The long-standing dominance of party

Lord Norton

I see that Daniel Hannan was invited to comment on my previous post and he wrote:

“Lord Norton, who is a clever and learned man, knows very well that journalists don’t write their own headlines. And it’s not the period from 1945-1970 that I regard as the golden age of parliamentary supremacy, but the period between the 1832 and 1945 franchise extensions.”

Oh dear, the period 1832-1945 – such a short period – was a ´golden age´.  There was a relatively short period in the 19th century, before the advent of mass-membership political parties, in which party voting was weak.  The 1867 Reform Act extended the electorate to such an extent that mass-membership parties became necessary.  As Richard Crossman put it, party organisation replaced organised corruption.  Parties not only became more organised in the country, but also – as MPs were increasingly elected on party labels and not their individual merits (or personal wealth) – became organised in the House of Commons.  By the end of the 19th Century, party voting was a well-established feature of parliamentary life.  The whips were highly efficient and effective.  Since the advent of organised mass-membership parties, there has been no golden age of independent members.  And even in the mid-19th Century, MPs rarely had to decide great issues of public policy.  It was only gradually that public legislation squeezed out private (not to be confused with private members´) legislation. 

I should add that I am familiar with headlines often bearing little relationship to the content of the story, though in this case the headline did not appear to distort what Daniel Hannan was arguing – as rather evidenced by his comments above.

20 comments for “The long-standing dominance of party

  1. Adrian Kidney
    29/08/2009 at 5:33 pm

    Quite right, my Lord. I read a journal article recently which took a cross-section of the House in the 19th Century and compared it to both the 1950 House and the 2001 House. It’s actually remarkable that the quality of the House in terms of knowledgeable and active Members has improved on the whole over time.

    With the decline of ‘Parliament men’ (MPs who sat simply to have the honour of ‘MP’ after their name) the policy specialist has become a large chunk of the House, Members who campaign for specific issues otherwise overlooked by the government.

    If anything, this, today, is the golden age of Parliament.

  2. lordnorton
    30/08/2009 at 9:08 am

    Adrian Kidney: You are quite correct in highlighting the increase in the number of policy advocates in the House, those seeking to achieve some change in public policy, displacing some of those whose main role is to be there. Depending on the indicators you take, one can build a case for arguing that we are presently experiencing a golden age. (One can certainly argue that for parliaments on a global scale.) There are countervailing pressures though, which limit the capacity of MPs to achieve desired outcomes, including at times severe programming of measures. The picture is mixed. It is certainly misleading to hark back to some imagined golden age. It is rather similar to perceptions of oratory in the House. It is common to bemoan the fact that there are no longer the great speakers in the House. I looked at this claim historically and found that people have been making the claim throughout history. Where are the Charles James Foxes, the Pitts etc.? It was ever thus.

    • Croft
      30/08/2009 at 3:22 pm

      The problem for the policy advocates is twofold though. Almost every part of the system, in the commons if not quite so much in the lords, is designed to stop individual MPs doing anything that the whips don’t like – even a substantive motion is practically denied them. So whatever their desires or expertise turning this into a practical change is difficult at best. This is in no small part due to the fact that MPs – even the policy advocates – won’t back up their views with their votes. I despair at the regularity with which I see thoughtful MPs criticise a proposal on an almost line by line basis and then having shredded it all loyally troop thought the voting lobbies.

      On speeches the difference now surely is that MPs can watch a debate on tv rather then having to bother to attend the chamber.

      • lordnorton
        30/08/2009 at 11:31 pm

        Croft: I agree completely. At the end of the day, the Commons has all the powers it needs. What is lacking still is a willingness of MPs to employ them. They are relatively more independent in their voting behaviour than before, but when push comes to shove (that is, the interests of the House against the interests of party) the party will usually win out. It is depressing when MPs make clear their views in committee reports or EDMs but then do not vote in line with their expressed views. There are exceptions, but there still needs to be an attitudinal change on the part of most Members. One hope is that public pressure may induce some change.

  3. Senex
    30/08/2009 at 3:09 pm

    Lord Norton: “Since the advent of organised mass-membership parties, there has been no golden age of independent members.”

    It is true that our electoral process essentially elects parties to the Commons. But herein lies a problem for the electorate in terms of MP’s surgeries. People come to these surgeries with ‘political’ problems as though the MP was an independent in their own right and with a mind of their own.

    Perhaps passing this ‘political social’ work through the party political machine before it comes to the MP would reduce the workload of MP’s. It seems two faced of MP’s to feign that they may be able to influence an outcome when party policy forbids it.

    Correspondence to peers is often passed straight through to the relevant government department. No social work here! This might be expected of a peer but not an elected representative. Surely, this is the nub of the problem.

    A Commons full of independents simply would not work because any cabinet forming government would always be divided along lines of special interest. Nevertheless, there must be some perception of individual representation.

