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Coalition politics: Lib Dem conference and the NHS reforms

Posted by Matt Walker on March 11, 2012

I recently posted about the need for students to consider the impact the coalition has made on British politics. I suggested that its impact across a range of issues was beginning to be felt, in particular the empowerment of Parliament. The extent of this empowerment might soon be measured regarding the coalition’s NHS reform bill.

Although they decided not to debate the coalition’s NHS reforms, the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference has today expressed its rejection of those reforms. The vote is not binding on the Liberal Democrat leadership. which means that Nick Clegg will not be forced to go to his coalition partners and say the reforms must be stopped. However, rejection of the reforms has  effectively become Liberal Democrat policy.

So what is this the significance of this? In the end, there may be none. However, the question now is how Lib Dem peers and MPs will react, and whether they will vote against the bill. The highly-regarded Lib Dem peer (and former Labour minister) Dame Shirley Williams, now supports the reforms, which may well sway Lib Dem Parliamentarians to finally back the NHS reforms. However,  as the BBC points out, this vote might empower these peers and MPs  into outright rejection of the bill.

Either way, the extensive amendments to this bill would probably not have occurred without the existence of the coalition, as a single party Conservative Government would probably have ignored much of the objections to the bill.


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What impact has the Coalition had on Parliamentary government?

Posted by Matt Walker on March 5, 2012

Not satisfied with allowing students to weave recent developments into exam answers say, about Parliament, Edexcel examiners have recently asked some nasty questions specifically about the impact of the coalition government. So let us begin to explore the impact of the coalition on Parliament.

Increasingly, political commentators are identifying fault-lines within the coalition. It should come as no surprise that the initial political goodwill of the strangest of political bed-fellows should come under strain once real political choices have to be made. Divisions over the EU were inevitable, given the two very different perspectives of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Parties. But divisions have also recently been seen over the government’s reform programme: welfare, NHS, and House of Lords. On defence, the decision to be made in 2016 on whether to renew the UK’s nuclear deterrent might also be explosive, if you’ll pardon the pun.

Tory and Lid Dem critics of the coalition will no doubt bemoan how their own party’s policies and values are undermined by the coalition. But it could be argued that Parliament itself has been strengthened. Liberal Democrat peers in particular have made significant amendments to the NHS reforms set out in the Health and Social Care Bill, whilst causing problems for the government’s Welfare Reform Bill. It may be the turn of the Conservatives next, as they will seek to challenge the Clegg-sponsored House of Lords reforms.

Jackie Ashley argues that all of this will undermine the government and pave the way for its eventual downfall. This remains to be seen. But the relationship between the Lib Dems and Tories in this coalition government is arguably providing Parliament with greater opportunities and leverage which it perhaps would not have under single party government.

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House of Lords reform

Posted by Matt Walker on February 27, 2012

The membership and exact role of the House of Lords has been a difficult issue for many years, even prior to the reforms of New Labour in 1999. Labour created a mostly appointed second chamber, doing away with all but 92 of the hereditary peers, and left the issue of whether the Lords should be elected for another day.

And that ‘other day’ seems to have finally arrived. The Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, is the minister in charge of constitutional reform. Today he attempted to see off his critics by defending his proposals for further House of Lords reform. The proposals are:

  • 240 (80%) elected members, who will have 15 year terms
  • 60 members (20%) to be appointed
  • 12 bishops to remain in the reformed chamber
  • members will be paid a salary
  • the powers of the reformed second chamber will not change.

It is envisaged that the first elections to the Lords will be in 2015, using some form of proportional representation. It is worth spending some of your time looking at the arguments either side of this debate, as it may well come up in your exam. Critics of these proposals will argue that democratising the Lords will simply mean a replication of the type of professional politician found in the House of Commons. Those experts currently found in the Lords, such as Lord Sugar, will be lost, and the scrutiny of legislation will suffer. Nick Clegg would no doubt argue that it is indefensible that laws are made in this country partly by unelected legislators. But he might also face critics from democrats who would object to the fact that 20% of the Lords would still be appointed, and that the Church of England would still have representation in the second chamber.

And that has always been a problem with Lords reform. Even those who seek to reform it, can never agree what the nature of that reform will be.

Click on the video links below.

