Mark Bennister, Ben Yong and Diana Stirbu discuss the lack of a shared parliamentary identity in Westminster, considering the implications for institutional governance and reform.
“I’ve been very clear that I don’t think parliament is a building, I think it’s a collection of elected representatives… (former Conservative leader candidate Rory Stewart MP, August 2019).
“There is no ‘voice of Parliament’ that can be collectively orchestrated. Parliament is a place where the parties do permanent battle, and this fundamental reality trumps attempts to build up Parliament itself … those accounts which say that Parliament should do this or that to make itself more effective fail to understand that there is no ‘Parliament’, in a collective sense, at all.” (Tony Wright 2004)
MPs and Peers are unclear in explaining what Parliament is, and by extension whether or not it has any collective institutional identity. The Westminster Parliament may indeed have no singular voice or an individual who speaks for the institution. However, beneath the political battles and the expression of Parliament as a site of contest, there is an organisation to be governed and managed. To run what amounts to a small village at Westminster requires administrative structures with lines of communication and accountability.
The challenge of organisational governance, whereby the political and administrative aspects must work together, has been highlighted in Westminster by various crises: the expenses scandal, appointment of a new clerk of the House, the restoration and renewal programme, and the bullying and harassment of staff. Such perceived crises for the Westminster Parliament have brought governance arrangements in the Commons to the fore.
Yet internal reform in Westminster occurs at a glacial pace. Often it requires the consent of the political masters who act as veto players meaning that workplace improvement, commonplace elsewhere, remain slow to adapt. The leadership and governance arrangements of Houses of Parliament are historically a complex set of overlapping and contradictory arrangements with little coherent structure. The devolved legislatures, by contrast, were able to build governance arrangements, largely from scratch, on establishment 20 years ago, slightly less encumbered by historical restrictions of physical space and political convention. And the management lines and role of the Presiding Officer are much clearer in the Scottish Parliament and National Assembly for Wales.
It is difficult to separate leadership from governance, but in the case of parliaments, leadership involves individuals or groups speaking on behalf of others in the parliament (backbenchers, parties, committees and so on), while governance relates to the administrative and bureaucratic arrangements that exist to ensure that resources are allocated and the institution functions on a daily basis. Yet leadership and governance often interact within structured arrangements.
Geddes and Meakin’s interpretive approach opens up avenues of study, whereby we seek to understand the meaning and actions of individuals within the institution to explain change. Our research will take a similar approach in seeking to look beneath the formal structural arrangements to understand the challenges of running parliaments. Here we present 3 dilemmas for actors in Westminster.
- The dilemma of governance
Parliament contains both political and administrative leadership, with both communities involved in running Parliament but, without a shared institutional purpose. For instance, the Commons and Lords Commissions contain multiple actors with often conflicting agendas; each act as the strategic governance body, but delegate downwards. Partisan, personal, bureaucratic interests are represented on the Commissions. The Commons and Lords Speakers chair the Commissions, but others are accountable for decisions (Tom Brake MP answers Commission questions on the floor of the House). Moreover, the House Commissions have a weak history of governance and strategy, because decisions of the cross-party Commissions require consensus—which is not easy to achieve.
- The dilemma of leadership
There are multiple contestable sites and claim-making individuals in Parliament. Many individuals present themselves as leaders in the Commons on the basis of position (Speaker), seniority (Father of the House), election (select committee chairs), political (Chief Whips), Executive (Leader of the House). The Director-General and Clerk of the House share the most senior administrative position. In the Lords, four actors are key in a much flatter, self-regulating forum. The Clerk of Parliaments is the senior administrator, while the procedural and political dimensions are divided between the Lords Speaker, the Leader of the House, and the Senior Deputy Speaker (Chairman of Committees).
The Commons Speaker has a strong claim to speak for the House as he has a threefold role as procedural lead, administrative chair of the Commission and an external face exercised via his office. The impact of Speaker Bercow on the Commons demonstrates perhaps that a less institutional approach to analysing parliaments is necessary. Bercow challenged convention and altered perceptions and shows how critical actors can drive or block change. It remains to be seen whether Sir Lindsay Hoyle will adopt a substantively different approach.
- The dilemma of identity
Parliament (Commons and Lords), presents a dilemma of institutional leadership: are legislatures simply products of the elected representatives or collective entities? The collective and corporate nature of the UK Parliament has been neglected by the elected representatives as Judge and Leston-Bandeira say ‘claim-makers do not primarily stand for, or make positive claims on behalf of, the institution itself.’ Parliament, therefore struggles with its identity as a holistic institution. Meanwhile, the administrative governance of the House Service has been strengthened (following the 2014 House of Commons Governance Committee report, set up in response to the 2014 clerk appointment crisis, the Director General Review of Governance was published. which is now being implemented). And yet, it has struggled to make the case for restoring the Palace of Westminster and renewing engagement with the public, largely because the political masters have been reluctant to adhere to any collective need and identity.
Can (or should) dilemmas be solved?
Of course Westminster is hamstrung by haphazard historical development. The Westminster Parliament is a building (more accurately an estate), but also (as per Rory Stewart’s quote above) an ‘aggregation of members’. It is a set of formal and informal proceedings, in which overtly political and necessarily non-political activities are conducted by (temporary) politicians and (permanent) officials in often overlapping communities. In short, the Westminster Parliament is no ordinary public institution.
So, we aim to understand how the leadership and governance arrangements have emerged in Westminster and the devolved legislatures. We seek to map these arrangements to identify hierarchical and management lines between political and administrative arms. However, we are also interested in what the actors think of their roles and positions themselves. Parliaments are naturally messy and contradictory institutions. They are the products of particular structural, historical and contextual factors. Dilemmas or tensions in who speaks for, manages, leads and governs may be apparent at present. We seek not to present an idealised view on how parliaments could or should be better or more effectively run, but rather seek an improved understanding of why leadership and governance is so complex, contradictory and often challenges the development of a shared institutional identity.
Mark Bennister is Reader in politics at the University of Lincoln
Ben Yong is Associate Professor in Public Law and Human Rights at the University of Durham
Diana Stirbu is Professor of governance and public policy at London Metropolitan University