  4. lordnorton
    30/08/2009 at 11:37 pm

    Senex: I think we need to distinguish political and social issues that come up in MP´s surgeries and mail bag. The problem is not so much the political issues as the social issues: these take up an increasing amount of Members´time, yet many could be dealt with by other grievance-chasing agencies – which are usually better qualified to pursue specialised issues than MPs who have to be all-rounders in order to deal with the many varied issues that arise. Utilising other grievance-chasing agencies (or dealing direct with the public body involved) may also save time.

    I agree that a House of independents would not work. Party is essential in a mass democracy but the issue is the extent to which MPs must be bound by the party line.

  5. adrian kidney
    31/08/2009 at 12:01 am

    Croft: you make a good point in highlighting the problems that individual MPs have in getting legislation through the House. However another paper I read (you can tell I’m doing a politics Masters) indicated that defeated, though popular, individual MP initiatives tended to be resurrected in the ensuing few years as government sponsored legislation.

    It seems the governments tend to take a knee-jerk response to any legislation that’s not theirs, which is a shame, but the objective of the MP – to get the law onto Statute – had a greater chance of success on the long term as long as they don’t seek to get their name specifically on it!

    • Croft
      31/08/2009 at 10:47 am

      Oh quite true, though I tend towards the position that it’s not ‘popular’ legislation so much as either uncontroversial + governing party backbench supported measures that tend to get resurrected. Some of the time at least it seems to be a bone thrown towards the end of parliaments to keep the MPs loyal in the lobbies.

      Governments do I agree seem to have inbuilt panic at the thought that anything passes that isn’t their bill even if they agree with the contents which is absurd. I tend to think if the select committees were not rigged by the whips and that amendments emerged from there into bills we might get more genuine back bench views into legislation. However ring-fenced time each session so that a couple of private bills had guaranteed time to ensure they could not be talked out is a the short term solution to the main problem .

  6. Dave
    31/08/2009 at 2:29 am

    Would you refute Mr Hannan’s central claim?

    “…insistence on conformity prevents Parliament from doing its most important job, namely to constrain the Government. When MPs contract out their opinions to their Whips, they cease to represent their constituents. It is this tendency that led, for example, to Labour and Lib Dem MPs voting – in defiance of their commitments, their constituents and, in most cases, their consciences – against a referendum on the European constitution.”

    I agree with Mr Hannan that MPs tend to self-censor their speech on policies in order to avoid a conflict with the party line. The stated example is weak since states, not constituencies, join the EU; and, ergo, MPs must give priority to the national interest. Likewise, health care is a national policy, so individual constituencies should not receive priority (where, for example, a hospital is a large local employer).

    Do you think that a culture should be created that allows MPs to speak more freely in the interests of promoting full and frank debate (without, as in Mr Hannan’s case, being branded by his party leader as an “eccentric” for doing so?)

  7. lordnorton
    31/08/2009 at 9:25 am

    Adrian Kidney: The ‘delayed drop’ effect has also been noted in respect of select committee reports. The Government may dismiss the recommendations in a committee report, but a few years later – possibly with a new minister looking for policy initiatives – the recommendations are implemented.

    Dave: I very much agree that MPs should be more willing and able to vote against their own side on those occasions when they disagree with their own front benches. I have been arguing this for three decades and it is central to my writings on the House of Commons. Government back-benches can vote against their own side to achieve a change in public policy without it having wider constitutional implications or political implications for themselves. This has been shown in a number of government defeats in the period since 1970 – not in the decades before then. We need to be focusing on how to ensure that MPs can develop their willingness to constrain government when they believe it necessary to do so. My problem with the article was that we do not achieve that by looking back to a non-existent ‘golden age’.

  8. Dave
    31/08/2009 at 2:39 pm

    Lord Norton: Thank you for replying. You are correct on the detail, but you come close to erecting a straw man by focusing on the practice of MPs voting against the government as the means by which MPs assert the sovereignty of parliament when Mr Hannan is arguing for a broader focus for MPs dissent, e.g. that they should not be cowered by fear of retribution from their party if they do not proffer the party line in media interviews.

    In his case, he is not an MP, so that means of expressing his dissent from his party’s line and asserting parliamentary sovereignty is not available to him. He, however, has left the sting of party retribution in the form of an ad hominem attack from his party leader in regard to his remarks about the NHS and from others who seek to make political capital from his comments. He is basically arguing for a more liberal approach from the Whips and the media, et al, in regard to the quality of political debate (on which you are both agreed).

    It is not always desirable that MPs should vote against the government (along party lines) simply to promote the interests of the constituents that they were elected to represent (where the regional interest conflicts with the national interest). National affairs would be unmanageable without a party whip, so loyalty is needed as a general rule.

    So, his point is broader than the narrower focus you apply.

  9. lordnorton
    31/08/2009 at 9:07 pm

    Dave: The article links voice and vote and the same problem applies: there was no ‘golden age’ of MPs speaking freely. The whips in past decades were not averse to noting what was reported in the local press. Also, you misunderstand the concept of parliamentary sovereignty: the doctrine applies to the outputs of Parliament qua Parliament.

  10. Dave
    31/08/2009 at 10:46 pm

    Lord Norton: Yes, you are correct about my misunderstanding of the concept of parliamentary sovereignty. In mitigation: it is a common misuse of the term. What is actually meant is that MPs should not be unduly subordinate to government (or to their respective party whips).

