The political organisation of Parliament

I realise I did not do a post about another recent publication of mine.  This redresses that oversight.  I have a chapter on ‘The political organisation of Parliament’, in Exploring Parliament, edited by Cristina Leston-Bandeira and Louise Thompson.  The book, published by Oxford University Press in February, is designed as a wide-ranging text on Parliament.

Political parties are crucial to the effective functioning of a legislature.  Yet very little is written about how they are organised.  The main organisation historically has been the whips, though their role is often misunderstood.  They are primarily managers and communicators.  They facilitate cohesion rather than force it.

The 20th Century saw the development of a party infrastructure, with both main parties meeting weekly, with elected officers, though with some notable differences between the two (the PLP comprises all Labour Members; the Conservative 1922 Committee comprises private Members, though ministers may now attend).  Each has developed backbench groups covering policy sectors.

I also discuss parties in terms of Anthony King’s modes of executive-legislative relations.  The opposition mode has been the dominant mode in British politics, though the cross-party mode has become more relevant in recent years, as has the non-party mode in respect of all-party groups.  The inter-party mode became significant during the period of coalition government.  However, the one that matters most for the party in government achieving its goals is the intra-party mode.  Backbench MPs have become more independent in their voting behaviour in recent years.  The high point of party cohesion was the mid-1950s.  Nowadays, ministers have to make sure that their backbenchers are on side.  Party infrastructure provides a means for hearing, and sometimes absorbing, their concerns.

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When MPs gather informally…

In an earlier post, I drew attention to the paper I gave at the PSA Parliaments Group Conference late last year at the Scottish Parliament on the subject of social space in Parliament.  I have since revised the paper and the resulting article, ‘Power behind the Scenes: The Importance of Informal Space in Legislatures’, has just been published online by Parliamentary Affairs.  It will be coming out in a print edition in due course.

I have refined the terminology, to avoid confusion, and, as you will note, now use the term informal space.  Where MPs gather informally to talk is significant politically, for the reasons summarised in my earlier post and developed in the article.

Here is the abstract:

Studies of legislatures focus on what happens in formal space, principally the chamber and committee rooms. Such studies are necessary, but not sufficient, for explaining behaviour within legislatures and its consequences. The use of space for members to interact informally with one another—informal space—can contribute to the institutionalisation of a legislature through facilitating autonomy. Such space provides an arena for socialisation, information exchange, lobbying and mobilising political support. This article examines the significance of informal space, drawing on the experience of the UK Parliament.

The abstract can also be accessed here.  For those with a subscription to the electronic version of the journal, it should also link to the full article.  For others, I fear it will be a case of waiting for the print edition to appear…

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The threat to politics…

Politics is normally defined as the process by which disputes as to outcomes of public policy are resolved peacefully.  That entails debate.  If there is unanimity there is no politics, as there is nothing to dispute.  If policy is imposed without debate, there is no politics.  Politics is at the heart of a healthy political system.  Different views are heard and the merits of each debated.  Parliament provides an authoritative forum in which the views of the people are expressed through their representatives.  The institutional framework is important.  There are structures and rules designed to ensure that each side is heard.  Parliament proceeds on the basis that government is entitled to get its business, but the Opposition is entitled to be heard.  However much one might disagree with the other side, it is important to listen to the arguments.  The issues are debated in public: people can watch and listen.

There has always been a problem in getting people to recognise that there are two sides to an argument.  Exponents of a particular view write to MPs and peers asking them to support their policy preference.  When the opposite side is agreed, they then write to the parliamentarians to complain ‘you didn’t listen to us’.  They have been listened to, but they have been disagreed with.  They are very different things.  Parliamentarians have to listen to both sides and weigh up which has the greater merits.

