What is the role of whips in British politics?
Learn more about general elections and terms in parliament
The Royal Family are a staple of British public life. Whilst many are familiar with the various exploits of the younger Windsors, the Queen’s constitutional role is less well-known. Here it shall be Put Simply.
Campaign Agent Danny Akinbisehin spoke to former Education Secretary Nicky Morgan about life as an MP
The House of Lords is the upper chamber of Parliament, currently composed of 805 individuals, none of whom have been elected. All these people have either been appointed by the monarch, are the current holders of a hereditary peerage or are one of 26 senior Church of England bishops. Although it was established in the 1300s, there have long been calls for the abolition of the House of Lords, which have intensified in recent decades. But what are the arguments in favour of retaining the House of Lords and what are the arguments against?
- Peers don’t have to worry about their own popularity
As the House of Lords is not elected, some argue that this means its members are free to vote for what they think is right, without having to worry about being defeated at the next election. This leads to better decisions being made as peers are able to focus on the long term impact of a policy rather than its impact on their own electoral fortunes.
- Legislation would be of a poorer quality without it
It is often argued that the primary benefit of the House of Lords is how it allows experts in certain fields to use their expertise to critique legislation. However, if they were required to stand for election, they may choose not to, as many of them already have other jobs that mean they don’t have the time to campaign. This would lessen the quality of the legislation, as the experts would be replaced by professional politicians who wouldn’t bring as much knowledge to the debates on bills.
- The House of Lords is undemocratic
The main argument against the existence of the House of Lords is that it is undemocratic. It is an unelected body which, on occasion, forces the elected House of Commons to back down, which critics view as profoundly undemocratic. They say that anyone with a say in the legislative process should be an elected representative, which peers are not.
It is too old fashioned
Many say that the upper chamber, which is admittedly around 700 years old, has no role in modern society. They argue that the existence of a 92 strong contingent of hereditary peers is at odds with meritocracy, as it guarantees a large group of people the ability to vote on the passage of legislation because of their lineage. It is also argued that the house is an unneeded remnant of the days when people were appointed to it as a form of patronage, which is out of touch with modern society.
Reforming the House of Lords?
In the vast debate about the House of Lords, there are also those who believe that it shouldn’t be abolished, but reformed instead. The main suggestion of reform is that the House of Lords should switch from being appointed to being elected, which would effectively ‘democratise’ the chamber. Abolishing hereditary peers is another idea commonly put forward, as well as taking away the right of peers to vote on legislation, and reducing their role to simply scrutinising bills. However, although there have been many alterations to the House of Lords since 1997, the proposals to overhaul it in 2012 were eventually scrapped, as they were too unpopular to get through the House of Commons, showing how difficult it is to actually reform the chamber.
The Chancellor and Under-Treasurer of the Her Majesty’s Exchequer and Second Lord Commissioner of the Treasury is commonly known as The Chancellor of the Exchequer, who is the head of the Treasury with full responsibility for all Economic and Financial policy matters in the United Kingdom. The current Chancellor is Philip Hammond. The main duty of the Chancellor is to create the yearly governmental budget which details how the yearly revenues will be collected and distributed to the many governmental departments of Whitehall. This departmental distribution is the expenditure of the public sector throughout the year which is in line with government policy.
Until the 20th Century, it was not uncommon for a Prime Minister to be his own Chancellor of the Exchequer and/or other cabinet positions. Many examples of this can be given including Sir Robert Walpole the first Prime Minister who served as both PM and Chancellor for his entire 21-year term. Other examples include Lord North, William Pitt the Younger and William Ewart Gladstone. Gladstone was also the last person to be both PM and Chancellor concurrently at times during his first and second Premierships. Stanley Baldwin was acting Chancellor while PM when he took over leadership following the sudden resignation of his predecessor Bonnar Law due to ill health before he could make a replacement.
Tradition dictates that before the budget is delivered in the House of Commons, the Chancellor presents his ministerial red box containing the budget to the gathered public and press as he stands in Downing Street before travelling to Westminster. The original budget box was used continuously between 1860-1965 when it entered semi-retirement until George Osbourne’s first budget in 2010 when he announced it would enter full retirement due to its age and condition.
