Punctuation and rhetoric: the difference between the “the people’s parliament” and “the peoples’ parliament”

Professor David Judge of the University of Strathclyde provides a valuable examination of the current parliamentary balance in the House of Commons. He considers how representative the chamber is and outlines some of the potential difficulties in effecting scrutiny that may lay ahead. The blog was originally written for the LSE Politics and Policy page but has been kindly shared with the PSA Parliaments Specialist Group.

Immediately after the general election, Boris Johnson greeted the newly convened parliament with the triumphalist words, ‘[this] is one of the best Parliaments that this country has ever produced’, and pledged that ‘this new democratic parliament – this people’s parliament [will] get on with delivering the priorities of the British people’. Repeatedly the PM enthused that this was to be ‘a Parliament that works for the people’ and a parliament that had ‘delivered a people’s government dedicated to serving you’.

The PM’s repetitions seemingly pointed to a singular vision of ‘the people’ sharing common priorities, and with their elected representatives capable of sustaining a ‘people’s government’ dedicated to serving ‘one nation’. Yet, on closer inspection, they also pointed implicitly to the existence of ‘peoples’ – in the plural – who were to be represented, and of institutions – in the plural – made manifest in the differentiatedness of ‘parliament’ and ‘government’ within Westminster.

According to the PM two features of the new parliament made it a ‘vast improvement on its predecessor’. First, it was more representationally descriptive of the UK population; and second, and more importantly for the PM, it was ‘going to get Brexit done’.

Peoples in the plural

If ‘bestness’ is measured by the extent of descriptive representation, then the new parliament was indeed ‘better’ than its predecessor. The idea of descriptive representation denotes ‘shared experiences’ between represented and representatives – which allow the latter to be ‘in some sense typical of the larger class of persons whom they represent’. And, if within-group intersectional differences are inserted into this relationship, further complexity and contingency come to characterise the practice of parliamentary representation. Intersectionality recognises that there are no uniform identities within descriptively defined groups.

The new parliament returned record numbers of: women MPs (220); Black and Minority Ethnic MPs (65), Muslim MPs (18); and openly gay, lesbian or bisexual MPs (45). Yet while descriptively ‘better’ than its predecessors, this parliament is far from being the best it could be. Women and BAME groups remained proportionately under-presented when compared to their population size, while other visible and invisible minorities remained notable by their absence. While 22% of the UK population are recognised as having a disability, only a handful of self-declared disabled MPs are present in the new parliament. A cursory examination of the CVs of MPs also reveals that few had direct prior experience of unemployment or of grinding poverty. The significance of this descriptive representational deficit is that comparative empirical studies of policy preferences in legislatures reveal that ‘differential representation [of income groups] is always in disfavour of the poor’.

A simple listing of the group characteristics deemed to be of descriptive importance, immediately reveals, therefore, the innate plurality of ‘peoples’ in a representative parliament. Indeed, even Boris Johnson’s baseline definition of representational ‘bestness’ – in terms of ‘more female Members than ever before and more black and minority ethnic Members than ever before’ – still managed to undercut the very idea of a singular people represented in a ‘people’s parliament’ – no matter the powerful, propagandist, populist appeal of this rhetorical device.

Institutions in the plural

The PM’s main criterion for assessing the ‘bestness’ of the new parliament, however, was simply that it wasn’t its predecessor. The 2017-2019 parliament stood accused of using ‘every trick in the book’ to thwart ‘the will of the electorate’. In contrast, the new parliament would ‘not waste the nation’s time in deadlock, division and delay’; instead ‘this people’s parliament … [is] going to get Brexit done’.

If the meaning of Brexit had long been a conundrum – encapsulated in Theresa May’s mantra of ‘Brexit means Brexit’ – the new ‘people’s government’ now claims, on the back of its electoral victory, the licence to determine what Brexit means. Indeed, the Johnson government has every right to define Brexit in whatever way it sees fit, and equally it has a right to claim, as the PM did in his contribution to the debate on the Queen’s Speech, that it will legislate in the name of all the people. In fact, the PM’s invocation of ‘all the people’ is but the latest iteration of a constructed claim made by all UK governments to represent the collectivity of the state and its peoples (whether couched in terms of the common interest, national interest or the people’s interest).

Central to the notion of representative democracy, however, is that these claims of a collective interest are subject to what Manin calls ‘argumentative scrutiny’ and ‘the trial of discussion’ where ‘everything has to be justified in debate’ in the legislature. This notion of justification is epitomised in the institutionalised processes of deliberation, scrutiny, and accountability – with their associated elaborate procedures, rituals, and symbols – embedded in the contributions made by parliaments to state decision-making processes. Governments thus have the right to make claims to act, and legislate, in the collective interest; but, equally, parliaments have the right to subject those claims to ‘argumentative scrutiny’ and to ask executives to account for their actions.

