Posts Tagged ‘Party politics and elections’

Majoritarianism reinterpreted: why Parliament is more influential than often thought

Despite Westminster often being seen as lacking the teeth to affect government policy, Felicity Matthews writes that this is not the case. She argues that reforms to shift the balance between government and parliament have served to offset the declining vote basis of government, and have ensured that Westminster remains responsive to a majority of the electorate through the legislative process.

In the Hansard Society’s latest Audit of Political Engagement, a record 73% of respondents agree that Westminster’s Parliament is ‘essential to democracy’. Yet within the very same survey, only 32% are satisfied with the way Parliament works and only 28% believe that it encourages public involvement in politics. A number of academic commentators have also cast doubt upon Parliament’s credentials, with some regarding it as ‘either peripheral or totally irrelevant’; and within comparative scholarship, the House of Commons is frequently derided as lacking the clout of its continental counterparts.

Yet, this is one side of the story, and a number studies have challenged the image of parliamentarians as mere lobby fodder within an executive-dominated chamber. Within the Commons, the increased rate of parliamentary rebellions has been cited as evidence of the loosening bonds of party discipline; and within the Lords, the way in which votes have become increasingly closely fought has been seen as evidence of ‘a revival of bicameralism’. Other studies have challenged the portrayal of select committees as toothless entities by drawing attention to their direct impact and indirect influence upon government and its legislation. Similarly, bill committees have been shown to provide a range of opportunities for members to debate with ministers and influence policy.

It is therefore clear that Parliament matters: on the floor of the House and along the corridors of committee rooms, parliamentarians have at their disposal a range of means through which they can affect the outcomes of the legislative process. Yet by focusing solely on the dispersal of office payoffs, and the disproportional benefits enjoyed by an election’s plurality winners, much existing scholarship has overlooked the alternative means through which non-government parliamentarians can achieve policy payoffs.

My recent article in Parliamentary Affairs responds to this lacuna, to correct the way in which Westminster’s Parliament has been misunderstood within comparative political science. To do so, I draw upon the path-breaking work of G. Bingham Powell, who sought to systematically identify the institutional opportunities for opposition influence via an ‘index of effective representation’. Underpinning this index is a distinction between ‘proportional’ and ‘effective’ representation, which dovetails with the distinction between office payoffs and policy payoffs detailed above.

Yet, according to Powell’s analysis, the UK remains an exemplar of executive dominance. This is because by associating committee strength with ‘the ability of a committee to modify legislation, perhaps even introduce legislation of its own’, Powell’s analysis does not account for the many different ways in which committees can exert influence upon the actions of government. Indeed, in his analysis, the UK is criticised for its ‘weak, rubberstamp committees’.

To address this, my article adopts a broader understanding of legislative capacity and develops a series of alternative measures. This includes a new scoring scheme to capture the institutional dynamics of a committee system, focusing on features such as correspondence with the functions of the executive, the proportional distribution of chairs and members, independent selection procedures, and commonly agreed core functions. Together, these modifications enable a more nuanced analysis of the quality of Westminster democracy that not only moves beyond binary distinctions between ‘government’ and ‘opposition’, but also acknowledges the importance of executive oversight as a form of opposition influence.

Applied to Westminster, this refined index demonstrates that reforms to ‘shift the balance’ between government and parliament have significantly expanded the opportunities for opposition influence within the legislature. In particular, the strengthening of the institutional basis of select committees has been critical in providing partial redress to the concentration of office payoffs. Yet, whilst tempering the assumption that the allocation of electoral spoils is zero-sum and exclusionary, these findings show that both office and policy payoffs are still disproportionately dispersed.

My analysis therefore moderates the (implicitly negative) portrayal of Westminster as an exemplar of majoritarianism. Comparative scholarship has cast Westminster’s Parliament as feeble, lacking the teeth to affect the activities of the executive. However, the primacy given to the function of legislative scrutiny has resulted in an inherent misunderstanding of Parliament’s role as a chamber of executive oversight, which in turn neglects the ways in which the structures of Westminster have been configured to realise this function. My analysis also challenges the assumption that the election is the ‘decisive stage’ in majority formation, as it is clear that these structures provide the conditions for ongoing negotiation and trade-off between the two branches of government: features typically associated with the ‘consensus’ version of democracy. Finally, and in the context of the democratic dissatisfaction detailed above, my analysis underlines the potential of electoral reform and institutional reform to enhance both the proportionality and quality of democratic representation.


