A remarkable thing happened in Parliament in this last week, but it passed without notice. The government lost a vote, but then opted to ignore it. It was an important vote – namely whether Cameron’s mandate in the Brussels negotiations should be for an increase or a cut in the EU budget – but having lost it, he decided it was only an advisory vote. On what grounds? Whenever the House votes and the government wins, which is nearly always, it is hailed as expressing the will of Parliament.
Why not when it loses? This is sheer government chicanery, making up the rules as it goes along. Nor is this a one-off: it goes to the heart of democratic control, or lack of it.
The government in 2010 was forced, against the background of the expenses scandal, to allow for the first time the right of back-benchers to decide for themselves (via an elected Back-Bench Business Committee, BBBC) what they wanted to debate, rather than the government as previously having total control over what issues did or did not get on the Commons agenda (which is why, for example, there was no debate on the Iraq war between March 2003 and July 2004 despite demands from the back benches).
So how did the government respond to BBBC-chosen debates? First they moved them to Thursday after most MPs had left for their constituencies, and then they ruled that if there was a vote and in the unlikely event that the government lost, that wouldn’t change government policy.
That matters when the public are now demanding that certain key, and often contentious, issues should be debated in Parliament because they want to see a change in policy. Suppose a petition gets over 100,000 signatures on it and a debate is held with a vote which the government loses. We are then told that it was only advisory.
Or take legislation passing through the House which is obviously a central function of Parliament. The government has a majority on the Bill committee and can use that, and usually does, to block virtually all amendments tabled, however reasonable and commonsensical they might be. The Bill is then returned to the floor of the House and normally there are 4 or 5 significant amendments put down for debate which are voted on.
But the vast majority of amendments are usually unaware of the precise amendment they’re voting on, they simply follow their own Whips when they get to the lobby. Once again important issues are settled, not on merit or by force of argument, but simply by following the party line. Is that democracy?
Of course we do have elections every 5 years, and that is certainly better than not having them. But how effective are they if all three parties have broadly similar policies to choose from, and if the winning party (as now) never even mentioned before the election its intention to dismember the NHS or to privatise all public services, and when its coalition partner promised to end tuition fees but then agreed to treble them? The truth is that genuine and real democracy has all but collapsed in Britain.