Parliament and the UK – An Out-dated System

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Understanding of the history of democracy in the UK stretches back to various points depending on one’s personal parameters or requirements. One could say it was the development of the English Parliament from the Royal Council after the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215. Others say true democracy did not exist until after the Civil War and the subsequent undermining of the power of the Monarchy in 1649. Equally, it was not until the Parliament Act of 1911 that elected Members of Parliament (hereafter MPs) were granted constitutional supremacy over their appointed counterparts. Parliament has been constantly evolving, and this article will argue how it is time for Parliament to evolve once more, only this time on a much bigger scale. Quite simply, this article will demonstrate contradictions and paradoxes in the development of Parliament up to this point which this writer believes at least contribute to, if not account for all of, the problems and complaints of our democracy today.

Parliament, as we come to understand it in its UK representative bicameral form, did not emerge until 1801 after the Act of the Union. At this time, suffrage was exclusive to land owning males, and constituency sizes were so varied as to include ‘the borough of Old Sarum’ which had a mere seven voters but could elect two MPs. MPs in the House of Lords were allowed to practically own seats in the Commons, and MPs were not paid meaning no poor man could afford to stand, land owning or otherwise. The role of Parliament was to be an advisory body to the Government, in those times dominated by a single Monarch.

There were just two ‘political parties’ in the original Parliament who, importantly, had developed from loose groupings within Parliament. Until 1784, the two parties, so named ‘Whigs’ and ‘Tories’, had simply been what one might call ‘parliamentary associates’. In the 1800s, definite ideologies of Liberalism and Conservatism began to develop, spurring the tightening of associations into properly organised political parties. However, Parliament had not been designed for such strong party groupings. Instead, the initial relations of Constituents to Parliament was directly of Constituents to MPs; the MP was elected specifically and personally, in-so-far as it is likely that he would have known every single voter, by the electorate of his constituency to directly represent their views and concerns in Parliament. With such a small electorate per MP and such a close link between them, it was representative democracy in as near a perfect form as the Greeks would have had it themselves.

The formation of tighter relations between groups of MPs into definite parties caused a paradox for democracy in the UK – a once representative system was no longer representing the electorate of each constituency as Parliament had been designed to do, but was representing the two party ‘lines’. In some cases the two interests, those of an MP’s electorate and those of the party, clashed, and whilst initially MPs kept with the promises and pledges made to those who elected them, many more ambitious MPs soon realised that they would have to appease members higher up in the party if they were ever to realise their own dreams, and thus the term ‘following the party line’ was adopted into practise.

The two groupings-cum-parties operated within a two party system – where one party was in government, that which returned the most MPs, which was of course always over 50% of total MPs, and one in opposition. The electoral system was the First Past the Post system, and more often than not with a choice of no more than two candidates ‘the post’ was 50% of the vote. By the time that universal suffrage had been achieved for all men in 1918 and women by 1925, the situation had developed further and created new problems. The formation and rise of the Labour Party, to add to the now Conservative (Tory) and Liberal (Whig) parties, created a third party in a two party system. This meant that elections were now no longer won by the most popular party achieving over 50% of the popular vote, but the least unpopular party who managed to ascertain over 50% of the seats. Mathematically this could possibly even be achieved by the party coming second in the popular vote. [1] Alongside universal suffrage, MPs were now paid for their work meaning poorer members of the electorate could stand for election to parliament. Now the situation arose that multiple candidates were standing in each constituency, but none of them were getting close to the once previously needed 50% vote threshold. The least worst candidates were being returned to Parliament where the declared government was seldom exceeding achieving 40% of the popular vote. [2]

The constitutional changes post-Civil War effectively reduced the Monarchy to a constitutional role, meaning that all the power once held by the reigning Monarch was now in the hands of the House of Commons, and therefore the Prime Minister. What happened was the creation of something of an elected dictator in the position of Prime Minister who now not only controlled the Commons, but Government, and the ability to appoint his own party members to take control of the Lords.

By this time, the Whip system had been strengthened from the initial days of party politics, and MPs were being, one might say, ‘Whipped’ into line by their party into voting as the party instructs over and above any concern their constituents might have. The circular that the Whip sends to all party members contains what amounts to voting instructions for each vote for every member of the party to follow. The nature of the open ballot in Parliament means that disobeying the Whip in secret is completely impossible and openly punishable. What kind of democratic system punishes MPs for voting with their conscience or constituents’ interest instead of their party’s? The modern accusations of MPs not representing their constituents and parties being far removed from the concerns of the people must surely stem directly from this Whip dominance.

Is it not the case that the Westminster Parliamentary system was designed as a two party, even so looser associations than parties, system with links foremost to constituents, and secondary to the party? Undoubtedly. Is this still the case? Far from it. The workings of the system have changed drastically from the conditions and ideas under which Parliament was set up. Although Parliament has evolved to include universal suffrage and diversified the MPs, the fact of the matter is that our Parliamentary system is not designed for 21st Century politics, and needs major changes in order to be so.

Article by Patrick English. Edited by David Jeffery.

Sources and Further Reading

[1], [2] – www.electionresources.org.uk

www.historylearningsite.co.uk

www.parliament.co.uk

‘Prime Minister and Cabinet Government’ – Neil MacNaughton. 1999.

‘Constitutional History of England since the Accession of George the Third’ – Thomas Erskine Farnborough, 1st Baron. 1896.