The proposals

Tory-Lib Dem discussion 

Labour peers opposition to reform

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NHS reform Bill

Posted by Matt Walker on February 26, 2012

Ed Miliband suggested last week that David Cameron’s NHS reforms could be his ‘poll tax’, a reference to the local authority tax introduced by Margaret Thatcher in 1988-9 which effectively destroyed her premiership. Whether this is accurate or overblown rhetoric remains to be seen, but the government’s NHS reforms throw up a number of issues. Here, let us explore the role of Parliament in the passage of the Bill.

The current passage of the NHS reforms through Parliament illustrates the important role the legislature can play during the passage of a Bill. The NHS reforms return to the House of Lords this week, having already suffered two defeats and a number of amendments. An major role Parliament plays is to scrutinise government and legislation, and to ensure that laws are both legitimate and well-made.  Parliament doesn’t generally defeat government, and is there to support it, though with the current difficulties, the present government might not be feeling this right now.

The NHS reforms are very good example of how Parliament can be effective at getting government to think again about its proposals. The House of Lords is particularly wee-placed to achieve this as no party has overall control of the second chamber, and it is less disciplined (and perhaps rigid) than the Commons. As The Guardian points out, the government’s previous parliamentary difficulties with its NHS reform Bill has made ministers rethink how they are approaching future parliamentary battles.

Using such examples is a great way to ensure your exam answers are illustrated with up-to-date details, something your examiners will approve of!

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Human rights and the UK’s liberal democracy

Posted by Matt Walker on October 2, 2011

In my previous post I outlined the main criticism of the UK’s liberal democracy. Today’s comments by Home Secretary, Theresa May, illustrates this criticism perfectly. Today’s Sunday telegraph reports her as saying that the Human Rights Act should be scrapped because it causes “problems” at the Home Office, particularly when it comes to deporting illegal immigrants, some of whom “are perhaps terrorist suspects”. A summary of what she says can be found on the BBC News website.

The Human Rights Act enshrines into UK law the European Convention of Human Rights, and is the main cornerstone of human rights within the UK constitution (apart from the Magna Carta of 1215, which was aimed at the barons of the Middle Ages rather than 21st Century peasants like you and me). Aside from the arguments for and against the Human Rights Act, it is interesting to note that if there were a majority Conservative Government in this country they might well repeal the Human Rights Act, thereby changing my rights, your rights and everybody else’s rights just by passing an ordinary law through Parliament. To have such an effect on American citizens’ rights, for example, the US Government would need  two-thirds support from both Houses of Congress, as well as the support of two-thirds of state legislatures.

Put another way, human rights are not entrenched in the UK which means they are easily tampered with. Entrenchment would mean protecting our rights from being swiftly reversed. From the government’s point of view it would mean accepting human rights law even if it does inconvenience and cause “problems” to the UK Home Office.

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Is the UK a liberal democracy?

Posted by Matt Walker on September 26, 2011

In many respects it seems obvious to conclude ‘yes’ to this question, that the UK is a liberal democracy.  The UK enjoys free and fair elections, experiences smooth transitions of power from one government to the next, and is generally a tolerant society whose politics has been opened up by the Freedom of Information Act.

However, there are some major criticisms which we can level, and these stem from the fact that the UK constitution does not successfully limit governmental power,  nor does it entrench our human rights. On the latter point, any British government could in theory alter our key human rights by simply passing a Bill through Parliament. In most liberal democracies, it would require a lengthy challenge to a constitution, making it harder to make any such changes to citizens’ rights.

With regards to the UK’s failure to limit government power, a good example (see video link below) is the decision by the Labour Government to go to war with Iraq in 2003. As evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry indicates, Tony Blair made this decision himself, largely side-lining Cabinet and Parliament in the process. This particular issue demonstrates that in the right circumstances, the UK Prime Minister is very powerful.

Any assessment of the success or otherwise of liberal democracy in Britain cannot ignore this point, and in any essay you write making such an assessment will require you to tackle this issue.

Click here for video link.

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Making it up as we go along?

Posted by Matt Walker on March 31, 2010

It emerged today that Whitehall (i.e. the Civil Service) has drawn up a plan in the event of a hung parliament next month. It has been suggested that the newly elected House of Commons would not meet for 18 days after the election, as opposed to the usual 6 days. This would enable negotiations to take place between parties for the formation of a new government. The current government would remain in place whilst these negotiations take place.

