Reform of the Lords

I drew attention in a previous post to my forthcoming book, Reform of the House of Lords.  It is being published by Manchester University Press at the beginning of June.  It is a short introduction to the functions, history and approaches to reform of the House.

I mentioned that the book is available to be pre-ordered and I have been gratified by some people tweeting that they have already ordered copies.  When I checked on Amazon today, I saw that it ranked at just over 48,000 in the Amazon Bestselling rank.  This may not appear to put it among the nation’s best sellers, but I am more than happy with that, not least given that another book on the Lords comes in at over 1 million in the ranking and another at over 3 million.

Watch this space…

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The winner…. An alternative Leader of the Opposition’s speech

The entries for the latest competition were notable for their quality.  Despite being few in number, I had difficulty selecting a winner.  The choice was between a speech that was effectively usable on future occasions – the sort of thing a Leader of the Opposition could keep to hand, just in case – and those that were specific to the current election.  In terms of what a Leader of the Opposition could have said last month, Croft offered a brilliant contribution based on boundary changes (or absence thereof) as did seanjm72 based on the supremacy of Westminster.  It is  possible certain politicians may look at their contributions and think ‘Hmmm, if only…’.

However, I decided to opt for the entry by Gary Weatherhead on the grounds that he offered a more generic speech that could be modified by a Leader of the Opposition whenever a Prime Minister decides to call for an early election:

Of course, it goes without saying that the Labour party welcomes the opportunity to put its case to the British people and give them the chance to get rid of this wretched Tory government. Bring it on is our view. However, I’m afraid that we will not be able to support the motion today for the following reasons. The timing of an election should no longer be purely on the whim of a PM, with as little time as possible given to the opposition and the smaller parties to prepare our campaigns. If the government want to return to the ways that were in place before the FTPA was introduced, we are happy to work together with them to explore how we can repeal this anathema to our constitution. But as things stand, we will not give the Government a free and helping hand to gain party political advantage by supporting an instant and self serving dash to the polls. We have no issue with supporting a general election later in the year. There are several acceptable dates in September or October that would give all parties a fair and decent chance to start the election campaign on an equal footing. If this is not acceptable to the PM and her party, she is free to declare that she and her Ministers have no confidence in themselves and can thus force an election that way. If the PM is so keen to gain advantage, this is what she must do.

All three contributions demonstrate how an astute Leader of the Opposition could ensure that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act does not necessarily give a Prime Minister a free ride when it comes to an early election.

If Gary Weatherhead would care to get in touch, his prize will be in the post.

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Competition with a difference

Instead of the usual caption competition, I thought I would introduce a competition as to who can produce the most succinct and well argued mini-speech.  I have been reflecting on how a latter-day Harold Wilson, a rather wily politician, would construct a speech explaining why the Opposition would not support the motion ‘That there shall be an early parliamentary general election’.  There appears to be the assumption that there are few if any circumstances in which the Opposition would not support such a motion.  I can envisage a Wilson-style leader not only keeping his or her counsel, so keeping a PM guessing as to whether Opposition support would be forthcoming for a such a motion, but then finding reasons as to why the Opposition would not vote for the motion.  (Abstention would be fatal, subject to a division taking place).  ‘Yes, of course, the nation deserves a general election, but…’.

The winner will be whoever contributes the most cogent argument that a Leader of the Opposition may deploy in such a circumstance.   As usual, the prize will be one of my publications.

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Delaying restoration and renewal

I have previously posted about the need for both Houses to decant the Palace of Westminster in order for the restoration and renewal (R&R) programme to be undertaken.  With each passing week, the Palace shows more signs of its ageing infrastructure.  This is apparent in some public areas (areas closed off for work, creaking floorboards in the committee corridor), but even more so in areas not seen by the public, not least in terms of the basement.

It is impossible not to notice the work being undertaken just to keep the Palace ticking over.  Anyone looking at the Palace from outside can see the scaffolding and coverings adorning parts of the building.  It is even more apparent to anyone walking through the courtyards.  The possibility of some catastrophic failure gets greater month by month.

