Does parliament matter? (9 Oct 2014)
Articles Blog

Does parliament matter? (9 Oct 2014)

November 19, 2019


Welcome to today’s
UCL Lunchtime Lecture, only the second in this new season. I’m Professor Paul McMillan. I’m a member of
the Lunchtime Lecture committee and I’ve got the pleasure of being
your host and chair for today. Before we begin, could I make sure
that mobile telephones are off, or at least on flight mode. Our lecture today
is by Professor Meg Russell, from our Department
of Political Science. And as you can see,
she has a very topical title. She’s pointed out that if the audience
isn’t quite as full as it might be, we’re apparently in competition
with the UCU pensions event. But I think that this will be
an excellent place to be. Meg just informed me also that in fact, she’s only been a professor
since last Wednesday. Thank you. So with no further ado,
we give you Professor Meg Russell. Thank you very much, Paul. I hope I get
the sound levels right. My question today is
“Does Parliament Matter?” This is a deliberately
provocative question and one to which I hope to give
a slightly counter-intuitive answer, as least going by much contemporary
and journalistic rhetoric. In doing so, I’ll draw on some
of my own research from UCL’s Constitution Unit. So to start with the rhetoric, it certainly seems fashionable nowadays to suggest that parliament
doesn’t matter. That it’s somehow a toothless
and relatively peripheral institution. Here’s William Hague, currently
Leader of the House of Commons, but speaking here in 2000, when he was
Conservative Party Leader. “Parliament’s power
to hold the Executive to account “has been declining for over a century. “But the present government have done
more than any other in living memory “to create a parliament that bows
and scrapes to ministers.” Clearly he was speaking
about Tony Blair’s government. A few years later, here’s Chris Huhne, at that time Liberal Democrat
Shadow Home Secretary. He describes
the House of Commons as “A rubber stamp… “a legislature on its knees, “meeting to elect a government
once every four or five years “and put on a pantomime
at Prime Minister’s Questions.” And just to complete the political set,
this is Angela Eagle, who’s currently Labour’s Shadow
Leader of the House of Commons, speaking earlier this year. “The House of Commons,
our only elected house, “should be the beating heart
of our democracy, “but during my 22 years in parliament
I’ve watched as its power “and effectiveness in scrutinising
the Executive has deteriorated.” These views chime with much
of what we read in our newspapers. For example, here’s Simon Jenkins
in The Guardian in 2006, describing the House of Commons
as “God’s gift to dictatorship.” And these kinds of claims
are nothing new. These are also the words of a
journalist, echoing those of Jenkins, suggesting, “The House of Commons
no longer controls the Executive. “On the contrary, the Executive
controls the House of Commons.” So far, so unsurprising. But these words were written in 1904. Likewise, we can find academic views
which chime with these. Here’s a former UCL Law professor,
largely agreeing, suggesting that, “Great Britain today “is a country in which
an all-powerful Executive, “acting through a subservient
parliamentary majority, “exercises despotic power.” He published those thoughts in a volume entitled, “The Passing
of Parliament”, in 1952. It was just one of a number of books
with similarly gloomy titles coming out around that time. Academic gloom, at least among some,
was still present decades later. For example, Richardson and Jordan
famously referred to Britain in 1979, as “a post-parliamentary democracy.” It’s also worth saying that these kinds
of claims are not uniquely made about our legislative institutions
here in Britain. Similar comments are often made in other parliamentary
democracies around the world. My response is primarily
limited to Britain today, because that’s where
I’ve conducted my research. But the kind of dynamics
that I describe apply to a greater or lesser extent to parliamentary institutions
much more broadly. As should now be clear, my question about whether
parliament matters isn’t a new one. In fact, I should acknowledge that it’s been asked
in exactly these terms before. I borrowed my title from Philip Norton, one of the best-known scholars
of the British parliament. He tried to counter some of the
academic cynicism I’ve just cited. His book was published in 1993. His answer, particularly for
a defender of parliament, could be seen as decidedly mixed. In his own words, the correct response to the question,
“Does parliament matter?”, is “Yes certainly. But…” Yes certainly, inasmuch as
parliament has many functions some of which
are absolutely fundamental. The make-up of the House of Commons
decides who can form the government. In extremis, the Commons
can remove that government from office by a confidence vote. So long as the government
remains in office, it has to answer publicly to
parliament for its actions. MPs have a representative role, which links government to citizens
and citizens’ concerns. Parliament also acts as a forum
for public debate. It does crucially legitimate
what governments do. But when it came to policy,
