This blog collects perspectives on the election you won't find anywhere else, by political experts, based in the School of Politics and International Relations at The University of Nottingham.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Forget the 55% rule. This is what will really limit Parliament

"...the routine defeats of the government by the upper House, and the subsequent negotiation and compromise between the two – could still be seriously limited..."

Leave aside for now the fuss about the 55% rule and its impact on parliament. For all the talk about preventing votes of no confidence from dissolving parliament, defeats on votes of confidence are already extremely rare. The truth is that most votes of confidence are dull affairs, in which all the MPs of each party simply rally to the flag, and the government survives.
There are two other aspects of the coalition agreement that will have much more impact on Parliament. The first is that the ‘Wright Committee’ recommendations will be implemented. As the coalition agreement notes:
The parties will bring forward the proposals of the Wright Committee for reform to the House of Commons in full – starting with the proposed committee for management of programmed business and including government business within its scope by the third year of the Parliament.

These reforms had been overwhelmingly voted through the last Commons, but had then been lost in the ‘wash up’ at the end of the parliament. Most advocates of a stronger House of Commons will raise a glass to the Wright reforms.

There is, however, one serious countervailing factor – which is the coalition itself. One piece of conventional wisdom in the run up to the election was the belief that a situation in which no party has a majority helps strengthen parliament, because it makes the outcome of votes less certain and thus empowers individual MPs. As I said in the Hansard Society’s prescient report into this back in 2008, this is probably true of a situation in which there is a minority administration. It is, however, much less certain once there is a post-election coalition deal.

A coalition deal will restrain rather than enhance the power of parliament for two reasons. First, because it may make those parties involved in the coalition place an even greater emphasis on unity: there is little to be gained from a coalition deal if the party leaderships fail to deliver their supporters in important divisions. It may be difficult to deliver such unity but the pressure for it will increase nonetheless.

But the second – and probably more important – reason why a coalition might limit parliamentary influence is because it will dramatically reduce the influence exercised by the House of Lords. Since reform in 1999, the House of Lords has become an increasingly assertive check on the executive, and one which has defeated the Government on more than 400 occasions. The 1999 House of Lords Act created what is effectively a permanently hung second chamber. In theory, there are lots of winning coalitions in the Lords, but in practice, as Meg Russell and Maria Scaria showed in the journal British Politics, it was the Liberal Democrats who were the key swing voters, deciding whether a policy passes or falls.

A coalition thus delivers simultaneous success in the lower chamber and in the upper chamber. At a stroke, the ability of the Lords to cause governments all sorts of difficulties is largely removed. Legislation might well therefore navigate Parliament much easier under a coalition government than under a situation in which one party has a majority in the Commons but faced a hung chamber in the Lords.

Even here there are imponderables. Perhaps under such a scenario the crossbench peers (who have always punched below their weight in terms of voting) will become more important, stepping into the political vacuum. It may also be even harder for the coalition partners to deliver unity in the Lords, where the sanctions for those who defy the whip are practically non-existent, in which case the coalition may not be as dominant in practice as it appears on paper.

But nonetheless, one of the commonplace events of the last decade – the routine defeats of the government by the upper House, and the subsequent negotiation and compromise between the two – could still be seriously limited.

Professor Philip Cowley

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