Note: the above draws on the author’s work published in Parliamentary Affairs.

About the Author

Felicity Matthews is Senior Lecturer in the Department of Politics at the University of Sheffield.



All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Pixabay (Public Domain).

How to make a coalition work: rhetoric lessons from the 2010-15 government

How was it that the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition lasted for a full five-year-term? Although the formal and informal machinery of resolving disputes was important, rhetorical strategies also mattered, writes Judi Atkins. She explains how by invoking values, goals, the ‘national interest’ and a common enemy, the Coalition not only endured but appealed to multiple audiences as well.

Following the shock result of the September 2017 German federal election, Angela Merkel’s conservatives engaged in coalition talks first with the Free Democratic Party and the Greens, and then with the Social Democrats (SPD). The parties to these negotiations needed to be willing to compromise in order to form a government, but they also had to preserve their electoral viability. This tension is known as the ‘unity-distinctiveness dilemma’, and it is particularly acute for the junior coalition partner. Indeed, the SPD’s initial reluctance to enter into a third grand coalition with the CDU/CSU stemmed from the fear that the larger party would once again take the credit for their ideas, and so cost them support. Unless these concerns are addressed, SPD members are likely to reject the deal and Germany would face a second election within months.

How, then, can (prospective) governing partners manage the competing dynamics of unity and distinctiveness that pervade coalition bargaining? My book Conflict, Co-operation and the Rhetoric of Coalition Government addresses this question using a modified version of Kenneth Burke’s ‘new rhetoric’. According to Burke, identification is achieved when a speaker persuades an audience that they share common interests, and this in turn promotes co-operation. From this starting point, I distinguish three forms of identification and division at work within coalition politics. They are: ideological, which is concerned with values; instrumental, which is founded on political expediency; and interpersonal, which centres on the relations between individuals or groups. The framework is applied across the life cycle of the 2010-15 Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition, and this analysis yields a number of lessons for other multi-party governments.

The formation of the Coalition was facilitated by the ideological overlaps between Conservative modernisers and the Orange Book Liberal Democrats. While this enabled them to co-operate effectively in areas such as higher education and foreign policy, the parties’ ideological proximity made it difficult for the Liberal Democrats to preserve their distinctive identity. Differentiation is almost always a problem for the smaller party, but it is important for maintaining public trust. Consequently, the smaller party in a future coalition must be wary of sacrificing too many of its core values for the sake of government unity.

The attainment of ideological identification will be more difficult for some (potential) governing partners than others. Instrumental identification may prove invaluable here, as it affords an alternative means of finding common ground. For David Cameron and Nick Clegg, it enabled them to present the Coalition as the embodiment of a ‘new politics’ that placed the national interest before partisan concerns, and would give Britain the strong, stable government it needed. The case of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government also highlights the power of appeals to the ‘national interest’ in quelling dissent over matters such as the allocation of ministerial portfolios, as MPs risk appearing self-interested if they openly criticise the leadership at such an early stage.

Credit: Mark Hillary, CC BY 2.0

Alongside these strategies, senior Coalition figures employed identification through antithesis to unite their parties in opposition to Labour. This was the function of the deficit narrative, in which immediate reductions in public spending were portrayed as consistent not only with the Coalition’s commitments to freedom and responsibility, but with the leadership’s conception of the ‘national interest’. Meanwhile, Britain’s problems were blamed on the previous Labour government, whose allegedly reckless spending had destroyed the economy and necessitated the Coalition’s austerity programme.

However, there was a danger that the Liberal Democrats’ willingness to reproduce this narrative would come back to haunt them if the 2015 general election produced a hung parliament with Labour as the largest party. That Ed Miliband reportedly ruled out a deal with the Liberal Democrats if Clegg remained as leader suggests that sustained, aggressive attacks on the Opposition should be left mostly to the larger party, as the junior partner may later be confronted by the prospect of coalition talks with the former adversary.