As I mentioned in my earlier post, both Houses were supposed to have taken a decision on the various options for R&R earlier in 2016.  The votes were postponed until earlier this year.  In the event, the holding of a general election has put the decision back.  It is not clear how soon a vote will be held in the new Parliament.  The Government and parliamentary authorities keep passing the buck.

Even if both Houses do get round to voting for a full decant, for the reasons given in my earlier post, the election this year may have the effect of pushing a decant even further back than the expected 2022.  It was initially thought it could be 2020, but there was a view that MPs newly elected that year ought to have the opportunity to spend a year or so in the Commons before Members moved out, so it was put back to 2022 (aided by the delay in the two Houses taking a decision).  With the next election after this June now scheduled to take place in May 2022, that may mean it being pushed back to 2024.

One wonders how much of the Palace has to start falling down, or which essential service has to seize up, before Government and the parties recognise the need to act.

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Social space in Parliament

 As I reported in an earlier post, I spoke at the panel on ‘Designing for Democracy’ at the PSA Conference in Glasgow, looking at the design of Parliament.

How parliamentarians behave is shaped by their physical surroundings.  As Winston Churchill said (and as virtually every panel member repeated), we shape our buildings and then our buildings shape us.   After the House of Commons was destroyed by enemy bombing on 10 May 1941, the Commons moved into the chamber of the Lords and the Lords sat in the Robing Room, but the new space was laid out in the form of the original chamber.  The chamber of the Commons was rebuilt so that it was basically the same as before.  The intention, if and when both Houses move out under the proposed restoration and renewal (R&R) programme, is to recreate the chambers.

The focus in this, though, is on formal space.   By this, I mean the chamber and committee rooms, governed usually by formal rules and constituting a recognised and minuted part of parliamentary proceedings.  In my presentation, I focused on social space.  By this, I mean space not governed by formal rules and minutes and where contact between members and between members and others (such as members of the other House, staff, public) is informal – but contact that can affect parliamentary behaviour. The methodological problem is that it is not measurable, but it is important for socialisation into the institution, for information exchange, and for lobbying.

There has always been space which has been exclusive to Members – in the Commons, for example, there is the Members’ tea room, smoking room, and the Members’ Dining Room.  In the Lords, there is the Bishop’s Bar and the Long Table in the Dining Room.  The nature of the space has differed between the two Houses. MPs, for example, dine on a party basis.  Peers don’t, but rather employ the Long Table principle, facilitating cross-party contact.

These spaces have been important for political discourse and have featured in memoirs as the sites employed by political leaders to curry favour.  Margaret Thatcher, for example, would occasionally descend on unsuspecting Members in the tea room in order to find out their concerns.  It could be argued that Edward Heath’s neglect of the tea room contributed to his loss of the party leadership.

In my view the most significant change since the Palace was constructed in the 1850s took place in 2001 with the opening of Portcullis House. This was important for three reasons:

First, it meant that each MP had an individual office. (It has offices for 213 members.)  Having individual offices limits interaction with other members and, in the view of some, takes MPs away from the chamber.  This contrasts with the Lords, where members are lucky to have desk space and share offices.  No backbench peer has an individual office.

Second, and offsetting this, it has created a major social space in the form of the Atrium (pictured), with attendant meeting and eating facilities. Furthermore, this space exists at the intersection of various parliamentary buildings – it links 1 Parliament Street, Norman Shaw North and South, with the rest of the Palace.  MPs from these buildings pass through the Atrium on the way to the chamber.

Third, the social space is not confined to MPs. Peers and staff can use it; members and staff can use it to meet people from outside Parliament.

It is, in short, a major social space – crowded on most days of the parliamentary week – and one for which there was no previous parallel in the Palace of Westminster. There are meeting rooms and dining rooms, but nothing comparable to the Atrium in Portcullis House.  It is a unique social space, facilitating interaction between members of both Houses and between members and others – staff, journalists, representatives of outside organisations, and members of the public.

In my view, it has transformed the dynamics of Parliament. It has shifted the emphasis from the Palace to Portcullis House.  It is the place to be to find out what is going on and for social and unscheduled meetings with fellow parliamentarians.

When we have R&R, it will be interesting to see how it affects the impact of the Atrium. Portcullis House itself will remain open – it is not formally affected – but it will no longer be at the intersection of parliamentary life.  It will move to the edge of the temporary parliamentary estate.  Though MPs will be able to reach it without leaving the estate, that will not be the case for peers.  We will have a somewhat detached existence.