Norton was much more cautious, suggesting the parliament “is not a
significant initiator of public policy “and is an infrequent influencer
of the content of public policy.” But Norton’s book is now
more than 20 years old. And in that period, a lot has changed,
including in parliament itself. There’s been a gradual decline in party
cohesion in the House of Commons. That is a reduction in MPs’ willingness
to blindly follow the party line. Gradual decline
under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, has been followed
by a more precipitous decline under the 2010 coalition. There’s been significant growth
in the importance of select committees in the House of Commons. These committees, one of which
shadows each government department, were established broadly
in their current form in 1979. Since then they’ve
gradually gained resources, developed an increasing media profile and in 2010,
their membership was reformed to enhance their independence. There have also been particularly
important changes in the House of Lords. In 1999, the first Blair government removed the great majority
of hereditary peers, which ended a Conservative dominance
of that chamber that lasted 200 years. Initially perhaps looking advantageous
to the Labour government, this change
to a more party-balanced chamber made members of the Lords
feel suddenly more legitimate, giving them more confidence
to challenge government policy. Both these changes have affected
the legislative process, as we’ll see. Perhaps less important, there have also been other reforms
to that process as well, such as Commons bill committees
starting to take evidence in public from outside groups of experts. There have also been
various other changes, such as a reform in 2010 giving backbench MPs more control
over the Commons agenda, allowing debates on uncomfortable
subjects for government and opposition party leaders to reach the floor. Other changes
could be mentioned as well. The issue of party cohesion,
the first one, has been extensively researched
by others, including Philip Norton and, more recently, Philip Cowley
at the University of Nottingham. The last change is too recent yet
to be reliably assessed. But we’ve done research
in the other three areas, and I’d like to give you
a glimpse of what we’ve found. This would be a good moment to acknowledge the contribution
of many others to this research. First, crucially, those who funded it,
noted on the slide, the Nuffield Foundation and the ESRC. Second, the various research staff and research interns
at the Constitution Unit, who’ve contributed to
data collection and analysis. And last, the numerous people
in the political world, who’ve cooperated with the research. I want to draw briefly from three
projects that we’ve conducted. All three explore the area identified
by Norton as a shortcoming in the early 1990s. That is parliament’s impact in policy. The first is an analysis
of select committees conducted jointly with the House
of Commons Committee Office. This was the biggest study of these
committees since their establishment. It traced the work of 7 committees
over 13 years, including the over 700 reports
that they produced and over 13,000 conclusions and
recommendations in those reports. Over 1,000 recommendations
to central government were traced to see whether
they’d been implemented. Second, research on the House of Lords
since its reform in 1999. This included an analysis
of every vote in the chamber and particularly tracking the effect
of every government defeat. Plus postal questionnaire surveys
of members. Third, the biggest study of the
legislative process at Westminster since the mid-1970s. This traced the passage of 12 bills
through both chambers of parliament, including looking at
every amendment proposed. Over 4,000 in total. All three projects, as well as gathering data
from documentary sources, included a large number of in-depth
interviews with people involved. 250 to 300 interviews altogether. These included members of the
Commons and the Lords, parliamentary staff, ministers,
civil servants and outside groups. So what did we find? In each case, results can be readily broken down
into the quantifiable, based largely on documentary evidence, and the less quantifiable,
mostly drawn from interviews. Starting with select committees, it’s important to emphasise
that while these committees have grown increasingly visible
and widely respected, they’ve got very little formal power
to make government do anything at all. They spend most of their time
conducting investigations into implementation of past-government
policy and future policy options. They take evidence in public from government ministers
and officials and outside groups. They publish reports presenting this
evidence and making recommendations, mostly targeted at government. Ministers are expected to publish
a written response, but are otherwise
under no obligation to act and committees have no formal
means to make them do so. So, in theory, ministers can simply
brush aside what committees say. Indeed, parliamentary cynics
might expect that to be the case and some people
had suggested that was so. But our research
strongly demonstrated otherwise. Just under half the select committee
recommendations that we traced had clearly been implemented
