What is the point of Parliament?

On Monday, something happened in the House of Commons that should cause electors to wonder what parliament is for. The motion before the house was that “a commission of inquiry be established to investigate the impact of the government’s welfare reforms on the incidence of poverty”. At the vote the government was defeated by 125 votes to two. The result: nothing at all – it wasn’t reported and the government is ignoring it.

So what is parliament’s role meant to be? The textbooks will say it is to hold the government of the day to account, particularly on any legislation brought forward. But the chances of influencing that legislation are negligible because the government commands a whipped majority at every stage of a bill’s passage through the commons. Certainly, parliament can make its voice heard, but it can hardly change anything that the government has decided to do.   The only rare exception is when there is a revolt on the government benches which is backed by the opposition, and even then when the government lost a vote on that basis last year on the EU budget, it still ostentatiously dismissed the vote as merely ‘advisory’. 

Nor, it seems from Monday’s vote, can parliament take any effective initiative of its own either. The new settlement which was thought to have been generated in 2010 by the MPs’ expenses scandal is already crumbling. The backbench business committee, which for the first time gives parliamentarians some control over what is debated in the house, is being sidelined and decisions on its motions ignored. The promised house business committee, which would share negotiations between government and parliament over the passage of all business put before the house, has been quietly dropped. Only the election of members of select committees by the house, not by the whips, has so far survived, but one cannot help wondering if that too will be taken back by the party establishments over time.

There is a major constitutional issue here. The government arbitrarily takes the view that unless it is defeated on its own business – almost impossible – all other votes are regarded as advisory and set aside. This will begin to matter when there is a public petition which gains enough signatures to secure the right to a debate in parliament and then, if the government loses, nothing happens.

So what should be done to make government more responsive to parliament so that elected MPs can have more influence to secure the decisions that the electorate wants? There are various avenues, all fraught with difficulty. An obvious one is that parliament should exercise its own powers without waiting for government’s blessing, for example setting up its own commissions of inquiry. That, however, requires a vote of the whole house in which the government has a large majority. But wouldn’t MPs break party ranks to enhance their influence in support of their constituents’ wishes? Unlikely, when recently, at the behest of the whips, MPs rejected explanatory statements designed to help them know what they were voting for.

Another option might be a Speaker’s conference, or perhaps an independent commission, set up soon after the next election to examine the current dysfunctional workings of parliament and how they could be improved. It would be much more effective if there were in place a government and a leader of the house who were in favour of significant reform.

But perhaps the most effective way of making progress is greater awareness among the electorate of how parliament actually performs, or fails to perform. If the public understood more transparently how the corrupting influence of patronage actually works, how the power system turns everything to its own advantage, and how the genuine objectives of democratic elections are so readily thwarted, a lot of these unedifying practices would have to be curbed. Indeed the all-party parliamentary group on reform of parliamentary procedure, which I chair, is considering setting up a website for just this purpose. Altogether this is shaping up to be a major tussle between government and parliament after 2015.

23 thoughts on “What is the point of Parliament?

  1. Why wait till 2015. You won a debate, a vote was taken and it was ignored – sounds like reform is needed now. The people innocently assume that their MPs votes in parliament are ultimately what govern the country. OK, we all know that mostly those votes are whipped, and that everything is organised by the party which happens, under whip, to have the most votes – but the assumption is there that this is merely a formalisation of the fact that it is our MPs votes that do it all. If it isn’t – then it should be. Otherwise, why vote for MPs? We might as well just vote for a potential prime minister and not bother having MPs at all. Which would be worse than the US!

  2. The people have consistently been ignored by successive governments in recent times. yes, it is appalling that this should happen but for ‘us’ it is routine. If I write to my MP I don’t get a reasoned argument I just get patronised and told ‘tough’. Democracy does not exist in this country.

    The present government is a prime example of an authoritarian, fascist dictatorship. It does what it wants – WITH OUR MONEY and then tells us we are not working hard enough. These are troubled times indeed – especially if MPs are noticing they have no say and no power!!! The current cabal is the most appalling gong of ner-do-wells, multimillionaires without ever having to work for it – they view the population of this country as scum – slaves to be at their beck and call.

    TIME FOR CHANGE

  3. We no longer have a democracy we are in the grip of a dictatorship. The coalition wont listen to the people, parliament or even the British legal system.
    Everyday we see our human rights being eroded and our country being destroyed brick by brick. I wonder if we can even expect a fair election in 2015? I feel the only way forward in the long term will be for the people to take back control by force – but how much blood has got to be spilled in the process.

  4. i have just read your post about the death of democracy.
    sounds like we the people need to action a vote of no confidence in the system and withdraw or consent to be governed by a system/ party who dose not represent nor action our wishes or to the benefit of the governed

  5. Thank you Michael Meacher for your considerable help. I don’t think anything will change until the government is changed one way or another, and then they will be on a runner for employment with JPM or Goldman Sachs, even though I didn’t think towel folding would impress the banks, less I suppose than drug dealing.

