Democratic Audit Shorts: Parliament remains insufficiently responsive to the outside world

Taken from Section 2.4.6 of the 2012 Democratic Audit report- ‘Parliament’s relationship with the public and relevant interests’

Over this Audit period there have been some limited improvements in parliament’s relationship with the outside world. In particular, select committees now utilise online forums; and all written petitions sent to an MP who agrees to present them to parliament receive official replies from the government. The number of petitions presented to parliament each year fluctuates enormously, although there was a clear decline after the early 1990s (see Figure 2.4j). Continue reading

The constitutional mess that now undoubtedly exists demands urgent review and reform

Matthew Flinders finds that it is not that people don’t care about British politics and its constitutional arrangements but that they simply don’t understand where power lies or why.This has resulted from reforms having been implemented in a manner that is bereft of any underlying logic. There is an urgent need to look across the constitutional landscape in order to assess what exists and why, and to look to the future in terms of what we want the UK to look like in 10 or 20 years time.

Do we have a constitution? What is the British constitution? Does anyone actually care? At one level the answers to these questions are relatively simple and straightforward. ‘Yes’ — we do have a constitution but its constituent elements are scattered amongst a range of documents and within the tacit understandings of a number of parliamentary conventions; the British constitution is — through accident and design — a mess that has evolved in a muddled manner, betraying the existence of a latent form of ‘club government’; ‘No’, nobody cares because this is how it has always been and we don’t trust politicians and they’re all the same. Continue reading

Time to tackle the growth of the ‘payroll vote’

Stuart Wilks-Heeg

Note: This article was amended on 23 October 2012 to clarify both how the ‘payroll vote’ is defined and the use of the term ‘paid government posts’.

In our latest full Audit of democracy in the UK, we highlighted our concern about the long-term growth of the government ‘payroll vote’ and its role in diminishing the independence of parliament from the executive.

Essentially, the payroll vote comprises MPs who are part of the government and are bound by convention to vote with it in divisions, or resign. In its broadest definition, the payroll vote includes government ministers and whips, as well as all MPs who are engaged as unpaid Parliamentary Private Secretaries (PPSs) to ministers. It is also important to note than some ministerial roles are unpaid.   Continue reading

Whatever happened to reforming the political system?

Stuart Wilks-Heeg

In May 2009, as leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg announced his 100 day action plan ‘to save British democracy’, ‘take back power’ and ‘change politics for good’.  Clegg’s proposals were for an urgent and  far-reaching set of political reforms, including fixed-term Parliaments, a mechanism for voters to be able to recall MPs, a referendum on adopting the ‘AV+’ electoral system, an elected second chamber, and a cap on donations to political parties.

Clegg’s call to arms was prompted by the MPs’ expenses crisis, as a result of which the leaders of all three major parties came to proclaim that British democracy was in crisis and in urgent need of  reform. Against this backdrop, he explained the rationale for swift and radical action in the following terms: Continue reading

How should ‘political England’ be recognised?

Lewis Baston

In the newly published IPPR pamphlet The Dog That Finally Barked: England as an Emerging Political Community, Richard Wyn Jones and Guy Lodge demonstrate, to anyone’s satisfaction, that there is such a thing as English identity and that it has a political component.

Perhaps their most surprising finding was that in comparative context, England has a stronger sense of identity in terms of the standard ‘Moreno scale’ than Bavaria, Galicia, Vienna or even Wales. Only Scotland and Catalonia (of areas surveyed) were stronger sub-state units of identity. The research found that only about a quarter of English respondents were happy with the constitutional status quo, although there was no consensus about an alternative and the question demonstrated some of the qualities of an issue that is ill-formed in the public mind, for example a strong effect from the wording of the poll question. Continue reading

Lords reform: the problem of piecemeal constitutional amendment

Andrew Blick

How far is it possible to carry out piecemeal reform of a constitution when we do not know and cannot agree on the rules governing such amendment, and are not even clear about the nature of the constitution in question?

In most democracies – that is to say, in the overwhelming majority that have written constitutions – the main rules of governance are set out in a single document or set of interlinked documents (though how well they perform this task can vary). This text also includes certain requirements that must be fulfilled – such as legislative supermajorities and/or assent by the electorate through referendums – if it is to be amended.

In the UK – famously – we have no such provisions. The constitution is scattered across various Acts of Parliament, codes, judicial decisions and unwritten (and often contested) understandings. Alterations to it can be carried out in a wide variety of ways. Sometimes a referendum is deemed necessary; sometimes it happens with few outside the government knowing it has occurred. No clear, consistent system exists. Continue reading

What is the UK constitution made of? Exposing the ‘hidden wiring’

Andrew Blick

Late last year, the Cabinet Office published in draft form a document called the Cabinet Manual.   Subtitled ‘A guide to laws, conventions, and rules on the operation of government’, it was initially intended by Gordon Brown, when instigating it as Prime Minister, as a possible first step towards a written constitution for the UK. This plan has subsequently been dropped, but the manual has survived.

In a pamphlet co-authored by Peter Hennessy and myself, published this week by the Institute for Public Policy Research, we analyse the significance and content of this document, and come to the conclusion that it is the fullest publicly available, official statement of the UK constitution ever to have been produced, but it should not be confused with a full codified constitution. Continue reading