The worry for Whitehall is that if the Commons meets early it would vote out the government, after which would be a protracted period of uncertainty which would affect financial markets. In other words, the 18 day stand-off would be an attempt to foster political stability so as to prevent economic instability.

If this is how things pan out, Gordon Brown could remain as prime minister for up to 18 days after the election, even if the Conservatives are the biggest party. This would give him breathing space to create a workable coalition. Of course, whilst he is trying to do this there would be nothing to prevent David Cameron putting out feelers to minority parties.

According to The Guardian, the Head of the Civil Service, Gus O’Donnell has drawn up the manual to set out who should do what in the advent of a hung parliament, and also to prevent the Queen from being drawn into the political mire. It has been suggested that the  Queen could refuse a second immediate election if she deemed it damaging to the country. Imagine, for example, that Brown remained as prime minister despite losing the election, and during the newly agreed 18 day waiting period actually asked the Queen to dissolve parliament again!

What’s also interesting here is what it reveals about the nature of the UK constitution.  We are faced with the prospect of a hung parliament, a situation experienced in most countries, and we need the Head of the Civil Service to draw up a manual explaining what to do under such circumstances. Arguably, the UK constitution should be doing that job.

Channel 4 News report

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An elective dictatorship?

Posted by Matt Walker on February 10, 2010

elective dictatorship In 1976 Lord Hailsham described the British system of government as an ‘elective dictatorship’. What he meant was that the government, once elected, is able to behave like a dictator owing to the weakness of Parliament. In modern academic parlance, this is known as executive dominance. So what is the evidence for this and why does it occur?

It is very rare for a British government to be defeated by the House of Commons. The government did lose votes on the 90 day detention orders and also the Gambling Order, but such defeats are few and far between. Furthermore, there has not been a successful Commons vote of no confidence in a government since 1979.

It would be wrong to base our analysis by this measure alone. After all, the mere threat of backbench revolt on the government benches can force the executive to think again. However, governments usually get their own way. And consider that, despite massive public opposition, Tony Blair was able to get his way over war with Iraq.

The reason for executive dominance is that most British governments have a majority of MPs in the Commons, owing to first-past-the-post. In 1997, Labour won a massive 179 seat majority, and were never likely to lose a Commons vote. Such majorities, combined with a whipping system which disciplines government backbenchers to support their own side, as well as the loyalty of MPs to their own party, means that governments rarely lose. Add to this the so-called payroll vote – the MPs who are members of the government – it is relatively straightforward to see why the executive dominates.

What would perhaps alter the situation would be a government with a small majority, or no majority at all, or even coalition government. Perhaps the next election will deliver that, enabling Parliament to reassert itself after what has been a terrible 12 months.

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FAQ: what are the functions of Parliament?

Posted by Matt Walker on February 8, 2010

It is all too easy to see Parliament as simply a shouting match, especially when we survey the chamber of the House of Commons during Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQ).

However, in many ways PMQ is atypical of the work done by Parliament. It is important for you to know the the functions of Parliament (outlined below), and you should use your textbook to supplement your notes, as well as find interesting examples to illustrate these functions.

The main functions of Parliament are:

  1. Scrutiny – the government must be watched and assessed in detail. The better the scrutiny, the better job government will do.
  2. Accountability – once Parliament knows exactly what government is doing, it can hold the latter to account for its actions and decisions.
  3. Representation – we should not forget that Parliament and government are there to do a job for us. Hence Parliament should represent the interests of constituents and different groups of people.
  4. Debate – sometimes important discussions need to occur, such as over terrorism or euthanasia. Parliament should be at the centre of any such national debate.
  5. Dealing with grievances – quite often MPs will question ministers after receiving mail from members of the public regarding how decisions have in some way harmed them.

What factors prevent Parliament’s ability to do these things? How could Parliament’s capacity for carrying out these functions be enhanced?

The BBC have provided some useful videos on this topic:

House of Commons

House of Lords

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Scottish devolution

Posted by Matt Walker on January 18, 2010

Just a very quick entry today to refer you all to some previous entries on Scottish devolution. Follow the link below.

Scottish Independence?

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