    Parliamentary sovereignty is becoming a theoretical concept as more powers are devolved to regional parliaments and to the EU; incorporation of international laws, and the proposed establishment of a Supreme Court. You may counterclaim that parliament can repeal any of the acts that give effect to the preceding but the reality is that is what has become the theoretical concept. The UK parliament will not revoke a treaty simply because it wants to assert its sovereignty over an area where the EU now exercises that sovereignty.

    Hannan, I suspect, feels that more voices should be raised in objection to this process of undermining parliamentary sovereignty; and that promoting a culture where MPs speak more freely serves that purpose. I’m not so certain.

  11. 02/09/2009 at 1:28 pm

    “As Richard Crossman put it, party organisation replaced organised corruption.”

    We have, of course, progressed substantially since that time: now we have organised party corruption.


  12. steves
    02/09/2009 at 8:40 pm

    We have three major problems with the house of commons

    the rise of the professional political animal – who’s only way forward is to eb a party creature for advancemment, with no hope of life in the real world (the public sector and fake charity world is the only alternative) – this means all mps have to toe the line or be unemployed

    the house of commons had abrogated its powers either to the EU, Quango’s or teh deveolved parliaments, and so is an overpaid under worked rubber stamp where self importatnt minows strut and believe that by passing more useless laws they are somehow in power

    whats needed are less goverment, less regulation, part time poorly paid mp’s and a return to liberty

  13. franksummers3ba
    02/09/2009 at 9:55 pm

    The European Union is truly an impressive achievement. I think that in the world at large it is one of the least understood of the powerful institutions reshaping the future. As it grows and exerts more influence the British parliament will increasingly feel the pressure of its institutions and those who are more attached to them. Parties will certainly be transformed in many ways.
    The European Union Constitution makes no reference to Christianity per se as I recall. The EU has no seat in any part of the United Nations. The EU has never won or lost a war that I am really aware of and has no royal family or nobility that I know of at all. It has never paid reparations, suffered a humiliating defeat or cavorted about the world stage as a pompous fool. It is an infant composed of members who are mature. As I watch from America I expect to see the UK transformed increasingly by the EU.

    From an objective or a moral point of view I cannot be sure the EU should not triumph over all. However, of many possibilities which could have occurred I think the dominance of the EU is one of those least likely to coincide with what I would once have called my interests. While Lord Norton is no stranger to the EU I wonder how much the different views of party expressed in his sort of debate with DH have to do with the subtle emergence of a new political culture. Europe has much that can unite it but nobody should expect that there will not be vast geopolitical cosequences of rising EU importance which are not fully foreseen by anyone — including the EU.

    • Senex
      03/09/2009 at 5:27 pm

      Frank: The problem for everybody in the EU is the sheer scale and complexity of it. I think many have a KISS attitude to further progress. I would like to give Commons money bills a similar KISS from an empowered HoL. However, I fear MP’s will say: KISS, my ass.

      • franksummers3ba
        04/09/2009 at 1:42 am

        Checks and balances certainly play a valuable role in what I would call constitutional architecture. However, the EU is unique in human history in many ways in my opinion. Its potenetial is very vast. Such potential can create its own destiny. Words like destiny make moderns uncomfortable which makes it harder to resist a real case of destiny when it comes out to play.

  14. lordnorton
    03/09/2009 at 12:54 pm

    Dave: You are quite right that the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty is under challenge. It has been under challenge for some time from those who query Dicey’s interpretation of the doctrine and is now queried in respect of our membership of the EU. Though it still appears to be the case that most jurists accept that if Parliament repealed the European Communities Act 1972, the courts would enforce that, there are some who now challenge this assumption.

    Devil’s Kitchen: I would be interested to know the empirical base for your claim.

    steves: You express what many assume to be the case, that is, with the rise of the career politician comes enhanced party loyalty and slavish devotion to the whips. In fact, as the number of career politicians has increased (as shown in the works of Professor Anthony King and Peter Riddell) so has the willingness of MPs to vote against their own party (as shown in my own work and that of Phil Cowley). Dissenting votes by MPs have reached an unprecedented level. Though various policy competences have passed to the EU, and to various bodies within the UK, there remains a substantial body of public policy determined by the UK Government: Parliament’s role remains crucial in calling government to account and, indeed, checking the various developments that you mention. A great deal has actually been done in this regard.

    Franksummers3ba: I am surprised your comments have not attracted a response from some of our readers who – how shall I put it? – do not necessarily share your interpretation. The Constitutional Treaty was designed to push the EU in part in the direction you indicate. I still regard the nation state as the fundamental unit. There is not yet a European demos and I would be wary of moving away from the level of government to which people feel the closest.

  15. Kyle Mulholland
    04/09/2009 at 11:28 pm

    I gather than Mr Hannan can speak various foreign languages. I recommend that he make use of them and leave England.

    Even easier, he seems to have a lot of fawning admirers in the crownless United States, perhaps he could move there.

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