Why Westminster desperately needs reform

 Target seat parliamentary candidates don’t have much time to read books.  But they ought to find time at some point before the election to read How Westminster Works…and Why it Doesn’t, by Ian Dunt (Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2023), to warn them how dysfunctional they will find Britain’s Parliament and government have become,

Some Liberal Democrats will be familiar with Ian Dunt from his previous book, How to be a Liberal, which came out in 2020.  His analysis of Westminster, based on extensive research and interviews with current and former parliamentarians, staff, civil servants and outside observers, is devastating.  Parliamentary sovereignty, he argues, is a convenient myth that covers executive dominance – which has become more dominant in recent years, above all under Boris Johnson’s prime ministership.

Political reform is not an issue that excites most voters.  Dunt attempts to explain how repeated failures in policy outcomes are affected by the constant changes in ministerial posts, the weakness of parliamentary scrutiny, the adversarial culture of the Commons and the increasing control by central party machines of the recruitment of candidates who are assisted into safe seats.  He includes two case studies to illustrate how policy disasters emerge out of the concentration of power in too few, often poorly-qualified, hands: Chris Grayling’s privatisation of the probation service, pushed through against strong advice from experts, and the evacuation of British and local Afghan staff from Afghanistan, by a Foreign Office which had run down its relevant expertise and ministers who only paid intermittent attention to its urgency.

The seven years since Brexit have seen the quality of British government deteriorate further, as ministers have swept aside reasoned criticism, civil servants have been attacked as ‘deep state’ saboteurs of the people’s will, and Dominic Cummings and Boris Johnson have broken many of the conventions of our unwritten constitution.  Dunt notes that ministers have turned over at an increasing rate: reversing each other’s decisions, hurrying to impose their pet projects and prejudices before they are moved on or sacked.  The Covid emergency has further encouraged ministers to bypass Parliament, using secondary legislation (Statutory Instruments, not amendable in Parliament) and skeleton bills (which empower ministers ‘to take whatever measures they consider appropriate…’ rather than spelling out the limits to their powers).  Johnson even attempted to prevent Parliament from returning from its summer recess, with the right-wing press excoriating the Supreme Court when it ruled that he lacked the authority to do so.

Dunt sees only two elements in the Westminster system that work well: select committees in the Commons, less partisan and partly free from the control of party whips, and the House of Lords, which provides the detailed scrutiny of legislation that the Commons now neglects.  He doesn’t note that in the last session, for the first time in decades, the Commons chamber sat for fewer hours per week than the Lords – the full-time House going home earlier than the officially part-time one.

I have a nightmare that Labour will win the next election and follow the same dysfunctional pattern of government, doing its best to limit parliamentary autonomy, attempting to micro-manage national and local government from the centre, and will then lose the following election to a more right-wing Conservative Party which will abuse existing powers to become effectively authoritarian.  Dunt’s proposals for change offer a list that Liberal Democrats would wish to push onto a reluctant Labour government if we had enough influence: a smaller government pay-roll in the Commons, a business committee to free the Commons from government timetabling, a more confident and professional civil service, a revival of local government, an end to constant reshuffles.  He would move the Prime Minister’s office out of Downing Street, and Parliament out of the crumbling Palace of Westminster, to change their entrenched cultures and transform their working practices.  And he would change the voting system, to open up the process of political recruitment and to get away from the confrontation of a two-party system towards the constructive compromises of muti-party government.

Johnson and Truss have inflicted real damage on our thinly-safeguarded constitutional democracy.  Public trust in Westminster politics has sunk lower.  But the inertia of the current system, and the vested interests of those within it, remain strong.  Our new MPs will have to be well-prepared, well-equipped with proposals for change, to make much progress towards the more open democratic system that Liberal Democrats long for.



* William Wallace is Liberal Democrat spokesman on constitutional issues in the Lords.

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  • As long ago as 1976 Quintin Hogg provoked a certain amount of public discussion when he referred to “elective dictatorship”. We don’t seem to have moved very far in terms of finding effective language to challenge executive over-dominance since then. We now live in an age when the very meaning of democracy is contested. The Brexit referendum contributed to this and MPs in the governing party cannot see beyond the fact that they won their seats and therefore anything goes. Perhaps Lib Dems ought to focus on the way the electoral system sustains an over-mighty yet ineffective executive. Should we be exploiting the disconnect between Labour leadership and membership on PR ?