by government. Given that we looked at
only 7 committees out of a total 20, we estimated there were probably about
450 select committee recommendations being implemented by government
every year. That’s hardly peripheral. The select committees in particular
have no formal role in the legislative process. The committee stage of legislation
in the Commons is taken in a separate set
of non-specialist committees. Yet our separate study
of the legislative process found over 1,700 mentions
of select committees during debate on the 12 bills. That’s almost 150 mentions
on average per bill. Notably, many of the amendments
made to the bills in parliament were clearly traceable to ideas
proposed by select committees. This already suggests
that select committees are important to the policy process and they may have been
a key addition at Westminster, helping rebalance between
parliament and the Executive. But our interviews indicated how
a focus purely on measurable impact would be too simplistic. Repeatedly, interviewees emphasised that the implementation
of committee recommendations was only the tip of the iceberg
in terms of their policy influence. Committees,
despite their lack of formal power, exert various other
subtle forms of influence. For example, holding an enquiry focuses media and government attention
on a policy issue, forcing ministers and civil servants
to think it through. Committees gather together
a body of evidence, which is published and informs
wider debates. Crucially, they also have
a power of exposure. Because their evidence sessions
are held in public, ministers, civil servants and others
are publicly held to account. They have not only to think through
their positions, but justify them publicly,
potentially in the glare of the media. Notably, this power isn’t only exerted
over central government. It also applies to other public bodies and increasingly
to the private sector as well. In recent years, Commons select committees have held
high-profile evidence sessions with various private sector groups. For example, bankers have been held
to account by the Treasury Committee. Starbucks, Amazon and Google
had to explain their tax affairs to the Public Accounts Committee. And Rupert Murdoch and his News
International colleagues answered to the Culture, Media and
Sport Committee over phone hacking. If select committees hadn’t existed,
these key figures would not have been held to account
in any public forum at all. This power of exposure was considered
very important by our interviewees. As one civil servant put it, “Committees’ biggest influence,
particularly in Whitehall, “is the fear of having to appear
in front of them.” Likewise, a former senior minister,
who’d held various Cabinet posts, said that when thinking through the
merits of different policy options, he’d often ask himself, “How would this look if there was
a committee enquiry into it?” This tell us something important about
the nature of parliamentary power, which I’ll return to. The story with respect to
the House of Lords is similar. During the first 13 years after
it was reformed, from 1999 to 2012, the government was defeated in the
House of Commons just eight times. This is unsurprising in one respect,
though I’ll also return to this, because government of course
has a majority in the Commons. In the same period in the Lords,
where it has no majority, it was defeated over 500 times. The way that defeats went up in the
Lords post-1999 was widely noted. In particular
in the 2002/03 session alone, the Blair government
was defeated 88 times. But like select committee reports, these defeats might be dismissed on the basis that the Lords
can’t enforce them. In practice, on most bills,
the Commons, as the elected chamber, can overrule the Lords. Without further investigation
it therefore might be assumed, and some did think this, that Lords defeats
were relatively unimportant. But again,
our research demonstrated otherwise. Of the 506 government defeats
in this period, again just under half
were largely or wholly accepted by government
and the House of Commons. That is 180 defeats over 13 years. Some of these were on relatively
small matters, but most weren’t, because trivial disputes are usually
resolved without even coming to a vote. Some were on very major matters. For example, the Blair government
was repeatedly defeated over its attempt
to restrict access to trial by jury. In the end, it largely gave up. Blair was also defeated on his plans
to introduce identity cards. In the end, the Lords compromised
on delaying introduction of the cards until after the 2010 election,
when a new government was likely. Of course, there was a new government and it almost immediately
scrapped the whole scheme. Gordon Brown was defeated
over his attempt to extend detention without trial of terrorist
suspects from 28 to 42 days. Notably, two of Blair’s defeats
in the Commons had been over attempting
to increase it to 90 days. The coalition government
has suffered relatively fewer defeats, as it’s stronger numerically
in the Lords than Labour was. But, for example, coalition plans to
abolish various public bodies were also blocked by the Lords. These are all very visible changes, but again, other evidence suggests
this is just the tip of the iceberg. Asked in a questionnaire