  6. Thank you for your honesty and integrity with raising this issue. There have been countless ‘unconstitutional’ and downright illegal acts by this government and they should be held to account.

    It’s a sad day when you have to resort to making these kinds of statements. Continue with this work and we may one day see a return to the democracy that we all want and deserve. It truly is a tragic state of affairs.

  7. If events were reported properly, faithfully and adequately by our so-called media it would be a start. Maybe we should study and understand our political system and therefore quality to vote ( shades of JS Mill). A big step forward would be to abolish the whipping system.

  8. This is the problem with the whip system. It effectively enforces a dictatorship and MP’s follow party lines instead of informing themselves of the debated issue and then voting with their conscience – they are after all meant to be voting to safeguard the well being of the voting public. Many issues should be voted in this way – as if MP’s purely voted to safeguard their constituents then the government could behave strategically and dump “the bad” on poorer areas where the voters are “less” important. Take away the whip system – MP’s should prove that they are skilled to vote on issues and then be forced to vote. This might be laborious but at least the right decisions would be taken – as so much that does happen seems to fly in the face of the democratic will of the people causing further social inequality and cost to the environment. Rant over.

  9. You may also ask, ‘what is the point of our Courts?’

    According to a leaked memo, the DWP has also (once again) resolved to ignore a court ruling over the discrimanatory and murderous Work Capability Assessment:
    http://disabilitynewsservice.com/2014/01/dwp-declares-business-as-usual-despite-appeal-court-ruling/

    As ‘Another Angry Voice’ recently touched on, there’s no longer much to choose between ConDemned Britain and the worst South American dictatorships.
    http://anotherangryvoice.blogspot.com/2014/01/new-labour-left-wing-myth.html

  10. Now approaching 30,000 hits on my article about this. Is that enough to exert influence? Is there anything you would like concerned people to do, Mr Meacher?

  11. A commenter on my site has claimed it is not incumbent on the government to honour the democratic will of Parliament as “it’s not a binding vote on primary legislation. It’s not even a substantive motion. It was an un-whipped vote held by those in the room at the time.”

    What do you think of that?

  12. when that 99percent wake upto their lies then all hell could break loose has cams and co doesn’t listen to the people allowing big firms to run us but then when did the torys listen to others but money its asorry site when they don’t listen to the opposition yet again showing they don’t careabout those 99percent who aint rich guy fawkes I wonder will there be a raising its another thing boris buying water cannon is he going to put out fires with them nah hesready for those riots when the people say enough enough jeff3

  13. so here we are, a couple of days later, and not even Michael Meacher has chosen to ‘get involved’ in his article – must be busy ………..

  14. Democracy in many forms (more than just the current Cameron government from my current standpoint in California) has been successively undermined by those in power (a trend that seems to have been particularly obvious recently).

    The hard pill for me to swallow, however, was that you were (at least at the early part) of a government which epitomised doing what it wanted despite the will of the people, and the drafting of some of the worst pieces of legislation Britain had seen to date, with the ever-present misuse of a whipped Commons and the Parliament Act to justify such sloppy drafting. I appreciate that you did eventually rebel against that government, but that’s really where the stage was set. What we’re seeing here is an obvious evolution.

    Obviously, what’s needed is not to whinge about the situation on a blog, or worse, in blog comments, but to plan for change. What, in your mind, is the process for change back to a more accountable and more democratic government, and how do you ensure that any successor, on encountering these realities, doesn’t cynically carry on with the modus operandi you describe above of their predecessor?

  15. sooner the better scotland goes independent i am sick and tired of parliment and there stupid unfere laws and there bylaws a lot of companys over seas prefear deling with scotland raver than england … i will be voteing yes on the day for scotland to go independence

  16. What amazes me here is firstly, the fact that so many lib-dems, with their democratic ideology, can sail along quite happily in this ship of fools and secondly, that there has been no reported efforts at taking a vote of mo confidence in this maladministration that ruins the country.

  17. You say this is a major constitutional issue Mr Meacher. You bemoan the fact that this vote was not widely reported.

    Well, if it is a major constitutional issue which is not being reported, why not resign your seat, force a by-election and run as an Independent if necessary to draw the media’s attention to the issue? The media cannot ignore a resignation and a by-election.

    Or will you continue to wring your hands in despair?

  18. Michael, thank you for trying. At least you tried.

    My MP is a disgraced, coalition ex-minister (expenses and more) who doesn’t bother replying to requests for help from constituents.

  19. @7 The 99%? 99% are not living in poverty or disillusioned with the government. 40% perhaps are unhappy with the state of things. The rest (41% to 99%) are not rich, not by any measure, but they are the middle income group, and they are comfortable enough to not be too bothered by the policies.

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