  • I share William Wallace’s concern, especially since Keir Starmer does not appear to get it. I know from contacts in Labour that some of their members are concerned about centralised authoritarianism. Some of us subscribe to Compass, which shares our concern, so it would be good to see more Lib-Dems work with them.

  • Good to see William highlighting Chris Grayling’s privatisation of the probation services back in 2014.

    2014 was, of course, during the Con-Lib Dem Coalition. Grayling privatised 70% of the service, splitting it in two. New private ‘Community Rehabilitation Companies’ (CRCs) were to supervise low to medium risk offenders, and the pre-existing National Probation Service would supervise high risk offenders. This is now generally regarded as ‘a disaster’ and the situation has been largely reversed.

    I hope William’s Liberal Democrat colleagues in the Commons and the Lords have taken due note of this and have resolved, ‘never again’ in any future situation they may find themselves in.

  • Kay Kirkham 31st May '23 - 3:07pm

    Geoff Reid – ‘Perhaps Lib Dems ought to focus on the way the electoral system sustains an over-mighty yet ineffective executive. Should we be exploiting the disconnect between Labour leadership and membership on PR ?’ YES

  • George Thomas 31st May '23 - 7:54pm

    “I have a nightmare that Labour will win the next election and follow the same dysfunctional pattern of government, doing its best to limit parliamentary autonomy, attempting to micro-manage national and local government from the centre, and will then lose the following election to a more right-wing Conservative Party which will abuse existing powers to become effectively authoritarian.”

    The nightmare isn’t the scenario described above. The nightmare is that Tony Blair’s Labour government did the above which led to Cameron’s austerity and Brexit, which led to May, Johnson and Truss and will lead to the scenario described above.

    My gut feeling is that Trump will lose to Biden and this will scare Tories here from following same path. They’ll elect Penny ‘carries swords’ Mourdant who will win with less outlandish Conservatism, which will seek to make the UK more authoritarian but dressed up in respectability.

  • Rif Winfield 1st Jun '23 - 7:41am

    Thanks, William, for your recommendation. I have ordered my copy of Ian Dunt’s book. It should clearly by required reading for all members of the government and shadow government. Indeed, one would hope that all would-be parliamentary candidates (not just LibDems) should be encouraged to read it from cover to cover. Whoever wins the next General Election is going to have to really address the question of constitutional and institutional reform.

  • Geoff Reid, 31st May 10.29

    Your’re right :”Should we be exploiting the disconnect between Labour leadership and membership on PR ?” Surely we should! And surely we ought NOW to be looking ahead to the next Election, after that now almost imminent?

  • Peter Martin 1st Jun '23 - 11:18am

    “Should we be exploiting the disconnect between Labour leadership and membership on PR”

    I’m not sure there is much of a disconnect. There is a widespread appreciation in the Labour Party that it only the FPTP electoral system which has held it together as long as it has, and prevented a major split. So any acceptance of PR is also an acceptance that the Labour Party will split.

    Keir Starmer is doing what he can to provoke such a split even so. He’s openly invited all those who support Jeremy Corbyn to leave. For all practical purposes, we can consider that the split has already occurred. Labour List no longer allows members to comment, so we don’t see much evidence of internal dissent there, but it is still evident if you take a look on Labour FB pages. There is very little support for Keir Starmer expressed there.

    The predictions that Keir Starmer will win the next election are based on the assumption that the Labour Party will somehow manage to hold itself together. This remains to be seen. Even if it just about does we will likely see not just Jeremy Corbyn and Dianne Abbot stand as independent candidates, we’ll see maybe up to a 100 or so pro Corbyn candidates, with many standing in Labour’s key target seats. They probably won’t win but they could well take enough votes away from Labour to make a difference.

  • @ Peter Wrigley Thanks for the kind mention from Birstall, Peter.

    Oakwell Hall and Batley Park aside, I well remember from the days of my youth in Birkenshaw and Lightcliffe the mischief caused by remnants of Sir John Simon’s “Brighouse & Spenborough Liberal & Conservative Association”. The lesson is, Liberals need to be radical and progressive…. and to work…otherwise they are nothing but easy fodder for that insatiable carnivore – the Tory Party.

    I also remember having a thriving Young Liberal branch in Hipperholme and almost winning the local Council seat with nearly 800 votes back in 1962. It was just 75 a few weeks ago in a much bigger ward.