to comment on which were the Lords
most important means of influence, 85% of its members agreed
that the chamber’s real influence is exerted as much through persuasion
as through defeats. When asked in another survey what mattered to the chamber’s
influence on the policy process, just one third agreed that defeats
were very important and more than half said the same about government bringing forward
its own amendments under pressure from peers. Because government has
no partisan majority in the Lords, it’s a place where a good deal of
negotiation goes on all the time across party lines. One peer said, “On the whole, “government ministers
will bend over backwards to help you, “because the last thing they want
is a vote.” Of course a vote could mean a defeat. Since the late 1990s, an increasingly elaborate
and formalised system of parliamentary so-called
handling strategies has been established to second guess
the concerns of parliamentarians before bills are introduced. Here it’s worth making
an important point, as illustrated by the fact that
these handling strategies apply not just to the Lords,
but also to the Commons. Peers can’t get anything agreed
on their own. All bills need the assent of MPs. So a Lords’ defeat is a way
of throwing a policy question back for the House of Commons
and asking, “Are you really sure?” The ultimate pivotal voters
at Westminster continue to be as they’ve always been: government backbench MPs. If government backbench opinion
in the Commons is solid, the government will generally
be able to win against the Lords. But if backbenchers
aren’t fully behind the government, and in an environment
where they’re increasingly willing to defy their whips, ministers will often give in
to Lords opposition. That means a more assertive Lords
doesn’t weaken the Commons, but strengthens it. Our wider work on the legislative
process backs all this up. Looking at the 4, 361 amendments
to the 12 bills we studied, most were proposed
by non-government parliamentarians, opposition members,
or government backbenchers. Only a tiny fraction of these
were passed. Of the 752 agreed amendments,
almost all came from government itself. But on closer inspection, most government amendments
have little policy substance, being trivial tidying up measures, or consequential
or more important amendments. Where government amendments
did have policy substance, a clear majority were traceable to pressures
from non-government parliamentarians. Most were concessions given in response
to non-government amendments, withdrawn by their proposers following
government promises to reconsider. Some responded directly
to select committees. In many cases, where government didn’t respond
to a select committee’s demand, this was pursued
by non-government amendments, which the government backed down to. There were various major changes
to the bills under these pressures, which are visible,
but only if you look closely. One of the most high-profile, which nicely joins together
a number of issues, came on Labour’s health bill 2005/06, which introduced the smoking ban
in public places. The government’s original intention,
set out in Labour’s 2005 manifesto, was to introduce a partial ban with certain exemptions
for pubs not serving food and for private members’ clubs. But these exemptions
concerned health professionals and the also concerned the House
of Commons Health Committee, which gathered evidence
and published a highly critical report. Members of the committee proposed a cross-party amendment
to introduce a full ban and pressed the government
to allow a free vote on it. The government,
seeing the danger, gave in and when a free vote was held, MPs overwhelmingly backed
the committee’s position, rather than the government’s
original plan. This was a climb down,
but not notably a government defeat. As often happens, faced with difficulties,
ministers held a free vote, rather than risking the humiliation
of defeat in the Commons. This makes sense politically of course,
but it also masks parliamentary power. The heat goes out of the issue,
the media pays less attention and most of the public never hears that parliament won a victory
over government. In a now familiar reprieve,
that was all about visible influence. But our interviews told
a much more complex story. As one civil servant put it, “Preparing legislation,
the sponsoring department “will have a sense of what it thinks
it can ask parliament, “where it might have to concede,
and what it shouldn’t even ask.” This is partly played out through the kind of handling strategies
discussed just now, but also describes a more profound way
that parliament influences the work and the whole mindset
of civil servants. As another put it, “Civil servants do, as do ministers,
actually default to parliament “as the basis for everything.” This comment was made
in the context of legislation, but chimes clearly with the comment
of the senior minister earlier, about select committees. It could also be used
to describe ministers’ sensitivity to what they may be asked
in parliamentary questions or in other parliamentary forums. Hence one minister explained to us, “I’m always saying to people, ‘You don’t know how much parliament
preys on everyone’s minds.'” He suggested, “We have a much