Significantly in this respect, the Leader of the House, Jacob Rees-Mogg proclaimed that 2020 would be a year ‘in which this House, this great institution of our democracy, will work for the people, delivering the Prime Minister’s ambitious legislative agenda while conducting its work of scrutiny and accountability in the proper way’. Earlier, upon his appointment as Leader of the House, he had expressed ‘perhaps a somewhat romantic view of the House of Commons’, in his belief that it was the job of MPs ‘to hold the Government to account and not simply facilitate whatever the Government will want to do’.

Whether this romantic view prevails in the face of a government majority of 80 is an open question. The portents are unfavourable, however: generally, all governments tend to be gripped by ‘an executive mentality’ which predisposes them to undervalue the requirements of parliamentary scrutiny and accountability when formulating and implementing their policies. Specifically, since the Brexit referendum, successive Conservative governments have sought to evade parliamentary judgment of their Brexit strategy through procedural deceits and corrosive anti-parliament narratives. In the intervening period, the Supreme Court has been called upon twice to remind the executive of its foundational constitutional responsibilities to subject itself to the authority of parliament. In the same period, government ministers, leading Conservative MPs, and even Prime Ministers  themselves, have peddled populist narratives of being on the side of the people against parliament, of parliament setting itself against the people, and of ‘parliament versus the people’.

More specifically still, and possibly symptomatic of Johnson’s mindset towards parliamentary scrutiny and accountability, has been the appointment of Dominic Cummings as the PM’s chief special adviser. Cummings had earlier been admonished by the House of Commons Privileges Committee for contempt of parliament, with the Committee deeming that Cummings’ attitude ‘did not to serve the interests of civilised debate’.

When punctuation matters

If civilised debate is the hallmark of parliamentary government, then Boris Johnson and his closest ministerial confidants and political advisers have ‘previous’ in their disregard for scrutiny and accountability. There is every prospect, therefore, that the institutional divide between the ‘people’s government’ and the ‘people’s parliament’ will be brought into stark relief as the realities of representing the diverse experiences of multiple peoples throughout the UK become apparent in a ‘post-Brexit’ UK after 31 January 2020.

In these circumstances, punctuation may yet come to matter. Where the apostrophe is placed – “the people’s parliament” or “the peoples’ parliament” – may come to reveal just how deep a commitment the Johnsonian ‘people’s government’ has, first, to constructing a plausible pluralistic claim of a collective UK state interest, rather than a singular populist claim; and, second, how prepared it is to justify its claim before a parliament representing the interests, opinions, and expectations of multiple peoples.

This blog was originally published on the LSE British Politics and Policy page and can be found here

David Judge is Professor Emeritus of Politics at the University of Strathclyde

His profile can be accessed at https://www.strath.ac.uk/staff/judgedavidprof/

 

Parliament: You in Danger, Girl

PSA Parliaments Group Convenor Dr Marc Geddes considers the potential impact that the recent Conservative victory may have upon effective parliamentary scrutiny. The blog discusses the current government’s agenda for legislative reform and the changes that may be brought about by a shake-up in the staffing of key parliamentary roles.

On Thursday, 12 December, the public elected MPs to represent them in the UK House of Commons. There are returning and experienced MPs, including one that was originally elected in 1974, as well as 140 new MPs, the youngest of which is 23. While the turnover is not significantly out of line with previous elections, 2019 is significant because of the scale of the Conservatives’ victory. And it is the party’s level of victory, matched with its rhetoric on reforming UK democracy, that could see considerable changes to the future role of Parliament, and most certainly a very different role as compared to what it played 2017-19. Of course, the dust hasn’t settled yet, but I think that Parliament’s centrality in decision-making is in danger.

The first and most obvious difference is the government’s majority of 80, not seen for the Conservatives since the 1980s. How does this affect the House of Commons? Throughout the 2017 legislative period, many votes were on a knife-edge precisely because the government did not have a majority; the government needed every single vote to secure the safe passage of legislation. The larger a government’s majority, the more room for manoeuvre for the prime minister. A majority of more than 80 seats means that even if 35-40 Conservative MPs vote against their own party, the executive would still pass its legislation. As a result, the threat of voting against the government or abstaining has declined. In short: MPs’ leverage in the House of Commons has significantly declined. This will have concrete consequences. One example of this is the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, which is set to return to the House of Commons on Friday. As Graeme Cowie (from the House of Commons Library) has pointed out, the Bill was drafted with concessions in mind, and included a role for Parliament in scrutinising and approving the future relationship. Without the same level of concessions required, will the government revisit some of these parts of the Bill (citing its electoral success to say that the public want Brexit done, not scrutinised)?