The problem seems to be getting worse, not least with the growth of social media.  That growth may be the cause of, or simply facilitate, a greater tendency of people to assert rather than justify an argument.  It may be a cause in that Twitter, for example, permits short comments rather than argument and helps reinforce prejudices without the need for justification.  It may be coincidental (though reinforcing) as issues come on the political agenda that engender intense feelings and offer binary choices.  The most obvious case is withdrawal from the EU.  European integration has been the fault line of British politics since 1945 and has been the cause of notable conflict at different points, none more so than during and since the leave/remain referendum campaign of 2016.  Each side has adopted a discrete position, taking its case as so obviously superior to the other that proponents cannot understand why others take a different stance.  That remains the case, with people on each side adopting positions that amount to little more than shouting soundbites at one another.  There appears little willingness to concede that there are actually two sides to an argument and it is a case of weighing the points advanced on each side.  That doesn’t mean that one cannot come to a clear conclusion, but that should be the result of reasoned debate.  I have clear views on a range of issues – House of Lords reform being a good example – but I recognise counter arguments and am willing to engage with them.  I may be unusual in that I recognise that there are arguments on both sides of the EU argument.  One has to come to a conclusion as to whether to leave or remain, but that should be the consequence of engagement by both sides and not by shouting insults at one another.  Far too many proponents on each side assume moral superiority and as a consequence come out with claims they believe to be self-evident, but which are closer to being ludicrous.

This tendency is a threat to a healthy democracy and puts even more pressure on Parliament than before to demonstrate its value as the arena in which issues of public policy are debated and resolved.  How that is to be achieved in the face of increasingly cash-strapped newspapers that are in danger of acting as megaphones of readers’ prejudices rather than informing debate is a particular conundrum.  Social media are part of the problem.  The obvious answer is for Parliament to turn social media to its advantage and use those media to show the value of reasoned debate.  It is already seeking to do so, but the challenge is a mammoth one and entails significant resources, but knowing that may be the way forward is at least a step in the right direction.  Leadership on the part of politicians, by being willing to engage in debate, is a prerequisite.

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I am not usually good at remembering anniversaries, or rather I am, but just not on the relevant days.  I tend to recall them some time after the event.  This year marks the 20th anniversary of me receiving my peerage.  The title took effect on 1 August 1998 and I was introduced into the House of Lords on 6 October.  I normally remember the 1 August anniversary sometime in mid-August, but this year I may be a little more on the ball, though I have no plans to do anything special.  Perhaps an extra pot of tea – or several.  I am easily pleased.

However, somewhat unusually, I have remembered that today is twenty years to the day since I received the ‘phone call out of the blue sounding me out as to whether I would be willing to accept a peerage.  Some years ago I did a short blog about the event.  It was certainly unexpected.  I was sat in my office and the ‘phone rang…  Twenty years have certainly flown by.

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Politics UK: the latest edition

The 9th edition of Politics UK has just been published by Routledge.  It is a substantial volume of almost 700 pages.  My contribution has, as usual, focused on the constitution (chapter 14), Crown (ch. 15), Parliament (chs. 16, 17 and 18), Prime Minister and Cabinet (ch. 19), ministers, departments and civil servants (ch. 20), and the judiciary ( ch. 22).

The book first appeared in 1991, with the eighth edition being published in 2013.   Although the basic framework remains the same, we have drawn on a range of distinguished writers to complement the main chapters.  The principal challenge has been keeping the work up to date.  This is especially problematic given the sheer scale of political developments in recent years and attempting to explain British politics in the middle of the negotiations for the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.

The publishers have done a remarkable job in turning round the manuscript in a short time.  The production quality is superb.  The book seeks not only to be an introduction to British politics, but also to provide an analytic framework.  Given its size – it is certainly a weighty tome – it is not the cheapest book around, but I think good value at a recommended retail price of £34.99.  For anyone seeking a solid introduction, get your copies now….

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Calling Departments to account…

In an earlier post, I drew attention to the fact that I had suggested that whenever Government Departments failed to respond to select committee reports witThe 1922 Committee usually meets in Committee Room 14hin two months, the name of the Department should be listed in House of Lords Business.  This already happens in respect of Departments that do not reply within ten working days to written questions.  The Leader of the House, Baroness Evans, responded positively and said she would take the proposal to the Procedure Committee.  The Committee’s Third Report of the session was approved by the House yesterday.  The report contained only two items.  One was on the timing of Private Notice Questions, which required the approval of the House.  The other was for information.  I am pleased to report that it constituted an acceptance of the recommendation:

Noting overdue Government responses to select committee reports in House of Lords Business

3. The Government aims to respond to select committee reports within two months. The undertaking forms part of the Osmotherly Rules, which provide guidance to Government departments about their engagement with select committees in both Houses.

