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Parliament: the unfinished revolution

The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions raise questions, not only about the tide of democracy surging through the Middle East, but also about evolutionary change and the quality of democracy elsewhere, not least in Britain. In the past few years we have had the expenses scandal and the collapse of trust in the political class in the wake of frequently broken electoral promises. Bad though those are, they are not the root of the problem.

Far less sensational, but more insidious, has been the steady and continuing decline in the raison d’être of parliament, the fundamental purpose for which it exists in the first place. Over the past 30 years parliament – partly because first Margaret Thatcher and then Tony Blair deliberately overrode it – has become ever more subservient, more sycophantic, more tribalistically loyalist, more careerist. It failed utterly to hold the Thatcher-Major governments to account over arms to Iraq, the Blair government over the Iraq war, and the Brown government over capitulation to the City.

Then at the nadir over expenses it was agreed by all three parties that the rock-bottom reputation of parliament could be salvaged only by regenerating a new, forceful, democratic role for it to become a properly effective scrutinising and decision-making chamber for the nation’s business. The Wright committee was appointed to put flesh on this aspiration, though only after the government delayed for five weeks before setting it up, then gave it just two months to complete its report, and then dithered again about how to handle its modest recommendations. The “forces of darkness” (as the whips of both parties are genially known) rallied to block any change that undermined their own power, but were defeated by a vote of the whole House just before the May election.

That vote ushered in two important changes. One was an elected backbench business committee, which wrested back some limited control of the parliamentary agenda from the executive (the government, largely No 10 alone), which had monopolised it for decades. The other was to secure that the chair and members of select committees, by far the most effective mechanism for holding ministers to account, should in future be elected by the House to ensure their independence. Previously they were chosen by the whips – the agents of the Prime Minister, which was anomalous when the whole purpose of select committees is to hold the government and the Prime Minister to account.

But valuable as these reforms are, they scarcely begin to redress the balance of power that has subordinated parliament over the last several decades. Its power has been drained away by the assertiveness of No 10, by the dominatrix model in the case of Thatcher and by the Napoleonic regime that Blair favoured. Its power is continually seeping away to Brussels as the EU mandate spreads ever wider. And the judiciary increasingly encroach on the parliamentary prerogative, no doubt prompted by judges’ view that if parliament can’t hold the executive to account, they will.

A parliamentary revival needs to be tackled at several levels. At the lowest level it must drastically overhaul its existing procedures. At present, bills at committee stage, after dozens and even hundreds of hours of scrutiny, can often end up with no or minimalist changes because a whip-chosen majority of the governing party can block any amendments. At report stage, when significant changes can be made by votes of the whole House, the government can prevent later amendments it opposes being reached by “talking out” earlier ones, and members who have not followed the bill on committee often vote in accordance with their whips without realising what the vote is about. There is also little or no involvement of the public in the passage of bills that will control their lives. There should be a pre-legislative stage for bills where outside experts can give detailed evidence and where members of the public can make their views known.

Then there is a further range of reforms where parliament can assert its authority as the elected voice of the people. On matters of overriding national importance (eg, the Iraq war), parliament should have the right to set up its own commissions of inquiry, not depend on the executive or No 10 to do so, since it is usually the latter’s actions that are being investigated. The House should also be empowered to scrutinise and approve the appointment of the chair, members and terms of reference of committees of inquiry set up by the Prime Minister. Select committees should routinely carry out confirmation hearings (as in the US Congress) of leading quango appointments and perhaps also some ministerial appointments, with a vote on the question of approval at the end. Parliament should also be served by its own legal counsel if it is to be an effective check on executive power.

Since annual government expenditure of £650bn is such a key exercise of power, parliament should establish a framework for contemporaneous monitoring and cross-examination of major expenditure programmes (not just after the event via the public accounts committee), aided by a cadre of expert external advisers, whether through the existing select committees or a new specialised estimates committee.

Given that professional lobbyists have now now hugely increased their influence over the political process, parliament should require that a public register be kept, including the scope of their activities, the source of their funding and their meetings with ministers. And to bring parliament closer to the people it represents, petitions signed by a high threshold number of electors should be able to be debated and voted on in the House. A new constitutional settlement along these lines will be debated in parliament this Thursday.

Beyond this revival of parliamentary power, there is a further relevant agenda. For three decades, the world has been ruled by the neoliberal capitalist model, the Washington consensus, and the US hegemony. It requires great political courage to defy these forces, and Blair and Brown made the Mephistophelean deal with them not even to attempt defiance, but rather to go to endless subservient lengths to placate them. It led to a decade studded with Brown’s annual lyrical paeans to the high priests of finance at the Mansion House, Blair’s sycophantic efforts to win the approval of a right-wing press and especially Murdoch, and a general glorification of bankers and FTSE-100 CEOs as the measure of all things.

When this political-financial nexus was fissured irreversibly in 2008, the way was finally open for a new political and economic order. The measure for a resuscitated parliament will be how far and how effectively it rises to the challenge of that fundamental debate.

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