Another tradition is known as the budget tipple. This is when the chancellor is able to drink whatever they like while the deliver the budget, including alcohol which is otherwise banned in the chamber. Past examples are Whiskey drank by Ken Clarke Gin and Tonic by Geoffrey Howe and Brandy and Water by Benjamin Disraeli. Modern Chancellors since 1997 have chosen water instead.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer also has a robe of office which used to be worn during the delivery of the budget. These days this robe is normally only worn during the coronation of a new monarch. The robe worn is a black silk damask robe of state with a long train trimmed with gold lace and frogging. The modern robe as worn by previous Chancellors like Lloyd-George and Churchill is said to have ‘gone missing’ during the Gordon Browns time in the treasury.
The Labour Party has been at war with itself ever since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader – although 59% of Labour members voted for him in the last leadership contest, less than 40 Labour MPs supported him out of a total of 232. So how did he become leader in the first place and how does the Labour Party function? Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader in 2015, the first time that the new leadership election rules had been used. Under the old system, a candidate had to be nominated by 12.5% of Labour MPs. There was also a three-way electoral college in place, whereby the votes of Labour MPs and MEPs comprised a third of the votes, with the votes of ordinary party members making up another third. The final third of votes came from people who were members of organisations affiliated to Labour, such as trade unions like Unite.
However, after a dispute surrounding the selection of the Labour candidate for a by-election, the rules were changed by Labour leader Ed Miliband. These new rules stated that, no matter what position they held within the party, the vote of every Labour members was worth the same, thereby abolishing the electoral college. The threshold for nominations was also raised, with prospective candidates now needing the backing of 15% of MPs to be allowed to run.
However, one more rule change was made, that had a massive impact on the Labour Party. Under the new rules, somebody could pay £3 to sign up as a Labour supporter, and consequently receive a vote in the leadership contest. More than 100,000 people took advantage of this new rule, with the vast majority of them voting for Jeremy Corbyn, helping him to win an unexpected victory.
Labour’s method of deciding policy has many components. The National Executive Committee (NEC) is the party’s main administrative body and decides on internal party rules. It used to have a major role in developing policies, but now official party policy is usually decided at the conference.
At the annual Labour Party Conference, delegates, from constituency Labour parties, trade unions and affiliated socialist societies, vote on proposals – motions voted for by more than two-thirds of delegates are to be included in the party manifesto.
The motions voted on at the conference are created by the National Policy Forum, a group of 186 people representing the many groups of the Labour Party, including shadow cabinet members, BAME Labour representatives and Labour MEPs amongst others.
Our Campaign Agent Cameron Broome met with Hilary Benn MP to discuss life as an MP, Brexit and the Labour Party.
What is PMQs?
Prime Minister’s Question Time, or PMQs as it is so often called, is a parliamentary session held weekly – each Wednesday from noon – to give the opposition leader, as well as other members from across the House of Commons, a chance to question the prime minister. The weekly event happens when parliament is in session, however, if the prime minister is away, for example on a foreign trip or attending a summit, another member of the government will take their place.
Currently, Jeremy Corbyn, as leader of the Labour party and opposition, questions the Prime Minister Theresa May, the most. Since the 2015 election, during which the SNP surged to take the third largest number of seats, pushing the Liberal Democrats aside, the party is a lot more present during the sessions.
PMQs holds the PM accountable!
The main argument in favour of PMQs is that the event allows the prime minister to be held accountable by the opposition and the public on a weekly basis. The event is now a public affair, broadcast live and often making the headlines into the evening. As a result, it’s a very public way of holding the government to account. Other parliamentary debates can also be viewed live, but PMQs is by far the most popular, allowing the prime minister and leader of the opposition to go head-to-head in the most public setting possible.
Questions are asked from across the house
Proponents of PMQs will say that a fundamental advantage of the event is that it allows for a range of questions to be asked to the prime minister, crucially from a range of different parties. Yes, the bulk of the questions are given to the leader of the opposition, however, other parties and MPs do get to have their word in. This is a strong advantage as it allows the government to be held accountable from a range of different political positions and ensures that the voices of smaller parties are heard in a publicly viewed setting.