4. On 14 November 2017, in a Question for Written Answer (HL3234) regarding the quality and timeliness of Government responses, Lord Norton of Louth asked what consideration had been given to listing in House of Lords Business the names of Government departments that had failed to respond to reports of Lords select committees, and joint committees, within two months. In her response on 27 November, the Leader of the House undertook to submit such a proposal to the Procedure Committee.

5. We have considered the Leader’s proposal and agreed that the House should be informed of the status of Government responses to select committee reports through the inclusion of a new section in the House of Lords Business document. The proposed section is predicated upon the following assumptions:

 It will be printed in the Business once a week, every Monday.
 Only reports for which a Government response has not been received within two months will be included.
 The two-month period will be interpreted as a full two months. For example, a report published on 20 February would be due for response on 21 April.
 Only responses to reports which were published from the beginning of the 2017–19 session, and in subsequent sessions, will be included.
 Only substantive reports by investigatory and post-legislative scrutiny committees will be covered, excluding reports published for information only. Reports by domestic committees and legislative scrutiny reports will be excluded.
 In the past, extensions for submitting Government responses have often been agreed between the department and committee concerned but not necessarily on a formal basis and with no precise date set. Such agreements will in future always need to be agreed in writing and the revised date will be indicated in the list.
 Although it is not uncommon for more than one Government department to be involved in responding to select committee reports, only the lead department will be indicated.

6. The new section will be included in House of Lords Business when the House returns from the forthcoming Easter recess. We report this to the House for information.

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Restoration and renewal: moving out of the Palace

In January, the House of Commons debated whether to decant the Palace during the years when the essential restoration and renewal of the Palace is undertaken.  It agreed, by 236 votes to 220, to a full, rather than a partial, decant.  The Lords debated the issue last month.  The vote in the Commons largely took the wind out of the sales of those peers who were reluctant to support a full decant.  The House agreed with the Commons without a vote.

I spoke in the debate and in the time available supported the case for a full decant.  My principal regret was that it had taken so long to bring the issue before the House.  As I explained in an earlier post, the longer the delay, the greater the cost to the public purse.  The need to address the state of the Palace is apparent to anyone walking through it – as well as to anyone looking at the exterior – and especially to anyone who has visited the basement.  The infrastructure is a mass of pipes and wires, with no record of where a great many of them go.  We could suffer a catastrophic failure at any moment.  We certainly suffered a notable failure during the recent cold snap.  The heating failed in the committee rooms overlooking the Thames, leading some MPs to sit in a Public Bill Committee wearing overcoats.  I have just been through the corridor on the ground floor of the West Front of the Lords, where bookcases and paintings have had to be removed because of a major water leak from the Principal Floor.  Things, I suspect, are not going to get any better.

In my speech, I addressed the concerns of those who fear that if we move out, we may never return, and the wishes of those who would like us not to return, but instead move to another part of the country.  There is a commitment to return to the Palace – not least because we could not afford to restore the Palace and create a new purpose-built Parliament.  Moving to another part of the country is not feasible, not as a matter of principle, but for practical reasons.  Parliament is where it is because of where Government is located.  We could create a new capital – our own Brasilia – in the heart of England, but the cost would be prohibitive.  It is going to cost billions to restore the Palace of Westminster.  That will not be the most popular expenditure of public money.  Consider the cost of building a new centre for Government Departments and both Houses of Parliament and relocating not only 7,000 staff who work in Parliament, but the senior civil service as well, and you begin to see the scale of the problem.

Getting us from where we are to temporary locations – and those locations are not confirmed or problem-free – while the Palace is restored and then getting us back in is going to be a massive logistical exercise as well as having major implications for how the two Houses connect with one another and with how MPs deal with constituents.  It is going to be vital to have a body capable of delivering the change and doing it efficiently and effectively.  We cannot afford to get it wrong.

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