  • William Wallace 1st Jun '23 - 1:52pm

    Peter: don’t over-estimate the influence we had on all policies when in coalition. We worked hard, and shifted policy in many areas, but the senior minister in each department has a fair degree of autonomy. And some Conservatives resisted the whole idea of coalition. When William Hague was foreign secretary he had weekly meetings of his ministerial team, and listened to me as a junior Lords minister and LibDem; when Philip Hammond took over he announced that he only wanted such meetings once in 6 weeks, to prepare for Commons Questions, and resisted all arguments that as a coalition he should listen to the one LibDem voice in his department.

  • Peter Wrigley 1st Jun '23 - 4:07pm

    David: Be ye well assure that Liberalism is still alive and well in at least part of Spen. At last month’s count I watched the votes for our candidate in Cleckheaton, Andrew Pinnock, pile up to 68% in a five cornered fight. it produced a sense of joy coupled , oddly, with a feeling of embarrassment. You clearly laid some solid foundations.
    William: I’m well aware of how hard you and others in our team spent long ours struggling to modify the crassness of some Tory policies and introduce streaks of Liberalism. Sadly the stories of how much worse the Tories would have been (and indeed have been since 2015) without us carry little credence. That is why I have argued in my post on this site (“Be Prepared,” 18th May) that we should spell out before committing to to any future agreement what we will support, what we will unenthusiastic about but will not bring down the government, and what we shall do our best to block.

  • @ William Sounds like plenty of material (and materiel) for a book there.

  • Martin Gray 1st Jun '23 - 5:56pm

    “Peter: don’t over-estimate the influence we had on all policies when in coalition. We worked hard, and shifted policy in many areas”
    It’s a pity it didn’t extend to the bedroom tax …A spiteful piece of legislation that we’re still paying the price for ..

  • Dunt’s proposals for change include getting “away from the confrontation of a two-party system towards the constructive compromises of multi-party government.”

    Agreed – but with a rider. To win under FPTP parties must put together a durable ‘internal’ coalition of factions. Under PR those factions would, in many cases, be different parties that would negotiate an ‘external’ coalition after the election.

    So, FPTP means that to succeed parties must develop a robust ‘internal’ coalition. How they do that depends on their own rules and culture – which each party is free to arrange as it sees fit.

    For my money the Conservatives are easily the best at managing their ‘internal’ coalition. Their approach is to give their leader enormous power; once elected (but only while still winning in the expert opinion of their MPs) s/he can count on all factions’ support albeit with much manoeuvring under the covers. In other words, they traditionally achieve Dunt’s “constructive compromises”, albeit only within the Conservative ‘Big Tent’.

    Importantly, it means that they avoid the confused and fuzzy focus that results from leadership by committee and, when necessary, can turn on a sixpence with a new leader.

    This approach to organisation is a big factor in their domination of politics for >40 years despite being the ‘Nasty Party’.

  • In contrast Labour is notoriously splittist, with each faction apparently believing it alone has the answer to everything so that, as Peter Martin says, it’s only FPTP that’s held it together in what looks from the outside awfully like an unhappy marriage – something that stops it being nearly as politically effective as it should be.

    The LibDems provide a third approach which, in my view, owes much to the civil war of the SDP-Liberal Alliance era. That was so awful, so massively dysfunctional, that the new LibDems devised an approach that prioritises consensus above all. This was done by building policy via supposedly representative but inevitably bureaucratic committees. Once, rubber stamped by Conference, these become unchallengeable leaving the elected MPs only as spokespeople. That’s not properly constitutional in a representative democracy.

    Moreover, it doesn’t work in practice. Consensus is achieved by being conventional and dodging difficult issues, often by keeping them in separate siloes. For example, LibDems are 100% for sustainability but also like ‘freedom’ including that for anyone to move to wherever they like. Hence (my interpretation again) a very muted line on migration which is wildly unsustainable and harmful in multiple ways. An effective leader would devise a workable consensus opening the way to, for instance, the working-class vote.

  • Whilst I agree and welcome the focus on establishing a real real change agenda for Westminster rather than getting side tracked with voting reform, I suggest there are also some tactical changes that could play well today.

    We need to be mindful of history and remember there wasn’t one Magna Carta “event” but several, as subsequent kings tried to brush it away and so had to be put back in line by the barons.

    I suggest we need to do similar with the fixed term Parliament act an obvious target; being rescinded for party politicial reasons, hence this could go into Manifesto. Another is to reassert the authority (and sovereignty?) of Parliament and the authority it invests in those it charges with conducting inquiries, such as the CoViD inquiry and its right to timely access to non-redacted records that are likely to contain relevant evidence. Another is the attempts the Tories have made to use Henry VIII powers and Statutory Instruments to bypass Parliament.
    Whilst none of these are major, they will play to the moment and tempt the appetite for larger change…

    Secondly, we need to be prepared for subsequent Executives to tamper with the reforms, in a desire to reverse changes.