A second difference to 2017-19 will be the role of the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle. He has promised to be a different kind of Speaker to John Bercow. Bercow’s relationship with the government was known to be particularly poor. He was unafraid to challenge the prime minister and government in order to champion the rights of backbenchers. At this point, it is difficult to tell precisely how Hoyle will behave as Speaker, though there are some interesting hints from his interview with Nick Robinson from early November 2019 – including his comment, for example, that ‘the country elects the government’ (not exactly true, but maybe I’m being pedantic), which should be expected to get their business through the House. He has suggested that parliamentary rules should be cleared up. With a majority government, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Leader of the House grants this wish and, in keeping with tradition of a power-hoarding executive, the likely result will be that those rules will be clarified in the government’s favour.

So, it seems that we are set for a far more predictable legislative period. Dramas in the chamber, late-night votes, the high viewing figures for BBC Parliament… these are likely to recede into the past as predictability reigns. In many ways, Parliament will return to ‘normal’. However, beyond this, there are at least two other things worth mentioning: the impact of the majority on scrutiny and the possibility of reform.

In the House of Commons, select committees are seen as the main mechanism of scrutiny. Typically, they are made up of 11 MPs to examine and scrutinise the policies of government. In the new parliament, it is likely that committees will be made up of six Conservatives, four Labour members and one MP from a smaller party (for a detailed overview of committees and how they work, see the Hansard Society’s handy explainer). Their task will be to keep a close look at what the government is doing. There are particular things to watch out for in the coming months. First, some high-profile and experienced chairs are not returning to their roles: some lost their seats, e.g. Sarah Wollaston, chair of the Health Committee and Liaison Committee; others stood down, e.g. Stephen Twigg, chair of the International Development Committee. So, we are likely to see a new crop of chairs, which is also due to take place because other chairs will have reached term limits as set out in Standing Orders (e.g. Sir Bernard Jenkin). Second, the Liaison Committee published a big report on improving the effectiveness of committees before the election was called. The question that now arises: will this reform agenda be pushed forward? My hunch is that it won’t: the Conservatives have been rather happy to avoid media scrutiny during the election, so probably won’t want to empower MPs to enhance parliamentary scrutiny; Wollaston, the chair of the Liaison Committee between 2017 and 2019, has lost her seat; and, the government’s chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, has been in a long-running dispute with select committees over a failure to appear before them.

Scrutiny will be vital; it is fundamental to achieving good government. And yet… On 15 December, Rishi Sunak, chief secretary to the Treasury, was asked about fundamental civil service reform, to which he responded that, ‘I think people watching are not interested in the process of government’. While the focus of this exchange was about the civil service, not Parliament, this speaks volumes to me. It suggests that commentators, academics, the media, and parliamentarians, must look very carefully to make that this government is held to account. Because there are strong hints that the government is planning to drive through big changes in how Whitehall is organised, and the reach might very well extend to Westminster, too.

On the morning after the general election, Boris Johnson’s victory speech included a line that ‘Parliament must change’. Meanwhile, tucked away on p.48, the Conservative Party’s manifesto says that ‘we also need to look at the broader aspects of our constitution: the relationship between the Government, Parliament and the courts; the functioning of the Royal Prerogative; the role of the House of Lords; and access to justice for ordinary people’. To achieve this, the Conservatives have pledged to introduce a Constitution, Democracy and Rights Commission within the first year of office to examine how to ‘restore trust in our institutions and in how our democracy operates’. In terms of specific pledges that will affect Parliament, the Conservatives have promised to ‘get rid’ of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act (FTPA) as well as promises that will affect elections (keeping first-past-the-post, introducing voter ID, updating constituency boundaries, etc.).

Putting all this together: we will have an emboldened government that is likely to want to see through an historic policy agenda with wide-ranging repercussions, and it can do so with a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, possibly without high levels of scrutiny. Meanwhile, there are hints that political, administrative and constitutional reforms are also on the table. To adapt an iconic line from Ghost (1990): Parliament, you in danger, girl.

Dr Marc Geddes is Lecturer in British Politics at the School of Social and Political Science, University of Edinburgh. His most recent book, Dramas at Westminster, looks at select committees in the House of Commons and is available now. He is on Twitter: @marcgeddes.

 

The Prime Minister and the Palace of Westminster

The Prime Minister and the Palace of Westminster

In evidence to the House of Commons Liaison Committee this week Theresa May discussed the Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster. Alexandra Meakin discusses the importance of government support for the R&R programme.

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