stronger parliament than you think.” Another particularly striking quotation
comes from an MP, who, after years on the backbenches, served in a role supporting
the Prime Minister in Downing Street. He admitted that
when he arrived at Number 10, “The amount of attention paid to what
happened in the Commons “was quite staggering to me, “who’d been in the Commons,
thinking I was completely impotent.” This emphasises again the key role
of government backbench MPs. The government depends on them
for its majority, including to remain in power. If sufficient of them vote
with the opposition, the government will be defeated. But matters rarely come to that point. As with select committees
and as with the Lords, government always works hard
to avoid conflict where it can. MPs have become more rebellious, but rebellions rarely result in
government defeat in the Commons. That doesn’t mean the Commons
is powerless. Most of the time it means
that ministers have acted on good intelligence. The most important rebellions are
probably the ones that never happen, because government
has already changed course. It’s notable that all three
politicians quoted earlier bemoaning parliamentary powerlessness
and Executive dominance were, at the time,
members of the opposition. Being in opposition
can doubtless be very frustrating. Government backbenchers are the ones with the biggest
potential leverage in parliament. Though, as the last quotation shows, they clearly don’t always recognise
their own power. So what have we learnt? We already knew, as Norton told us,
that parliament was an important body. It links government to citizens
through MPs’ representative roles, it determines who makes up
the government and can ultimately remove
the government from office. It requires the government
to explain itself publicly and acts as an important forum
for public debate. At a minimum, it publicly legitimates
what government does. But it would be hard… It would be hard to conclude now,
as Norton did in 1993, that parliament is not a significant
initiator of public policy and is an infrequent influencer
of the content of public policy. Because there’s no immediately
comparable data for earlier periods, it’s hard to tell exactly
how much has changed. But our research shows that following changes such as the
introduction of select committees, which incidentally address some of the
shortcomings indentified by scholars in the 1950s and 1960s, like those I quoted earlier, measurable policy influence
is now quite easily detected if you look carefully enough. Nonetheless, one of the key messages
of this talk, and of our research, is that parliament’s
immeasurable policy influence is almost certainly far greater. If you want to know
the real power of parliament, you need to talk not just to people
inside the institution, but those on the receiving end. Civil servants and ministers
described to us eloquently how pervasive the power of
parliament is over everything they do. So to conclude
that parliament is peripheral because it has
few visible policy victories, or that the Commons is powerless because it rarely defeats
the government, is to take far too simplistic a view
of power. Norton knew this. And he pointed to Steven Lukes’
three dimensions of power, where power is defined as A being able
to get B to change their behaviour. The first dimension is where B
does what A asks them to do. It can be traced by the kind of
documentary analysis that we’ve done, showing government changing policy,
in response to parliament. The second dimension includes the well-known
power of anticipated reactions. B thinks about what A
would want them to do, and does it without needing
to be asked, or alternatively, desists from doing
something they think A would object to. This can be traced through more
qualitative work, such as interviews. It’s clear ministers
and civil servants, and even sometimes those
beyond government itself, dedicate serious energy
to consciously thinking about how parliament is likely to react. The third dimension
was Lukes’ unique contribution. Here he says, “A may exercise power
over B by influencing, “shaping or determining
his very wants.” He adds, “Is it not
the supreme exercise of power “to get another or others to have the
desires you want them to have?” This is almost certainly the way
that parliamentary power, at least in contemporary Britain,
operates most of the time. To use a well-known adage, which was a favourite
of US President Theodore Roosevelt, particularly talking about exercise
of power on the world stage, the most effective strategy may be to
“speak softly and carry a big stick.” You may never have to use the stick, but just having it
ensures you get listened to. Parliament always carried a big stick with respect to its ability to remove
government from office for example. But recent reforms have significantly
enhanced the size of that stick or perhaps provided
completely new sticks. So parliament clearly matters. We can identify three faces
of parliamentary power. To get government
to change its proposals, to get government
to think through consciously what proposals
it should and shouldn’t put and to unconsciously limit what
government even thinks about doing. Yet we still have the kind of rhetoric
