The democratic deficit – from the top down

Replace Parliament with EDDC and Executive with Cabinet [and backbenchers with Independents] and you have a dead-ringer for local politics too!

“Scrutiny of the executive

The prime minister’s active participation in parliamentary proceedings is a key mechanism for ensuring the accountability of the executive, but they have been less and less present in the Commons since the time of Thatcher and Blair. David Cameron’s attendances are limited to a 30 minute question time (PMQs) once a week when Parliament is sitting, occasional speeches in major debates, and periodic public meetings with the chairs of Select Committees in the new Liaison Committee.

More encouraging is recent research is showing that backbenchers used PMQs in 1997-2008 as a key public venue, with backbenchers often leading the agenda and breaking new issues that later grew to prominence. The current Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, has also routinely been using PMQs to ask questions sent in on email by the public, somewhat changing the tone of the session.

The ‘payroll vote’

Parliament’s independence vis-a-vis the executive has long been qualified by strong partisan loyalties amongst almost all MPs, who (after all) have spent many years working within parties before becoming MPs. The members of the government’s frontbench are expected to always vote with the executive, as are Parliamentary Private Secretaries (who are pseudo-ministers) The last official data in 2010 showed approximately 140 MPs affected. Unofficial estimates of the size of the payroll vote suggest that it was equivalent to well over a third of government MPs, by 2013. Given the smallish number of Conservative MPs in the 2015 Parliament the ratio will still be high. When Commons seats fall to 600, the prominence of the payroll vote will increase, unless government roles for MPs are cut back.

Dissent by backbench MPs

The coalition period marked not just a period of record dissenting votes by backbenchers against their party line, but also the extension of this behaviour to larger and more consequential issues. The cleavages inside the Conservative party between pro and anti-EU MPs are exceptionally deep. During the summer of 2016 the Cameron government backed off several controversial legislative proposals, and proposed an exceptionally anodyne set of bills in the Queen’s Speech, apparently to avoid straining party loyalties further in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum. The rise of serial backbench dissenter Jeremy Corbyn to be Labour leader has also created a serious gulf between his team and many of the Parliamentary Labour Party, which may reduce the cohesion of the main opposition party’s voting.


Public confidence in Parliament was very badly damaged by the expenses scandals of 2009, and trust in the House of Commons remains at a low ebb, despite some worthwhile but modest reforms in the interim, especially making Select Committees more effective in scrutinizing government. The Commons remains a potent focus for national debate, but that would be true of any legislature in most mature liberal democracies. There is no evidence that the UK legislature is especially effective or well-regarded, as its advocates often claim.

Five years of Coalition government 2010-15 (almost automatically) somewhat reduced executive predominance over Parliament. But it did not break traditions of strong executive control over the Commons. Tory divisions over the EU (plus the artificial exclusion of UKIP from Commons representation) have perpetuated backbench unrest after 2015. But these ameliorations of party discipline may still be termpoary. Structural reforms to make the Commons a more effective legislature, and to modernise ritualistic behaviours and processes, are still urgently needed.”