Already making an appearance…

Regular readers will be aware of the imminent publication of Governing Britain. It is being published formally on 17 September.  Some booksellers, however, already have copies and have been fulfilling orders.  Several people have tweeted to say that their copies have arrived.  Indeed, some received copies of the book before I did.

What has been especially gratifying has been how well it has already sold.  It moved up the bestseller list on Amazon to No. 1 under ‘Government and State Constitutions’ and no. 7 in ‘UK Politics’.  It then fell back, but earlier this week was again at No. 1.

I don’t think I have had a book that has achieved this measure of success so quickly.  It many respects, it is counter intuitive.  The publishers, Manchester University Press, have done a superb job in terms of production – a fine hardback for under £17 – and obviously I like to think that the content is worthy.  However, under normal conditions, I would be speaking at conferences and attending a range of meetings at which I would be distributing flyers for the book.  I would be sending out invitations to launch parties in Westminster and Hull.  I was also scheduled to speak on the book at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival.  In the event, none of these activities was possible. The only way I have been able to promote it has been through Twitter.  This certainly seems to have had an impact.

It has been especially gratifying as to how many people have not only tweeted that they have the book, but also said how much they are looking forward to reading it. My only worry now is if this is followed by silence…

For anyone who has not got a copy, it is available at £16.99 ($25.50 in the USA) – I see Amazon are offering it at £11.99 – and in a kindle edition at £13.59.

Talking of kindle, The Impact of Legislatures – which costs over £100 for a print copy – is now available in a kindle edition for only £32.39.

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Adding value….

The recent list of new peers has attracted negative publicity.  In the Lords, members accept that the House is too large and needs to be reduced and that the appointments process needs tightening.  Members have been pressing for reform and, indeed, the only legislative change in recent years has been achieved, not by government, but by members through private members’ legislation [House of Lords Reform Act 2014, House of Lords (Expulsion and Suspension) Act 2015].  The House itself is not an obstacle to reform that is designed to strengthen it in carrying out its essential tasks.

However, recent events have led to an open season for attacking the Lords. The House has been criticised for the cost to the taxpayers – be it the overall cost of the House or the estimated cost of each peer – and for being undemocratic.   Both claims are trotted out as if self-evidently true.

Neither stands up to scrutiny.  To claim that the House costs the taxpayer money is the equivalent of looking at a balance sheet and ignoring the income.  I have previously written about the value added by the House.  Each session, several hundred amendments are usually secured to government bills.  Many are moved by government in response to amendments moved at earlier stages by backbench members.  The importance is qualitative as much as quantitative.  Some amendments are minor, but some make a substantial difference, benefiting charities, firms, and citizens generally.  How does one monetize the value of such changes?  For individuals affected by the changes, the benefit may be invaluable.   Until one can start to work out the value to individuals, charities, firms, and society generally, it is nor possible to talk authoritatively about the ‘cost’ of the Lords.  Rather, one needs to start addressing the value added by the House and the fact that, without a House noted for experience and expertise, that value would be lost.

As for it being undemocratic, that is not self-evidently the case at all.  Democracy (demos kratia) is about how people choose to govern themselves.  In the UK, government is chosen through elections to the House of Commons.  There is a clear line of accountability.  Government is the result of election by the people.  It determines policy which, with a clear majority in the House of Commons, it can ensure is translated into law and is then answerable for that policy at the next election.  The House of Lords has a persuasive, but not a coercive, capacity to affect public policy.  It is not a veto player.  If you elect a second chamber, which then claims an electoral mandate, it will be in a position to challenge and frustrate the will of the first chamber; it will be in a legitimate position to demand to be a veto player.  Once you have an additional veto player, core accountability is lost.  There is no one body standing before, and accountable to, electors for the outputs of public policy.

As my colleague, Professor Colin Tyler, who specialises in democratic theory, has written:

‘democratising one part of Parliament (the Lords) will reduce the democratic character of the whole (Parliament).  And ultimately it is the democratic character of Parliament that matters, not the democratic character of its constituent parts considered in isolation from each other.’

For the sake of completeness, in relation to criticisms of peers individually, as opposed to the House collectively, the media also confuse quantity with quality, a point also developed in a previous post.   A member may be active in the House, regularly turning up and speaking, but activity is not the same as achievement.  Some members may not have a high visibility, but may be quietly effective, focusing their resources – and expertise – to maximum effect.  One should therefore focus not so much on what members are doing, but rather on what they are achieving.  That requires a somewhat more sophisticated methodology than simply totting up the number of speeches or sittings attended.