It’s an outdated rabble
Even if you don't know much about PMQs it's likely you've heard it described as a "shouting match" or as "Punch and Judy politics". The spectacle gets such labels because it often descends into chaos, with cheering and jeering from both sides of the house. Jokes are often made at the expense of the prime minister or the questioner, making the whole thing seem a bit of a shambles and not fit for purpose in a 21st century leading democracy. As a result, this criticism adds to the idea that politics has a bad image. PMQs may be entertaining for the media and politico bubbles, but to the regular person it is often seen as a show, damaging the image of politics further.
Answers to questions are often avoided
Critics of PMQs are quick to point out that the prime minister at the time often avoids answering questions. This is a common accusation in politics, but one that is particularly striking in this case as PMQs is meant to be an opportunity for the House of Commons to ask the prime minister questions and get answers. When questions are brushed aside with rhetoric and jokes it arguably undermines the process of accountability, weakening the UK’s democracy and the link between the ordinary citizen watching and the government of the day.
Prime Minister May
Theresa May’s first session is remembered for her joke about “unscrupulous bosses” and her referring this to Jeremy Corbyn who at the time was being challenged for the leadership of his party. She is also said to have channelled Margaret Thatcher during her first session through her “remind him of anybody?” comment. The comparison was drawn by numerous newspapers at the time.
Corbyn’s first session: a new format?
When Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour party in 2015 he set out to forge a “kinder politics”, one that connects to ordinary people. In his first Prime Ministers Question Time (to David Cameron at the time) he mixed things up. Before his first session, he asked the public for questions, following which he claimed to have been sent 40,000 questions. During the Question Time, he asked Prime Minister Cameron a number of the questions he had been sent in an attempt to connect the people with the parliamentary process.
Thatcher’s three no’s:
One notable PMQs during Margaret Thatcher’s time as prime minister was when discussing the prospect of the European Commission having increased powers and her subsequent, now famous, “No. No. No.” statement:
“Yes, the Commission wants to increase its powers. Yes, it is a non-elected body and I do not want the Commission to increase its powers at the expense of the House, so of course we differ. The President of the Commission, Mr. Delors , said at a press conference the other day that he wanted the European Parliament to be the democratic body of the Community, he wanted the Commission to be the Executive and he wanted the Council of Ministers to be the Senate. No. No. No.”
Here is another famous exchange featuring Margaret Thatcher on inequality and growth:
Read our mythbuster on Thatcher's legacy here.
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With the Supreme Court ruling that the executive (the government) does not have the power to invoke Article 50 without the consent of the legislature (Parliament), there has been a lot of talk about ‘Parliamentary Sovereignty’. But what is this abstract principle, and does it exist today?
What does it actually mean?
Well, Parliament’s website tells us that “Parliamentary sovereignty is a principle of the UK constitution. It makes Parliament the supreme legal authority in the UK, which can create or end any law.”
So, whilst the UK does not have a written constitution (learn more about the constitution, here), Parliamentary Sovereignty is often considered to be the key feature of our uncodified constitution. This means that Parliament is, or should be, the most powerful institution in the land.
Why is this important?
Earlier this month, the Supreme Court ruled that for Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty to be triggered by the government, an Act of Parliament must be passed to grant this power. Article 50 is the part of the Lisbon Treaty that sets out the procedure for any member state to leave the European Union. It states that ‘in accordance with its own constitutional requirements’, the member state should serve a notice of that intention and that the treaties which govern the EU “shall cease to apply” to that member state within two years thereafter.
This ruling has reaffirmed the status of parliamentary sovereignty, stating that “an Act of Parliament is required to authorise ministers to give Notice of the decision of the UK to withdraw from the European Union”. This denial of the use of the government’s prerogative powers (powers granted by the Crown to the Executive, that do not require parliamentary approval) has strengthened the position of Parliament, as the body of representatives in the United Kingdom.
Does the UK’s EU membership infringe on Parliamentary sovereignty?
There are plenty of arguments for and against the idea that the EU infringes on parliamentary sovereignty, many of which were thrown around during the referendum debate. Some argue that the European Communities Act (1972), the piece of legislation that allowed us to join the EU, and which gave EU laws superiority, damaged the principle of parliamentary sovereignty as it limited Parliament’s power to make or amend any law. For example, EU Regulations have a direct and immediate effect within the Member States, as soon as they’re adopted.