My basic point in my presentation was to draw attention to the importance of social space within Parliament and the extent to which it can affect the dynamics of an institution.  The focus of our relocation will be, as after 1941, recreating as far as possible the formal spaces in the form in which we know them.  The challenge will be in ensuring social spaces are not neglected or seen as a inconsequential to the workings of a legislature.  Social space makes a difference.

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More on the Fixed-term Parliaments Act

The Prime Minister has announced she will be asking the House of Commons tomorrow to vote for the motion ‘That there shall be an early parliamentary general election’.  She correctly stated the provisions of the Act.  She is thus ‘calling for’ an election, not ‘calling’ an election.  The decision now rests with the House of Commons.  A two-thirds majority of all MPs is required for the motion to be passed.  That majority is expected to be achieved, given that Jeremy Corbyn has said Labour will vote for it.  Indeed, he made it clear some time ago that he would support an early election, thus doubtless aiding the PM in her consideration of whether to seek an election under section 2(2) of the Act.

The Act has only seven sections and one schedule – it is no more than nine pages, including the contents page – and was enacted in September 2011.  It is not the most onerous of reads.  Yet it appears to have caught the media out in reporting the PM’s announcement.  Asking the Commons to vote for an early election is not to ‘override’ the Act, it is utilising one of the provisions of the Act.  Nor is invoking the provision a technicality.  The Opposition has said it will vote for the motion.  The important point is that it is needed in order to pass the motion.  The press gallery of the Commons is not likely to be empty tomorrow, even though the outcome of the vote is largely taken as given.  It puts the Opposition in a particularly difficult position.  It will be difficult to attack the PM for going early to the country (as previously it could have done) when it is a party to the decision.  One could envisage situations in the future when a politically astute Leader of the Opposition keeps quiet as to whether the Opposition would support an early election under the FTPA, thus giving a PM pause for thought before rushing into an announcement.

Assuming the motion is passed, the effect is to reset the clock on the timing of the next general election.  Under section 1, if an early election is triggered, the next one takes place on the first Thursday in May in the fifth calendar year after the election, unless the election takes place before the first Thursday in May in the calendar year it which it is held in which case it is four years.  The five-year provision will apply in this case.

When the Fixed-term Parliaments Bill was going through Parliament, it encountered particular criticism in the House of Lords.  As a result, section 7 provides for the Act to be reviewed in 2020.  It was inserted to stave off a sunset clause.  Perhaps the House should have insisted on a sunset provision…

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A labour of love…

Or a trip down memory lane…

In an earlier post, I said how pleased I was to see that it was now possible to obtain copies of my first book, Dissension in the House of Commons 1945-74, in a softcover edition.  As I recorded, it was essentially a volume of data on dissension in the division lobbies of the Commons.  It derived from a manual study of about 3,000 division lists and at least one million names.  As one reader observed in commenting on the post, given modern computing such data nowadays could probably be obtained in an afternoon.  However, as the picture illustrates, the volume itself was more than a dataset, as it also included summaries of the debates on which the dissent occurred.

Looking through the volume brought back memories of the research entailed.  In those days, it was a case of going through each volume of Hansard, examining each division list and, if there was some dissension, recording in longhand details of the debate as well as listing the names of dissenters, and checking The Times for any coverage of the dissent.  The recollection prompted me to check my archives (aka the shelves in the garage) and look through my original files: I still have the longhand transcriptions of the debates.  The typescript material is actually more extensive than that which was published, as I also recorded data on free votes on which party members divided.

The handwritten pages I later transposed to typescript.  The manuscript of the book was over 1,000 typescript pages.  The book itself is 643 pages.

A friend not so long ago told me that I was an introvert.  This he deduced from the fact that an extrovert looks to instant gratification.  As my friend noted, I am quite prepared to engage in research for ages until I produce a result.  Given that this volume of Dissension (I produced a later one for the 1974-79 Parliament) entailed at least two years of solid research, virtually all of it spent underground (Hansard and The Times were stored below the surface in Stack 3 of Sheffield University Library), he probably has a point.

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