There is, in short, much more to the House of Lords, and what it does, than is apparent and certainly more than is appreciated in recent media coverage.

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New and forthcoming… ‘majestic and enthralling’

I am delighted to report that The Impact of Legislatures has now been published.  It is a handsomely produced 503-page volume, though as previously reported, I fear you will need deep pockets if you want to own your own copy.  Its publication marks the 25th anniversary of The Journal of Legislative Studies and comprises some of the key articles published in the journal.   Authors include David Arter, Phil Cowley, Cristina Leston-Bandeira, Shane Martin, Meg Russell, Thomas Saalfeld, and George Tsebelis.  It constitutes another work in the burgeoning Routledge Library of Legislative Studies.

Next month sees the publication of Governing Britain. It was scheduled originally for publication in May and I had been invited to speak about it at this year’s Edinburgh International Book Festival, but unfortunately the current crisis has resulted in publication being delayed until September and the cancellation of the book festival.  You don’t need deep pockets to purchase a copy and indeed if you have used the special offer open to readers of this blog, you can get it at an extraordinarily reasonable price.

I can report that it carries endorsements from such luminaries as Sir Ivor Crewe and Phil Cowley, and with John McEldowney very kindly describing it as ‘majestic and enthralling’.  If you want to find out whether it is…..

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The constitutional implications of COVID-19

The Constitution Committee of the House of Lords is presently undertaking two inquiries.  One, which started last year, is examining the Fixed-term Parliaments Act 2011.  Regular readers will be aware that I have variously written on the implications of the Act and last September I gave evidence to the committee.  I did a blog post on it at the time and if you wish to watch the session you can do so here.

The other inquiry is into the constitutional implications of COVID-19.  The committee is examining especially the ability of Parliament to hold Government to account, the scrutiny of emergency powers, and the operation of the courts.  I have submitted written evidence, focusing on the first of these.  I essentially open with an abstract:

The paper identifies the impact of the coronavirus crisis on the Parliament in fulfilling its core constitutional role as a deliberative assembly, identifies the challenges faced by both Houses, adumbrates the attempts to mitigate the problems, outlines what more may be done to tackle the challenges, as well as the consequences of the response to the crisis for future crises and for the restoration and renewal programme of the Palace of Westminster.

The submission can be read here I identify some of the problems which are probably more apparent to members than observers.   I make various recommendations, not least for contingency planning so that Parliament can adapt in the event of any similar future emergency.  However, I was keen also to draw attention to the implications for the Restoration and Renewal programme for the Palace of Westminster.  There is the danger of drawing what I regard as false lessons from current circumstances for the operation of Parliament in the future.

I have not touched upon the suggestion that during the R&R programme Parliament move to York.  I have previously blogged about the view that the House of Lords could move permanently to York.  I may well do a post on the latest suggestion, the consequences of which appear not to have been thought through.

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Chairing the History of Parliament Trust

I am honoured to report that earlier today I was elected as Chair of The History of Parliament Trust.  I have been a Trustee for more than twenty years and am a longstanding member of the Trust’s executive committee.  The Trustees comprise a mix of parliamentarians – drawn from members of both Houses – and parliamentary officers.   As Chair, I succeed Gordon Marsden, who was MP for Blackpool South until the last election and a historian by background.

The History was first established in 1940 and since 1951 has received public funding.  (Since 1995, it has been funded by both Houses of Parliament.)  It comprises a body of professional historians undertaking an authoritative study of parliamentary politics in England, then Britain, from their origins in the 13th Century.  It is regarded as one of the most ambitious and well-researched projects in British history.  The first set of volumes, covering the House of Commons 1754-1790, was edited by Sir Lewis Namier and John Brooke.  To date, it has published more than forty substantial volumes.  The latest, 7-volume set, just published, cover The House of Commons 1442-1465.

It also now has an oral history project, in conjunction with the British Library, to create a sound archive of British politics in the period since 1945, drawing on interviews with as many former Members of Parliament as possible, covering their careers and political experiences.

Much of the research is now available online.   It is an excellent source of material, not only on the history of Parliament, but also on individual constituencies and MPs over the centuries.  Some remarkable characters have sat in Parliament.  You can find out more on the History’s website,   The History is expanding it outreach activities – including an annual schools essay competition – and is active on social media.  You can  follow it on Twitter – @HistParl – and on Facebook:

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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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