However, some have argued that there is a clear distinction between the pragmatic meaning of sovereignty and the symbols of sovereignty. Modern sovereignty, as described by David Cameron, "really means: are you able to get things done? Are you able to change things, to fix things?”. Some suggest that the EU has only enhanced this ability in an increasingly transnational society.
For more on these two debates, try these articles:
- (Anti-EU) Telegraph: What would Brexit mean for British sovereignty? http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/05/19/how-does-the-eu-impinge-on-british-sovereignty-and-if-the-uk-vot/
- (Pro-EU) Financial Times: Pooled sovereignty has advanced national goals. https://www.ft.com/content/169fa2a2-2eee-11e6-a18d-a96ab29e3c95
By Editor-in-Chief Cameron Broome
What is the Brexit White Paper?
Essentially, the Brexit white paper is a lengthy legal document giving greater clarity on Theresa May’s Brexit plans. Initially, May was reluctant to provide a “running commentary” on Brexit plans, fearing that Britain’s bargaining power in EU negotiations following the triggering of Article 50 might be diminished. May was later forced to produce the 75-page long document due to pressure from the House of Commons. It builds on the 12 principles set out in May’s Brexit speech last month.
Key points from the Brexit White Paper
Britain will leave the single market (read our PPS on the single market here). By freeing itself from the customs union, Britain can begin to negotiate free trade deals with other countries. The document states that high-growth economies such as China, India and Brazil are early targets for free trade deals (note: these countries are no longer “emerging” economies, rather they have “emerged” but are still growing at a high rate). Other targets include the US, New Zealand, Australia and the Gulf States. However, the paper also states that Britain will seek the “most frictional trade possible” in goods and services with the EU.
Specifically, in terms of financial services, the paper states that there is a “legitimate interest in mutual cooperation arrangements that recognise the interconnected of markets”. For example, the paper points out the 75% of the EU’s capital market business is conducted through the UK.
Currently, 2.8 million EU nationals live in the UK. Theresa May has yet to give any certainty as to the continued rights of these citizens. Instead, May wants to secure the reciprocal rights for the 1 million Brits living in the rest of the EU. She has been criticised by both former “Remainers” and “Brexiteers” alike for using EU nationals residing in the UK as political bargaining chips.
However, the paper states that the “Government would have liked to resolve this issue ahead of the formal negotiations. And although many EU Member States favour such an agreement, this has not proven possible”.
In essence, the paper gives little details on what Britain’s specific post-Brexit immigration policy will be. Instead, it states that they “are considering very carefully the options that are open to use to gain control of the numbers of people coming to the UK from the EU”. The paper states that “genuine” students will still be welcomed. In addition, parliament will play an “important role” in shaping the new system. The paper also suggests there will be some transitional arrangements put in place (which could see the temporary continuation of the freedom of movement) in order to give businesses and individuals time to plan for the new immigration arrangements (the specifics of which remain unclear).
Defence and security
Recognising that crime and terror are not self-contained within imaginary political boundaries but are cross-border challenges, the paper indicated Britain will continue to collaborate with the EU in the fighting of terrorism and crime. In addition, the paper suggested that Britain would continue to support the possibility of more sanctions on countries such as Russia if that was deemed to be in the interests of Europe.
In 1923, the Common Travel Area was set up concerning the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The Brexit white paper suggests that the UK will “aim to have as seamless and frictionless a border as possible between Northern Ireland and Ireland”. Note, it says it “aims” to have this and does not make any guarantees.
Avoiding a “cliff edge”
Any proposed plans will seek to give individuals and businesses time to prepare. Following the two-year formal exit process under Article 50, ministers will seek to have a “phrases process of implementation” before the full withdraw of EU regulations. By ruling out a “cliff edge” Brexit, May is trying to avoid financial market instability from the economic uncertainty caused by Brexit.