we saw at the start. What are its likely effects? I think it’s dangerous
in two quite different ways. First, it’s a shame
that politicians talk down the power of their own institutions. This may play well to a contemporary
mood of anti-politics, but if anything, it’s only likely
to enhance that mood. Second, if government actually
slips into believing the rhetoric, it may end up in trouble. Tony Blair waited eight years before
his first House of Commons defeat over a proposed
90-day detention without trial. He’d of course enjoyed
huge Commons majorities, and had been able to withstand
sizeable rebellions. But by 2005,
his majority was far smaller and he lost this vote
when 50 Labour MPs rebelled. MPs knew that if they didn’t defeat the
legislation, the House of Lords would, which I think strengthened
their resolve. Nick Clegg’s fate
came much more quickly, when his proposals for Lords reform
were withdrawn in 2012, due to concerted opposition
from Conservative MPs. For more seasoned observers, this had seemed inevitable
from the start, but Clegg seemed to believe that a
pledge in the government’s programme couldn’t in practice be defeated and urged the whips to get it through. In fact in the end,
no defeat actually occurred, but it was completely clear
it was coming. So his bill was withdrawn
after having had its second reading. The most dramatic miscalculation,
perhaps, was David Cameron’s last year, when he recalled the Commons
in August, to ask it to vote
for military action in Syria. Of course, the very fact that such
a vote was considered necessary is itself something completely new; another power accrued by parliament
in the last ten years. Without having taken
careful enough soundings, in part obviously because
parliament was in recess, Cameron didn’t realise the level of
dissent on his own backbenches. This was a basic error; to assume you have support
without asking those on your own side. We can be sure that many more
phone calls were made before the recall over military action
against ISIS a few weeks ago. So the moral of the story? It would be better if politicians acknowledged
that parliament is powerful, that it matters very much. But if ever ministers forget this, parliament’s soon likely
to put them right. Thank you. Thank you, Meg. We’ve got time to take a few questions
from the audience. Could you do that side, please? Okay, so I’ve got one gentleman who had his hand up well before
I’d finished asking for questions. When you do ask a question,
I will field them, and if you can wait
for the microphone to begin, because we want them to be
part of the recording. So, please. Thank you for rewarding my keenness. Tom Cohen UCL Transport Institute,
a very interesting lecture, thank you. I wonder whether to some extent
people’s complaints about the power or not of parliament reflect a lack a clarity concerning
what parliament is meant to be, vis-a-vis the Executive. We perhaps have a romantic vision that it ought to be the seat
of all policy initiative and if it were clearer what parliament’s
conceptually assigned role is, people would have something
against which to measure it. Yes, well, do you want me
to go one at a time? I think you’re right, and this is a
point which many academics have made; it was a central point
in Norton’s book. There’s also an article or chapter
by Adam Tomkins at Glasgow, which I use in my teaching,
called “What is Parliament For?”, clarifying that parliament isn’t
and never really was intended to be
where policy is formulated. It wouldn’t be very efficient to have,
effectively, a committee with 650 members on it
trying to make policy from scratch. But I think what I’m trying to say is
that those things were always true, and you’re right that parliament
perhaps somehow could communicate this more clearly,
but it’s hard to see… Liam Laurence Smyth here,
from the Commons, thinks about these things. How parliament can better
describe what it does. There’s a lot of outreach activity but how that central message
can get through is difficult, especially when you’ve got politicians who are prepared to criticise
the institution. And of course those
on the opposition side are always likely to complain about
Executive over-dominance and so on, so one of the problems
parliament faces, compared to
other political institutions is that it doesn’t speak with one
voice, it speaks with numerous voices. The Commons is 650 voices
and if you throw in the House of Lords, a terrifying something like
1, 450 voices. So parliament doesn’t have that kind
of strong sense of singular identity that perhaps the Executive can achieve, and it suffers from that in some ways. I have a gentleman here. Meg, you’ve clearly demonstrated
that parliament matters to ministers, civil servants
and the political elite, but does it matter to the people? Because perhaps your next lecture
should address that issue, because at the moment,
it’s unrepresentative. Is it dealing with the issues
that the people want it to deal with? Is it dealing with immigration,
for example? Or is it just totally out of touch,
a nice, cosy, little world of its own where anybody inside it matters, but actually, what it’s there for,
the people, are ignored. I think I don’t agree
with your analysis really. I think it’s very difficult for the myriad millions of people
