Parliamentary Soveriengty and the modern dominance of the Executive

Timothy Garton Ash, writing in the Guardian, quotes Labour MP Tony Wright as saying “the main objective of members of the legislature is to join the executive”, and also as apparently making the point subsequently that the main objective of our electoral system is now to choose a government, not representatives of the people (thus highlighting one of the severe problems with Parliamentary systems when it comes to selecting the best voting system; that constant tension between choosing local representatives and holding a government to account. This is at least partly the reason why the USA suffers less from the debate regarding Electoral Reform and the deficiencies of First Past the Post, because it has a separated government and legislature).

Contrary to what you’re possibly expecting, this is not wholly a note on Electoral Reform. It’s actually a few broader observances I have to make re: the “Electoral Dictatorship” debate.

Firstly, I am unsure how much the complaint that Parliament has become neutered in particular over the last ten years is accurate. It is entirely possible that it is due to the effect of the sudden transition from a small majority House (John Major’s steadily eroded majority of 21 from 1992-1997) to three real majority terms, two of them landslide majorities. Certainly, in terms of raw statistics, parliamentary rebellions are more common now than they were under Thatcher in the 1980s, something you rarely see reported in the Press.

In terms of changes to Parliament, there might be something in the complaint – it is certainly true that the government attempted to pass a bill which would have given it incredible scope for secondary legislation (legislation delegated from Parliament to other authorities such as the Executive), and nearly got away with it – the legislation in the end was watered down significantly, though still a worrying development. For more information, google “Death of Parliament Bill”.

The Tories have also made complaints regarding the timetabling of Parliament, which they argue has neutered its debating ability. There may be something to this, too – I am not too sure, as I do not know enough about the subject – but it is certainly untrue to posit that until recently the government had no way of frustrating debate in the Commons. It has had the power to “guillotine” bills for a long time prior to 1997, and went from using this power in exceptional cases to using it with regularity a long time ago.

But the original complaint, that of Parliamentary subordination, is already watered down by the behaviour of MPs, who we have already seen have, if anything, been more rebellious in general towards the Executive. Certainly, if Parliament is now more controlled by the Executive, it is through other ways than whipping. The whips in general are no more powerful now than they have been for a considerable time.

One thing is becoming clear, however, it is that the House of Commons is never going to regain practical “sovereignty” over the government in an age where people are quick to expect government action on their everyday problems, and where the media continually breeds the impression that a government must be seen to do something. In a fused Legislature and Executive, it is not in the interests of MPs to go against this attitude towards government. Parliamentary scrutiny procedure can be slow and talky, which some people can find frustrating and the media may find to be less eye-catching than government or opposition press releases.

And coupled with the trend towards people voting more directly to influence the Executive than to elect a good local representative, it becomes clear that a simple switch to PR will not help Parliament regain practical sovereignty one jot, whatever other benefits it may bring. List systems could have the effect of making MPs more obedient to the will of their parties, because the local connection will be diluted and parties will have to vote even more as blocks on the floor of the house. In essence, introducing list PR could make the Executive more practically superior, not less. Countries such as Sweden have not experienced more independence among their MPs, even with a somewhat open form of List PR.

We are also seeing more use, not less, of MPs as “local advocates”. It would be worryingly dismissive to see electoral reform as the panacea all sovereignty ills without considering what advantages the current system has, and how to build upon them.

If Parliament wishes to regain practical sovereignty, therefore, the reforms need to be on a far more practical level, and a way fundamental to parliament’s working, than merely changing the way MPs are elected. Given that people find talking-heavy responses to immediate concerns frustrating, the Commons needs to find more quick and punchy ways of allowing MPs to highlight the concerns of their constituents. Better time granted to Private Members Bills and more weighty powers for committees to require responses from government departments may be a start to this, though I remain a novice when it comes to understanding of Parliamentary procedure. But a more fundamental reform may be simpler than people think.

The House of Lords has acquired for itself the reputation of a good “Revising chamber”, where bad quality legislation is amended so to make it far more effective and put to better use. Granting people local representatives in the House of Lords would be an excellent “safety-check” on the centralised and executive-dominated representatives in the House of Commons, and might even allow for quicker response to constituents’ concerns. It is bitterly ironic that the more effective chamber for holding the government to account legislatively is the one which currently has no ties to local constituencies.

If representatives for constituencies are elected to the House of Lords, then the current strengths must be retained. Peers should still have the independence and expertise the House is famous for at the moment. This requires two things: firstly, that crossbenchers continue to be appointed by the House of Lords Appointments Commission (contrary to popular belief, this is not a process controlled by the government), and secondly, that Peers are elected through a different process to the House of Commons, to different ends.

This latter point can be achieved through two ways: firstly, that Peers are not elected by the same form of election as the House of Commons. This would be a redundancy, as it has already been seen that the single-member system leads to large numbers of constituents’ votes being unrepresented. A secondary system of election should correct this, not add to it. The only criteria for such a system should be local representation, not necessarily single-member representation. A sensible suggestion would seem to be the Single Transferable Vote, although other locally favourable and broadly representative systems exist.

Secondly, that Peers be elected for single-terms only. These terms should probably be longer, in the region of 8-12 years, and this would preserve the independence and ability to apply expertise that Peers currently enjoy. It would merely speed up the process of the Lords, ensuring that constituents are granted continuous democratic influence on a more effective locally representatives House of Lords, whilst ensuring that the Upper chamber is not susceptible to the same form of electoral bribery that the Lower chamber is.

An upper chamber of a bicameral legislature needs to complement the lower chamber, not replicate its flaws, and not go into gridlock with it. The current arrangement does this very well, but it can still be improved. It requires tweaking, not rebuilding. And if any legislative reform is to be attempted to make Parliament practically sovereign once more, a more representative and high profile second chamber is the best place to start.

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