There were some innovative entries for the caption competition.  As usual, I was spoiled for choice.   Most contributions focused on the fact that there was a missing t and linked it to my propensity for consuming tea.  They were essentially variations on the caption that occurred to me when I saw the difference between the two mugs.  The entries that stood out to me were those that took a different tack.

There are two winning entries:

NeilMI was expecting it to come back with the “r” replaced with an “n”.

Andrew Reeve: ‘On the seventh day the lord finally got the right tea.’

The runner-up is Mark Shephard with
‘‘I think they got it right the first time, only it should be spelled ‘WRY’’.

If the two winners get in touch, I will arrange for prizes to be despatched.

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Caption competition with a difference…

My assumption that I may have more time than before to do posts has not quite proved valid – I seem as busy as ever, especially given that we are in the midst of the marking system and I have various research projects to complete.  Readers may have the joy soon of hearing more about some of the research.  However, I thought it time to post another caption competition – some readers keep asking when the next one will appear – but this time I decided to make it more challenging by posting a couple of pictures and inviting inventive readers to come up with an appropriate and amusing caption.

A good friend ordered a bespoke present for my birthday this year.  What he received is shown on the left below.  What was eventually sent to me is shown on the right.  Readers are invited to come up with a caption, which will be assessed on the usual basis and with the winner receiving a recent publication of mine – most likely one that I can despatch easily or arrange to be sent.








Before                                                                                                    After

I did think of an immediate caption, so I will be seeing if anyone can improve on what I had in mind.

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35 years on… The Westminter trip 1985

This academic year is the first in over forty years in which I have not been able to take my students on a visit to Westminster (the consequence of a general election and the current crisis).  Checking the records in one of my archives (aka the garage) I discovered, among other photographs, a picture of me with students on the Westminster trip in 1985.

I remember a good number of the students in the picture, though not all by name.  Those that I know by name include, stood to my left (on the right as you face the picture), Neil Medlock (wearing the grey coat), now a senior figure in banking, David Griffin (with the moustache), who went on to be Deputy Chief Constable of Humberside; George Cooper, who became a Town Clerk; and, stood behind the student in the red and grey coat, Tony Sands (or, as I recall, A. R. G. Sands) who went into teaching and whose son is a more recent graduate of the Hull Politics Department.  To my far left – at the very right of the picture – is Mark G. Ward, who had graduated and was, as I recall, doing postgraduate work.  I will see if I remember other names.  If any reader recognises anyone – or indeed is in the picture – do let me know.

I did contemplate using the picture for a caption competition.  At least two of those stood in the group are regular competitors.  Not sure whether that would give them an unfair advantage or simply a particular boost to take part.  However, I am exploring using another picture shortly.  I know there is some popular demand (one reader asked) for an new competition…

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The Impact of Legislatures

In an earlier post, I drew attention to the forthcoming publication of The Impact of Legislatures, a volume to mark the 25th anniversary of the publication of The Journal of Legislative Studies.

The journal appeared in print in 1995, the first issue carrying articles by leading political scientists George Tsebelis, Thomas Saalfeld, and Philip Cowley, and guest articles by leading law academic J. A. G. Griffith and European Commissioner Sir Leon Brittan.

It came into being in order to provide a dedicated outlet for the growing body of research on legislative studies and, as mentioned in the earlier post, Shane Martin reported in PS in 2008 that the journal ‘quickly established itself as a favoured source for output among legislative scholars, including many of the leading scholars in the discipline’.

The Impact of Legislatures, which will appear in July, carries the initial cutting-edge articles by Tsebelis, Saalfeld and Cowley as well as the 22 other articles that have attracted significant online readership.  They reflect also the range of scholarship in the field, demonstrating the significant consequences of legislatures extending beyond their core defining role of giving assent to measures of public policy.  The articles are arranged under seven thematic headings: developing theory; comparing legislatures; party, division and consensus; representation; influence of Members; parliaments and citizens; and parliamentary questions.  They are preceded by an introduction by me as the (founding) editor of the journal.

The result of carrying such a substantial body of scholarship is a volume of over 500 pages.  A consequence is that it is not cheap (it retails at £120 – though if you pre-order it from the publishers you can get it for £96) and so likely to be principally found on library shelves.  Of course, if anybody wants to impress their friends…

The volume adds to the books in The Library of Legislative Studies published by Routledge.  Special issues of the journal have been published as books, complemented by a number of free-standing monographs.  The result is one of the most substantial lists available in the field of legislative studies.

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