  • I think Gordon makes some good and interesting points particularly around policy making and agility in this party. The dominance of policy making by a committee of the great and good necessarily sanitises it, and we don’t get a fraction of the big bad ideas that a more open process would facilitate; and this means we don’t get the occasional big good idea either.

    I like to think that compared to the other two we are made up of people much more in the real world, not just connected to it but living in it; but we don’t seem to show this; we almost attempt to show ourselves as steeped in dogma more than we are.

    And the ability to turn on a sixpence is vital when it comes to strategy, but unwanted when it comes to values. The problem is that people read values into strategy. Hard to see a solution to this, apart from being clearer about it ourselves.

  • Peter Hirst 10th Jun '23 - 1:21pm

    How government works would be part of a comprehensive codified constitution recommended by a Citizens’ Assembly and verified by a referendum following votes in parliament. Rules are needed when concensus and fair play breaks down. The old conventions that held our govenance intact have frayed too badly to be repaired without them.

  • @ Peter Hirst – ”How government works would be part of a comprehensive codified constitution recommended by a Citizens’ Assembly and verified by a referendum following votes in parliament.”

    I think you are on to something here, having the electorate agree how government should work, you are reminding politicians who it is they serve. It also very neatly severs the link between the Executive and the monarch.

  • Nonconformistradical 13th Jun '23 - 8:51pm

    Part-way through How Westminster Works…and Why it Doesn’t, by Ian Dunt

    So far I’m thinking that the perceived importance of grasping the levers of power and holding on to them come what may might have driven out experience and competence to the point where the present government incumbents seem to have great difficulty in being able to organise the proverbial ‘p*ssup in a brewery’. Which might be why nothing gets done…..properly or anywhere near budget…

  • Peter Watson 13th Jun '23 - 11:39pm

    @Gordon “Moreover, it doesn’t work in practice.”
    Indeed. It seems to me that this approach does not necessarily bind the parliamentary party and its leader, but this is perhaps not always a good thing!
    In Coalition, as well as the rapid volte-face on tuition fees, Nick Clegg was able to bounce the party into supporting universal free schools despite it having previously opposed the idea in various places. Conversely, I’ve seen successive leaders and manifestos ignore conference votes on scrapping academic and faith-based selection in schools, and in Chesham & Amersham, the party happily campaigned against its own policy on HS2.

  • Nonconformistradical 14th Jun '23 - 8:27am

    By-elections – seems to be Nadine who isn’t co-operating.
    “Former cabinet minister Nadine Dorries has not yet officially resigned as an MP, putting a by-election to replace her on hold – to the frustration of the Conservative Party.”
    “The Conservatives – who are trailing Labour in national polls – wanted to conclude swift campaigns before Parliament’s summer recess and for any political pain from the by-elections to be short and sharp.

    But if Ms Dorries keeps her party waiting, she could force them into a potentially divisive by-election later on – for example, ahead of the autumn party conference season.”

  • I do not think there will be a by election at all, Nadine may have realised what she will lose by resigning and my gut feeling is that she will stay till the General.
    We should switch and concentrate our resources on Selby, we have more Councillors in North Yorkshire than Labour and it is an area well set amongst some good areas for ourselves, York, Hull, Harrogate, Sheffield, even Leeds. We could get a result there and if there is a good swing from the Cons to ourselves it could be a 3 way marginal.

  • Peter Martin 14th Jun '23 - 11:53am

    There was an article on LDV recently about how the Lib Dems weren’t just a party of the “leafy suburbs”. I must say that was news to me. There are probably lots of leaves in Tiverton and Honiton where the Lib Dems won in June of last year. Not quite so many in Erdington, Birmingham where the Lib Dems just about managed to scrape 1% of the vote.

    Counting the number of leaves in each constituency is probably not the worst way of assessing Lib Dem prospects.

    I’m not sure how many leaves there are in Uxbridge and South Ruislip. But, anyway, if you say it doesn’t matter, why not have a full tilt at it? The Labour Party isn’t offering anything in return for your keeping out of the constituency in any case.

  • St Albans by election yesterday, headline Green gain from Lib Dem but actually the Green vote percentage vote was down compared to when it was last fought and the Lib Dems are much closer this time.

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