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.