Is Parliament Effective?
'Winston Churchill's Conservatives won fewer votes but more seats than Attlee's Labour. How representative is that?'
Ruby Borg | 9 July 2018

Parliament is vital to the running of the country. But when was the last time you heard the question, ‘Is Parliament effective?’, pop up in everyday conversation?  To help us answer this question and make sense of this immensely important institution, let us start by de-mystifying the lingo surrounding our parliamentary democracy.

While Government is responsible for drafting legislation, Parliament has to approve legislation. Parliament comes in two parts: the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Traditionally, both Houses had to approve legislation, taxation and public spending. But when a Government has a majority in the House of Commons (which is most of the time!), it can put through the legislation it desires without too much trouble. However, if a Government’s backbenchers strongly disagree with a proposal, it has to be modified or even abandoned.

Generally, it is the Government which drafts legislation, but individual MPs can also introduce bills (which, if successful, become ‘Acts of Parliament’ - that is, legislation). While these ‘Private Members Bills’ exist, it is highly unlikely that they are passed. Occasionally, though, it does happen.

The House of Lords is unable to fully stop problematic legislation and can only delay it. It is the House of Commons, then, that is the most important branch of Parliament.

Government is made accountable to Parliament through Parliament’s questioning of legislation and constant debate in the House of Commons. Moreover, ministers are held responsible for their departments when something goes wrong. This was evident when the Foreign Office failed to foresee the invasion of the Falklands by Argentina. The Secretary for Foreign & Commonwealth Affairs was then questioned by other MPs to see how this was able to happen. This is also called scrutiny - another vital function of Parliament.

Scrutiny is the act of questioning the views of other MPs in order to assure that they do not have complete power, thereby keeping Parliament democratic. Select committees, comprised of members of the House of Commons, do a lot of this interrogation of Government.

But here lies a problem. Scrutiny is often not effective because, in order for a party to form a Government, they typically need a majority of the seats in the House of Commons – making scrutiny difficult to achieve. MPs from the same party will be reluctant to question the behaviour and beliefs of other MPs, whereas MPs from the opposing parties will be more willing to question their behaviour. So when a Government only has a minority of seats - as is the case in Theresa May’s Government today - more opposition and scrutiny is likely to occur.

Representation is also key to keeping the current Government democratic. One MP represents each of the 650 constituencies (apart from the one which is represented by the speaker) and the people elect them in the constituency.

But here lies another problem. Parliament itself is not a pure form of representation; this is clear, as half the electorate is female, yet only 35% of parliament is female. Additionally, there are not enough black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) or openly gay MPs to accurately represent the interests of electorate.

Moreover, the House of Lords is not representative at all, as the Lords are not elected; they are appointed. Therefore, they are not representing groups of people in the population and have no reason to have to act on the decisions of the public, as that is not their job.

Finally, MPs are elected according to the system of ‘First Past the Post’. This system is also a non-representative form of voting. It results in the parliamentary candidate that wins more votes than any other party (so not necessarily over 50%) taking it all and being put in Parliament. Overall, then, the Government is made up of the party (or parties) which has (or have) won the most constituencies, rather than the party which has the highest number of votes. Neither individual MPs nor Government are representative of most of the electorate. In 1951, for example, Winston Churchill’s Conservatives won fewer votes but more seats than Attlee’s Labour - so Churchill, not Attlee, formed the next government. How representative is that?

Parliament carries out plenty of its functions well. But sometimes, it is easy to doubt the effectiveness of Parliament in being truly representative of the interests of the people of the United Kingdom.

 

Original Image by Ruby Borg.

James Routledge 2016