Further reading on the Brexit White Paper:
- Accessible BBC article: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-38836906
- Article by The Week: http://www.theweek.co.uk/brexit/65461/labour-hopelessly-divided-in-landmark-brexit-bill-vote
- Telegraph article: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/02/02/brexit-vote-theresa-may-publish-white-paper-setting-plansafter/
David Lloyd George:
On the House of Lords: “…a body of five hundred men chosen at random from amongst the unemployed.”
David Lloyd George was one of the 20th century’s most famous radicals. He was the first and only Welshman to hold the office of Prime Minister. He is remembered as a man of great energy and an unconventional outlook in character and politics. In 1890 he was elected Liberal MP for Caernarvon, aged 27. His scathing wit made him a dreaded - but respected - debating opponent in the House. In 1906 he was made President of the Board of Trade and became recognised as a very able politician. Herbert Henry Asquith later promoted him to Chancellor and he became one of the great reforming chancellors of the 20th century, introducing state pensions for the first time and declaring a war on poverty. In order to pay for wide-ranging social reform – one of his most controversial plans was his intention to tax land. Widely regarded as the man who won the war – DLG signed the 1919 treaty which established the (ultimately failed prerequisite to the UN) League of Nations. He was troubled by domestic problems, though. His agreement to the independence of the South of Ireland was reluctant, and he presided over a period of depression, unemployment and strikes. There were also concerns that he was eager for war in Turkey, and serious allegations that he had sold honours. As a result of the many scandals he had attracted, his popularity faded. When the Conservatives broke up the coalition, he handed in his resignation. Lloyd George remained a very controversial figure; his own party could not decide whether to support him or abandon him. He largely disregarded the problems facing the party, preferring to work for himself. As a result, one of the greatest Liberal leaders was also largely responsible for the party’s downfall. The Liberal party never formed the government again.
Andrew Bonar Law:
“If I am a great man, then a good many great men of history are frauds.”
Andrew Bonar Law was the Canadian-born son of a Scottish clergyman. He worked as a boy on his father’s smallholding and then, at age 12, he went to live with his late mother’s cousins, who were rich Glaswegian merchant bankers in Scotland. With an inheritance that gave him financial independence, Bonar Law entered politics. In 1900 he was elected Conservative MP for Glasgow Blackfriars. He had a reputation for honesty and fearlessness and was well regarded as an effective speaker. These qualities promoted him to Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade in 1902. He lost his seat in the 1906 Liberal landslide General Election, but he returned to represent Dulwich following a by-election later in the same year. Though hit hard by the death of his wife, he continued his political career and won the Conservative party leadership in 1911 as a compromise candidate. At the outbreak of war, he offered the government the support of the Conservatives in the coalition. Working closely with the Liberals caused Bonar Law to admire David Lloyd George to such a degree that he even declined the premiership in favour of Lloyd George’s appointment. Upon the Conservatives pulling out of the war-coalition, Bonar Law was invited to form a government – though he only lasted 209 days in office due to ill health.
By Editor-in-Chief Cameron Broome
According to YouGov polling, 60 per cent of British adults are against ‘reducing the voting age to 16 for all UK elections.’ So what are the arguments for and against lowering the voting age? It’s a complex topic but here the issue shall be Put Simply.
- Can pay taxes at 16 so only fair they are given a say in how taxes are spent
- Tackling political apathy: by empowering young people and engaging them in politics, they might be more likely to vote in the future and remain politically active
- Have most to lose (and gain) from decisions; deserve role in shaping their future
- Influence of school teachers at 16/17; 18 year olds have the knowledge to understand current affairs but are more likely to have developed their own views
- Young people are more likely to be naïve and idealistic; by 18, individuals have enough life experience to make better informed judgements about the world
- Although young people will be most affected by decisions, many adults are parents/grandparents who will consider future generations when voting anyway
What political parties and their leaders think
Theresa May, leader of the Conservative Party
- Generally voted against lowering the vote age (see specific voting record here)
Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the UK Labour Party
- Generally voted for lowering the voting age (see specific voting record here)
Tim Farron, leader of the Liberal Democrat Party (read more here)
- “My experience of visiting schools and chatting to young people has shown what a worthwhile cause this is. 16 and 17 year olds are as politically engaged and committed to making the difference as everyone else.”