The analysis also calls attention to the importance of interpersonal identification in coalition politics. Although Cameron and Clegg maintained a good working relationship on the whole, there were deep-seated tensions between the Prime Minister and sections of his parliamentary party. This was evident in relation to Europe, as some Conservative backbenchers were unable to forgive Cameron for breaking his promise to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.

Cameron’s difficulties were compounded by the suspicion among his MPs that the Party had compromised their principles and made too many concessions to the Liberal Democrats. While some doubts are inevitable, they can be mitigated if senior figures consult their parliamentary parties. Unlike the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats held several meetings and their MPs were able to read the text of the Interim Coalition Agreement. The benefits of this were clear, as it ‘helped the Liberal Democrat leadership through all the tribulations of the Coalition that the party voted strongly to endorse it in the first place’. By giving their MPs a stake in a future partnership, party leaders can reduce internal tensions and so smooth the process of coalition governance.

Despite early predictions to the contrary, and conflicts over issues such as constitutional reform and Europe, the Coalition endured for a full five-year term. Although the establishment of formal and informal machinery for resolving disputes was undoubtedly important, it is perhaps not too much of a stretch to suggest that rhetorical strategies also played a role in keeping the partnership together. By invoking values, goals, the ‘national interest’ and a common enemy, senior Coalition figures were able to invite identification on a variety of grounds, and so to appeal to multiple audiences.

Beyond the formation stage, this approach may have created the possibility of the basis of identification changing over time. So, an individual who initially identified with the Coalition’s ideological commitments may later have come to identify primarily with its antipathy towards Labour. It is likely that the provision of several grounds for identification contributed to the longevity of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat partnership, and indeed that the use of similar rhetorical strategies would be similarly beneficial to the parties in future coalition governments.


Note: the above draws on the author’s latest book, which is available here.
About the Author

Judi Atkins is Senior Lecturer in Politics in the School of Humanities at Coventry University.  She is the author of Justifying New Labour Policy (2011) and Conflict, Co-operation and the Rhetoric of Coalition Government (2018), as well as several articles on the relationship between ideas, language and policy in British politics.


All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Many Labour MPs have still to unequivocally reject ‘roll-out’ neoliberalism

Chuka Umunna recently defended the last Labour government against a left-wing critique that its modus operandi was fundamentally neoliberal. Ewan Gibbs and Sean Kippin argue this does not consider the nature of neoliberalism, particularly the distinction between its ‘roll-back’ and ‘roll-out’ variants. They argue that New Labour’s approach was indeed of the latter type.

Chuka Umunna, one of the more high profile Labour MPs who have remained on the back benches under Jeremy Corbyn, recently reflected in The Independent on how Labour’s various factions relate to neoliberalism. He rejected the notion that Corbyn’s leadership represented a sea change in Labour’s economic policy. Instead, Umunna signposted the role that Ed Miliband’s leadership played in orientating Labour towards social democratic sensibilities, implicitly including his role as former Shadow Business Secretary.

Large parts of Labour’s current programme do indeed fit within the social democratic mainstream, or are carry-overs from Miliband’s leadership. This includes the party’s advocacy of a National Investment Bank, a higher rate of income tax for the top 5% of earners, and a focus on lowering the cost of higher education (particularly for undergraduates in England). Despite talk of widespread nationalisations, this agenda has been restricted to those areas where the transfer of public assets into the private sector has proven particularly unpopular – such as in the case of rail – or have come relatively recently – such as in the case of the Coalition’s mismanaged sale of the Royal Mail.

Yet, there are some crucial differences in emphasis and the strategic purpose of the Corbyn programme compared with Miliband’s. Public ownership is couched in terms of discussing democratic and cooperative ownership models, whilst worker empowerment is far more pronounced than under Miliband. Corbyn’s Labour holds out the promise of scrapping Thatcher-era anti-union legislation. It promises a government more prepared to support workers against big business than either the lukewarm responses of the Blair and Brown government or Miliband’s opposition. It seems unimaginable that Corbyn (or indeed Richard Leonard in Scotland) will be caught in a Miliband-style “these strikes are wrong” quagmire. So although Umunna’s overall assessment of the relatively modest nature of Labour’s current programme has some validity, it does miss key elements of the democratising challenge to economic elites which has helped Corbyn climb the polls.

