I organise a biennial international workshop of parliamentary scholars and parliamentarians. The latest – the tenth – was held at the weekend at Wroxton College in Oxfordshire. The panels covered a range of topics, including legislative adaptability, the relationship between parliaments and citizens, parliamentary scrutiny, and citizens’ expectations.
A couple of the panels focused on the UK Parliament. In one, we got on to discussing the role of the whips and their impact in the House of Commons, and how the relationship between members and whips had changed. Has the realtionship changed gradually over time or have we seen a sudden change in relationship in the present Parliament? My argument was that it was both.
Over time, there has been a change in the relationship, members being less willing to defer to the whips, relying instead on their own sources of information and on their position within the constituency. Nonetheless, for members who were office-seeking, keen to be re-elected, and wanting to have some meaningful role (such as committee service) while on the back-benches, there was some incentive not to be too deaf to the blandishments of the whips.
In the present Parliament, there has been a paradigmatic change as a result of several unrelated developments. Previously, new members were socialised through contact with their elders. In this Parliament, the sheer number of new Conservative MPs has resulted in contact being essentially horizontal (learning from one another) rather than vertical (learning from senior members). This has been complemented by the fact that the Conservative Party is in office but not in power (the leadership not being credited with delivering victory) and with the whips losing some of their supposed carrots and sticks. Membership of select committees is now determined by the House and parliamentary parties, and not by the whips; there are limited prospects of promotion (and members know that, so can afford to take a much longer-term view) and there is little constituency leverage. Members are fairly well embedded in their constituencies.
There is also the nature of the intake: the late John Maples did an effective job in recruiting good candidates. The new intake is, in my view, notable for some extremely able individuals – bright and organised. Loyalists may end up as parliamentary under-secretaries in a few weeks, but the Cabinet ministers of the future are to be found among the able back-bench dissenters.
All this makes for an active House and one willing to heard. The job of the whips may be harder – but that is good news for the House of Commons.