Why is Parliament so weak in relation to the executive?
The domination of the legislature, which includes Parliament, by the executive branch, which contains government, is a majorly important feature of the British political system. According to French philosopher Montesquieu, the lack of the separation of powers and, hence, the fusion of the executive and legislative branches (as, uniquely, in the UK) may lead to a large accumulation of power in one branch. Unlike the USA political system where these branches are kept strictly separate, there is excessive executive power which means that Parliament can be exposed as weak and powerless to the ruling party.
There are many factors that make Parliament look weak in relation to the executive including; the electoral system, the scrutiny of MP’s, and the power (if any) of the House of Lords. The first past the post electoral system allows governments in the UK to seemingly dominate Parliament without representing a very large proportion of the electorate. The system ensures that one party with win an absolute majority, which tends to be very large, and, hence, means that parliament is relatively powerless in contrast as the role of dissidents is limited which allows government to dominate.
The 1997 landslide victory of New Labour was only achieved with about 36% of the vote. This comparatively small percentage of the voting population gave the party a mammoth 197 seat majority after sitting on the other side of the chamber for 18 years. The huge numbers of seats in Parliament that were given to Labour meant that fair representation of political opinion was undermined hugely. Additionally, the majorities necessary for new laws would be a given if the party were behind their leader which in the case of Tony Blair was almost always the case.
It is in these ways that Parliament is made to look weak in relation to the executive. In theory, however, the flip side of a strong single-party government is that there are still enough seats left in Parliament to perform a critical checking role and for opposition parties to present themselves as a realistic alternative to the government of the day. This system also excludes extremist parties, such as the BNP, from representation in the legislature unless its electoral support is geographically strenuous; it is unlikely to win any seats under FPTP which is positive in order to prevent them from electoral legitimacy.
In any case the Commons have the ultimate power to remove the present government from office. Scrutiny of fellow MP’s is made difficult if one party dominates the House of Commons. MP’s have insufficient time and support to be able to call ministers to account effectively. MPs often lack the technical expertise to scrutinise legislation adequately and on the occasions that they do ask penetrating questions, the respondent usually has a response prepared and/or by civil servants.
In addition, poor timing of Opposition days might blunt impact which is why any attack on the present government must be carefully planned. In February 2010, the former bosses of the Royal Bank of Scotland were for three hours questioned vigorously by a select committee and they responded with both candour and courtesy. The committee members probed diligently enough but, not for the first time, they were outsmarted by expert witnesses with too much technical information at their disposal.
This proves that the understaffed and poorly resourced scrutinizers cannot do their job properly and, hence, also highlights how weak Parliament are in relation to the executive. However, MP’s are allowed freedom to ask questions in areas of special interest to them without having to worry about party whips. In Parliament, in the past, a number of important bills have been debated and published in draft, including Identity Cards and Mental Health Bills. In addition, whatever a minister proposes is subjected to Parliamentary scrutiny at some stage so will have to be viable with room for agreement from the entire Parliament.
Finally, constant debate ensures that even the ruling party is affected by what Parliament thinks even if this is not so obvious at first glance. The House of Lords’ lack of authority and powers means that the government can often avoid pretty much anything that it throws. The powers of the Lords are extremely limited by law as it has absolutely no power over financial matters and can’t veto legislation in the long term. Additionally, all amendments can be overturned and, like the Commons, the Lords have a limited role in developing legislation.
In 1997, Tony Blair abolished the honour of hereditary peerage but allowed the 92 hereditary peers to retain their seats before appointing a vast number of Labour peers into the House of Lords in order to make it even easier for him to gain a majority. The huge power of government is shown here and can be manipulated to make Parliament look weaker. However, when peers do vote against legislation then parliamentary gridlock can be created. This was certainly the case in 2007 where the House of Lords defied the general consensus in the Commons with 361 votes to 121 in favour of a 100% appointed House of Lords.
It is in this way that Parliament can stand up to the executive, whose party have a majority in Parliament, and force compromises by the government. This particular controversial case of rebellion has proved a success for the Lords as to this day Peers still have to be 100% appointed. In conclusion, it seems Parliament has been made to look powerless by government who can make use of the first past the post system and gain large majorities without large representation. Additionally, scrutiny directed at MP’s is easily combated with the brilliantly crafted answers of government.
Government has also become increasingly dominant thanks to further Lords reform by Tony Blair and the mere delaying of laws by which act as a thorn on legislation. However, it has to be said that Parliament has many ways in which it can reduce the ‘bullying’ it receives from the ruling party. The electoral system has obvious advantages that arguably improve Parliament’s role such as the ability to improve on scrutinising future laws and to offer better decisions than the ruling party.