It is widely agreed that the confidence of the people of the UK in their political system has been deeply undermined in recent years. Many agree that this cynicism is bad for democracy and believe that we must do more to educate the public in the workings of the political system. My own conclusion, after 25 years in electoral politics, is that our system is deeply flawed and visibly deteriorating in both the quality and democratic accountability of its decision making. I suggest therefore that public education is likely to increase rather than decrease public cynicism and what is needed is a more determined demand for reform of the system.
It is of course not new to point to the massive concentration of power in the executive in the UK system. It was in 1976 that Quinton Hogg described our system as an “elective dictatorship”. The old argument in defence of the system is that it produces clear majorities and strong governments capable of implementing their policy programme. The people are given a clear choice between different party programmes and are able to elect a government of their choice. Advocates of the British system argue that this is much better than a deal made between the parties, after an election.
I began my life in the House of Commons accepting this argument, but then as I saw the Thatcher government adopt highly contentious policies with the support of 42-43 per cent of those who voted, I became convinced that awarding overwhelming power to a government supported by fewer than half the people was wrong and meant the government imposed on the people values and policies that the majority did not support.
Under New Labour, the distortion between votes and representation in the House of Commons has got worse. The Conservatives’ 42-43% of the vote in 1979, 83, 87 and 92, brought in 53, 57, 58 and 52% of seats in the House of Commons. New Labour’s 43, 41 and 32% of the vote in 1997, 2001 and 2005 brought them 63, 63 and 55% of the vote in the House of Commons. This was particularly galling to many people after the Iraq war. Blair’s vote was cut by 5 million from 1997 to 2005 and only 1 in 5 of registered voters voted for the government, yet our electoral system gave it an unassailable majority in the House of Commons.
My conclusion is that our electoral system is indefensible and in itself breeds cynicism. In the UK in 2005, 19 million votes were cast ineffectively. That means that 70% of those who voted did not elect a candidate of their choice. The distortions in our system meant that – in rounded figures – in 2005 27,000 votes elect a New Labour MP, 44, 000 elect a Tory MP and it takes 97,000 votes to elect a Liberal Democrat MP. This is simply wrong.
In addition to the growing distortion in the electoral system, there has been a growth in the power concentrated around the Prime Minister in No10 Downing Street. This is a result of big majorities in the House of Commons, massive patronage powers in the hands of the Prime Minister and the effect of 24 hour news coverage and the growing power of the politics of spin.
It is no secret that the Cabinet government ceased to operate in the Blair years. This was one of the findings of the Butler Report which reviewed the use of intelligence in the run up to the war in Iraq. In that case we know that the full legal opinion on the legality of the war and papers prepared in the Cabinet Office were deliberately not circulated to the Cabinet. The major Cabinet Committee intended to consider crises in foreign policy is Defence and Overseas Policy. It is chaired by the Prime Minister, attended by all Secretaries of State and Permanent Secretaries with foreign policy responsibilities, together with the heads of the security services and the armed forces. In the case of the Iraq crisis, it never met. And thus the full diplomatic, political and military options were not considered and the policy was run by the Prime Minister and a small group of officials in Downing Street, constantly in touch with the White House, but with the expertise in our own Foreign Office completely marginalised.
I can honestly testify that there was never a full discussion of any policy issue with all options considered and a consensus reached in my six years as a member of the Cabinet. The most spectacular and troubling example of this was the way in which the decision to go to war in Iraq was made, but it was true of all decisions. The discussion on whether to go ahead with the Millennium Dome had a majority of voices against, but this made no difference whatsoever. The way in which reforms in the Health and Education services were to be taken forward were not considered or discussed.
My conclusion is that the way in which power and decision making is concentrated in Number 10 has led to unaccountable policy making and very poor consideration of policy options. When the question is asked, ‘Why the very big increases in public expenditure which the boom years afforded, have not been more effective?’ my conclusion is that the failure to fully thrash out the new policy and the subsequent chopping and changing and constant reorganisation flows from the poor policy consideration systems at the heart of the British political system and has undermined the effectiveness of reform. In effect, we have a Prime Minister with Presidential powers who is not properly held to account by the House of Commons because his power is based on the Commons majority and party patronage and loyalty keeps the troops in line.
These developments have been enhanced by the growth in the patronage powers of the Prime Minister. The abolition of hereditary peers in the Lords led to Tony Blair being able to appoint more peers than any previous Prime Minister. The number was 268 between 1997 and 2005, with 125 of them taking the Labour whip. I will come on later to the reasons why the unelected House of Lords is a better check on the executive than the Commons, but the power to appoint ageing MPs to the House of Lords and to insert a young adviser into a safe Labour seat at the last minute before a general election, has the effect of ensuring that older MPs stay loyal and new MPs frequently arise from the patronage powers of the Prime Minister rather than from local selection.
The other great power of patronage is the power to appoint and re-appoint Ministers. All Cabinet Ministers hope for greater office, junior Ministers hope to be promoted and almost all backbenchers want to be a Minister. In the UK system, we have very large numbers of Ministers and whips who are paid members of the government. Our total is 125 (including 28 in the Lords). On top of this, there are 54 Parliamentary Private Secretaries who are expected to vote with the government and the role is seen as a stepping stone to Ministerial office. This means that 1 in 3 New Labour MPs are part of the government. With constant reshuffles, this helps to keep the parliamentary party docile because it is only by being loyal that the call to Ministerial office will come. Most other countries have far fewer Ministers and are astonished by the numbers in the UK system. Most of these junior Ministers have very little decision making power, but they defend the government’s programme in the House of Commons, have a departmental office, Private Secretary and government car and obviously have to support the government at all times in order to remain in office. Under New Labour, the quantity of patronage has grown even further than under previous governments. There is legislation limiting the size of the number of paid members of HMG but now we have the phenomenon of 12 unpaid Ministers and the number has quietly grown. They get their status, office, Private Secretary and car, but no extra salary.
