I was catching up on my podcasts recently and I came across an interview with Robert Rogers, the new Clerk of the House of Commons, on Radio 4′s Westminster Hour.
He has an interesting, possibly unique, perspective being very much a Commons insider, he is one of the chaps in grey wigs who sit in front of the Speaker when the House is in session, but also, by definition, being neutral and outside of the party political arena. In the interview he had insights into how the role of an MP has changed over the past thirty years, the nature of MP’s “summer holidays”, and what changes could be made to improve legislative scrutiny.
However, the part of the interview that gave me most pause for thought was the answer he gave in response to Carolyn Quinn’s question asking “Has a coalition government changed the way the House works?”.
In the run up to the last election the possibility of a balanced parliament had obviously given the Common’s authorities considerable pause for thought. Their experience of minority governments or governments with small majorities in the past suggested there may be problems. The 74 parliament had passed very little legislation for example. But, he claims,the changes haven’t been as big as might be expected. He said;
“…once the coalition had formed what we had was, in terms of the way the House works, really quite a conventional majoritarian government. Clearly of course there are political pressures and tensions which are for others to deal with, but in terms of the operation of the house it really made very little difference.”
I find this statement fascinating and challenging.
Liberal Democrat members and supporters are having a difficult time navigating through this new political landscape of coalition government. The angst and emotions that this creates has been amply on display across the blogosphere over the last few weeks.
So if we accept that the above statement is true, and it comes from a very reliable witness, then it might provide a useful insight to help us find our bearings.
As separate political parties the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives will jockey for position, votes, and public understanding on the doorsteps and the airwaves. As coalition partners they will battle within government, up and down the corridors of Whitehall, over policy. Sometimes this will be in public and other times in private. But in Parliament (or at least in the House of Commons, the Lords being somewhat different) it seems that they are together acting as a government majority according to convention.
This truth might help us understand why they end up voting the way they do. Balancing the demands of such a multifaceted role is going to be tricky. So whatever we think of the results , I think we should have some sympathy for Liberal Democrat MPs and ministers as they struggle to get it right.
I described in another post I wrote about goings on in Parliament an example of “a Liberal Democrat government minister behaving like a government minister”. That is to say politicians working within the establishment following establishment norms and values. I ended by asking “Is this inevitable? And if it is, is it such a bad thing?”
But it seems we might have to ask those questions in a much wider context. Do we expect the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party to operate as part of a “conventional majoritarian government”? Coalition seems to have changed how the internal workings of government operate, at least to some extent. But if it hasn’t changed how Parliament works, we need to ask why not?
We also need to decide whether we think it should have done.
My impression is that since the 2010 election Parliament is getting stronger, more robust and challenging, and we’re taking steps closer to the kind of parliamentary democracy that I would like to see. Yet that process has very little to do with the nature of the coalition.
Am I alone in thinking we may have missed an opportunity here?