in this country to feel closely connected
to their parliament. But there are direct
or indirect connections through the MPs’ representative
function, which is… When you say “unrepresentative”,
I’m not sure what you mean. There are obviously various ways… Women are under-represented,
for example. It’s also not representative
proportionately of the way that people vote. But one of the strengths of the non-proportionate voting system
that we have is at least strong connections
between MPs and their constituents. Through their surgeries, for example. MPs receive hundreds of letters, quite possibly now thousands
of emails a week from their constituents. They do try very hard to communicate. In terms of dealing with the issues
that people care about, obviously, the government does set
a lot of parliament’s agenda; for example,
dealing with government bills. But the innovation that I mentioned
at the end of the slide talking about what’s changed since
1993, has been a really important one. The establishment of
the Backbench Business Committee in the House of Commons,
run entirely by backbenchers, scheduling time on issues
requested by backbenchers. This has very much weakened
government’s control over the parliamentary agenda and
you see all sorts of issues discussed, which the government
wouldn’t have wanted put on the agenda, so I think it is shifting. Meg, you have one from the back here. Hello, I’m a graduate researcher
in Politics and Literature. My question follows on quite nicely
from the previous comment. I’m interested to know what you think about whether representation
in parliament should mirror
Britain’s social diversity, and whether that would do something
to defeat this kind of disconnect that the ordinary people seem to have
over parliament’s role in politics. I think my response would be probably
yes, and not necessarily, in turn. I think that parliament could and
should be more representative. Ethnic minorities
are under-represented, women are under-represented. Curiously, for anyone who doesn’t know, ethnic minorities are better
represented in the House of Lords now, than they are in the House of Commons
due to the appointment system there. But I also think that
that in itself might have a marginal effect
on closing the gap, but it would be idealistic
to think that people are turned off parliament just because
it’s too white or it’s too male. I’ve worked on women’s representation
in the past. The face of politics is much more
female than it used to be, but at the same time, I think people’s
sense of disconnect from politics is probably, if anything,
greater than it was then. So it’s not a silver bullet, but it’s nonetheless an important
and good thing to do. Okay, I think we have time
to take one last one. The gentleman here
has been very patient. Thank you. My question is, is the power
of the whips diminishing and what’s the implication? That’s a very nice, short question. Yes, it is. I’ve described how MPs are much more
willing to vote against what they’re told to do by their whips
than they used to be. As I’ve said,
Philip Cowley is the expert, but he always quotes
periods in the 1950s, when a whole year would go by without
a single rebellious vote being cast. Now it’s happening
on such a regular basis, it’s not news anymore, unless it actually leads to a defeat. But the whips’ powers
have weakened in other ways and there are connections,
perhaps, between them, so for example the reform of select
committees that I mentioned, that happened in 2010, to enhance the independence
of their membership was a move from those members
being chosen by party whips to those members being elected
inside their parties and the chairs of the committees
being elected on a cross-party basis by the House of Commons as a whole. It’s a bit early
and it’s a difficult job to say are the committees more powerful
now than they were then, how are you going to measure power. These are very complicated questions, but it is widely thought at Westminster that this has enhanced the confidence
and the independence of the select committees, and the Backbench Business Committee
is another example; whips have no control over that
element of the Commons agenda. So yes, I think the whips’ power
is to some extent draining away and maybe that could go too far. People would soon realise the benefit
of cohesive political parties, if we had a sort of completely
chaotic, anarchic parliament, where it was completely unpredictable
the way that people would vote. You wouldn’t be able to have
a stable government. But insofar as it’s gone,
I think it’s been a healthy thing; there is now much less
command and control coming from party leaders and much more genuine debate and
negotiation about the merits of policy. Parliament, I think, has become more internally democratic
than it used to be. Thank you. With that I think we must close because
there is a class waiting to come in. As we thank Meg
for a truly fascinating lecture, could I remind you
that the Lunchtime Lectures are every Tuesday and Thursday
at the same time, and as you leave, could you please
complete the little questionnaire and leave it with the people
at the front desk? Thank you, Meg.

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