In addition to this, the sixteen House of Commons Select Committees appointed to scrutinise government activity are appointed in proportion to the balance of seats in the Commons. This means that the majority of members are government MPs and the majority of Chairs, an influential and paid post, are from the government party. The whips appoint members and propose Chairs. Rebellious MPs have difficulty being appointed to Select Committees and would never become Chairs (with the exception of Gwyneth Dunwoody). The Select Committee system, established in 1979, does enhance the Commons scrutiny of the government, but the care with which appointments are controlled ensures that the Committees rarely embarrass the government.
Added to all of this, ensuring massive concentration of power in Number 10, is the politics of spin. In the Blair regime, Alastair Campbell was widely regarded as the Deputy Prime Minister. The political machine needs a constant stream of announcements that can be fed to the press. Clever young people are appointed to advise the Prime Minister. Policy is increasingly made in Number 10 and the expertise that lies in departments has less and less influence on the decisions that are made. It is very clear that the skills of the Blair machine in its use of focus groups and spin has been deeply studied and imitated by the Cameron machine and that there is little difference between the two major parties in this regard.
Another new development which has been little commented upon but has broken the authority of the House of Commons is the timetabling and guillotining of all business. When I became an MP in 1983, Mrs Thatcher was at the height of her powers and had a big majority. But the Opposition had the power of time. We could keep debates going in Committee indefinitely, if we felt sufficiently strongly, and using this power we could squeeze concessions from the government. That power is now gone and any amendments that are not dealt with in Committee or at report stage go to the House of Lords to be dealt with. This means a massive abnegation of responsibility by the House of Commons.
It is also notable how few MPs sit in the Chamber during debates. This is because in any big debate, speeches are limited to 7 or 8 minutes because the time is guillotined. I well remember in my earlier day sin the Commons how the Chamber would fill up, later in the day if Michael Foot, Enoch Powell, Denis Healey or other big figures got up to speak. No major speech, sharing big ideas or challenging the direction of government policy can be confined to 7 minutes. In addition, when we were deeply stirred by a government policy, backbenchers could plan to keep the debate going all night and thus break the government plans for the next day’s business. This could be done without the approval of one’s front bench, if there were enough MPs willing to speak at length. We attempted it several times and achieved it sometimes and thus used the power of time to inconvenience the government and assert the power of backbenchers. All this power is lost to the Opposition and to backbenchers and thus attendance in the House has declined and what is said in the House, as opposed to through the media, has less and less significance.
It is for these reasons and because of its composition that the House of Lords is now a more thorough and effective check on the executive than the House of Commons. They are not elected, but appointment by party is in proportion to the votes of the electorate and therefore the government does not have an automatic majority. And because the Lords’ business is not subject to timetabling and guillotining debates are more serious and all amendments properly considered. Despite the Lords’ hesitation in overturning policy passed by the Commons because they are not an elected House, they play a very important and honourable role in checking ill considered government policy much of which is not scrutinised in any way by the Commons because time ran out and many parts of the bill and tabled amendments are never reached..
My conclusion then is that our political institutions are functioning very badly both in failing to take account of public opinion and in the poor quality of decision making. There are many examples but one that is worthy of note is the frequency of government introduction of new criminal justice bills and the creation of new offences, Thus for most of the twentieth century there was one Criminal Justice Bill every ten years. From 1997 to 2006, the Home Office brought forward 60 Bills and the government created 3,000 new criminal offences. The Chief Constable of Dyfed- Powys accused John Reid and Charles Clarke, in their times as Home Secretary of making policy on the hoof in response to media pressure.
The question is what is to be done? The key change we need is to our electoral system. Mrs Thatcher with 43 per cent of MPs in the House of Commons and Tony Blair with 35 per cent after the Iraq war would have been very different leaders. They would have had to listen and reach agreement with a majority. If all citizens knew their vote could make a significant difference to reward or punish their local representative, more people would vote and more MPs would attend to the opinions of their voters than their party whips. If there was no automatic majority in parliament, then coalitions would have to be made, policy proposals thrashed out and the Cabinet would become once again a place where decisions would be fully considered. And if our system was more proportional, it would be more open to new forces, such as Green parties willing to challenge the current consensus and put forward new policy proposals. And last but not least, if the electorate, in their diversity of opinion, had more influence, the spin doctors and focus groups would have less. They surely explain why all the parties are converging on the centre and all our leaders pay endless court to Rupert Murdoch. It would be so much better to have a parliament representative of the diversity of public opinion, where argument and voting really mattered. The guillotines and timetables would fall without the authority of an overwhelming majority and politics would come alive again.
How, then, might we bring about this change? The answer, I believe, is a hung parliament with no party having an overall majority. The chances are that this would lead to a referendum on electoral reform as the under-represented Liberal Democrats made it a condition of their co-operation. My conclusion is that people are entitled to be cynical about the poor quality of our existing political institutions. But if we are determined to change our system, we can do so. The answer lies in the hands of the electorate and if current trends continue, the most likely outcome of the next election would be a hung parliament. This would put an end to arrogant centralised government. The House of Commons would be enlivened, the Cabinet would be restored and the electorate would know that their votes and opinions carried significant power and influence.