- “I want the government to seriously look at Votes at 16 and see if we can give young people throughout the South Lakes the vote”
Paul Nuttall, United Kingdom Independence Party leader (read more here)
- “Sixteen-year-olds do not have enough life experience to make sound judgements when voting and consequently I am against reducing the age limit.”
- There is no doubt that young people should be encouraged to vote, after all today’s changes affect their tomorrows, but instead of lowering the age limit they should be properly educated about the relevance of politics to their lives,”
Nicola Sturgeon, leader of the Scottish National Party (read more here)
- "Giving 16 and 17-year-olds the vote for the independence referendum is widely seen as having been a huge success, which added to the unprecedented democratic engagement of the campaign and the massive turnout”
- "We want to make sure those same young adults now have the chance to vote in the next Scottish Parliament election, and have their say on how the country should be run”
It's worth noting that individuals in parties will have different views on the issue. There is no singular view and above is merely a reflection of the general attitudes of political parties.
The EU referendum
This issue was particularly contentious during the EU referendum campaign where 16 and 17 year olds were denied a vote. Although views ultimately depend upon the individual, research suggests that young people were more likely to vote to remain in the referendum. Hence, with a narrow winning margin of 52 to 48 per cent, allowing 16 and 17 year olds to vote could have altered the outcome of the EU referendum.
Below are the main functions of Parliament, all of which are fulfilled to some extent. We're providing the evaluation so you can create an informed opinion.
|Legislating||· Very thorough
· Committees make detailed amendments
· Efficient (w/ executive dominance) & bills passed with little opposition
· Bill is checked by 2 houses
· Lords have less partisan view
|· Long, convoluted drawn-out process
· Executive dominance in process (i.e. govt. majorities dominate)
· Subject to unelected bodies, like House of Lords
· Backbenchers struggle to raise PMBs.
|Accountability of government – Question Time||· PMQs is a regular test for Prime Minister, which increases scrutiny
· PM is forced to account for government’s spending/actions
· Gives backbenchers an opportunity to question PM
· All senior cabinet ministers are questioned roughly once a month
|· “Helpful” planted questions are a waste of time and don’t add to scrutiny
· MPs have a poor reputation for bad behavior (heckling)
· Limited opportunity for follow-ups.
|Accountability of government – Select Committees||· Scrutinize government policy
· Bill committees examine government legislation
|· Government has majority on committee
· No executive power (can criticize, but not change, policy)
|Accountability of government – Debates||· Allows government policy to be scrutinized and examined
· Causes government to have to explain itself
|· Poor attendance for many debates
· Often disorganized
|Accountability of government – the opposition||· ‘opposition days’ the opposition party can choose what to debate and scrutinize à criticize policy and/or offer alternative policy||· Sometimes they attack the government just for political point scoring
· Culture of opposition
|Representation||· Constituents elected the MPs
· Represent their constituents by:
· - Burkean View: own judgement on behalf of constituents
· - Doctrine of Mandate: serve constituents by toeing party line
|· House of Lords not elected; carries out no representative role; undermines democratic nature of parliament
· MPs and peers remain socially unrepresentative of larger society
|Legitimation||· Parliament ‘stands for’ the public. When it approves a measure, it feel like the public has approved it
· Parliamentary approval based on assumption that government’s actions have been properly debated/ scrutinized with problems exposed
|· House of Lords as no democratic legitimacy
· Respect for Parliament fading after scandals like ‘cash for questions’ and ‘cash for peerages’
· Executive has majority in parliament. Parliamentary sovereignty = executive sovereignty à elective dictatorship
|Recruitment of Ministers||· Ministers must be MPs
· Work their way up the ranks and gain understanding of how government works and policy formulation
|· Recruited from limited pool of talent, usually from largest party in the Commons
· Parliamentarians may acquire speechmaking skills and learn how to deliver soundbites, but don’t gain bureaucratic/management skills to run a government department
· Fewer and fewer ministers have experience of careers outside politics
|Reserve powers||· Ability to veto legislation
· Can dismiss government through vote pf no confidence due to accusations of extreme incompetence.
· 1978, James Callaghan’s Labour government following collapse of British government requiring IMF bailout
|· Reserve powers are rarely used
· Due to fact that governments will usually have majority support in the Commons
· Only minority governments can be removed by this method.