New Labour and neoliberalism

However, Umunna went further and disputed the notion that New Labour was characterised by the administration of neoliberalism. His definition of neoliberalism accords with much of the ‘common sense’ understanding of Thatcherism and its legacy: “At its bare bones, neoliberalism as a theory usually means favouring free trade, privatisation, minimal government intervention in business and reduced public expenditure on things like social services.” This is a ‘roll-back’ understanding of neoliberalism, one which entails the state withdrawing so as to allow the ‘creative destruction’ of market forces to maximize utility and generate collective prosperity.

Conservative governments under Thatcher and then John Major privatised state assets and industries, lowered taxes, and enforced budget cuts on central and local government. They abolished or reformed institutions which stood in the way of that agenda (including sectoral wage boards), and used the levers of the state to disadvantage institutions of working class solidarity, especially trade unions (but also cooperative societies).

But a reading of neoliberalism which relies only on crude ‘roll-back’ stories misses the central role of the state in enabling and enforcing neoliberalising processes. Without state support in preparing assets for privatisation and then in creating and regulating the market, the utilities and rail would still be in public hands. Without repressive policing, the trade union movement would not have been sufficiently weakened to allow for relatively ‘free’ labour market in much of the private sector. Without a tacit acceptance that many former industrial workers were never going to work again (accomplished via the operation of sickness benefits), it is hard to imagine how deindustrialization could have been managed. Umunna uses this commonplace misunderstanding to justify New Labour as sufficiently separated from neoliberalism because of the increase in social security spending and very selective public ownership:

It is true that the last Labour government didn’t reverse many of the Tory privatisations that went before it, preferring to prioritise investment in schools and hospitals. But it nationalised Northern Rock bank and took 81 per cent and 43 per cent stakes in RBS and Lloyds banks respectively at the height of the financial crisis of 2008/09 in order to maintain a functional banking system.

What is missing from such an understanding is that neoliberalism is fundamentally a state-enforced transfer of wealth and power from the population at large to financialised big business – a project that continued and thrived under New Labour. Umunna uses the example of bailing out Britain’s financial institutions to justify the case that New Labour departed from the neoliberal orthodoxy. But. taken in conjunctions with record low interest rates to preserve asset values, how else could a transfer of public money to the financial sector on a record scale be described? This was in fact a key example of neoliberalism in action, and fatally undermines Umunna’s case.

Neoliberalism also has a second aspect, beyond “rolling back the frontiers of the state”. Jamie Peck and Adam Tickell pioneered the concept of roll-out neoliberalism which involves aggressive attempts to involve the private sector in the provision of public services whilst encouraging the population’s dependency on wage labour and market forces. In short, the neoliberal agenda moved from one defined by the discrediting of Keynesian economic policies and institutions, and the generous welfare states that sat alongside them, to a form which ‘one focused on the purposeful construction and consolidation of neoliberalized state forms, modes of governance, and regulatory relations’. It is here where Umunna’s defence of New Labour falls flat.

How else could one describe policies such as PFI, in which the New Labour government partnered with large private sector companies, on highly disadvantageous terms according to the National Audit Office, to deliver those egalitarian priorities which Umunna references, namely the improvement of schools and hospitals. Similarly, Labour advocated the wholesale involvement of the private sector in the English NHS, supported corporate sponsors of Academy Schools, backed the lamentable proposed public private partnership for the London Underground, and pushed the contracting out of employment support services. In multiple policy areas, New Labour went further than the Conservatives ever did in seeking to build an institutional apparatus which transferred wealth from the public purse to large corporations.

The distinction between ‘roll-back’ and ‘roll-out’ neoliberalism allows us to reconcile the egalitarian ‘big state’ agenda of the New Labour period. The party was committed (no doubt genuinely) to the abolition of child poverty, the improvement of schools, and the abolition of pensioner poverty – but combined these with many policies of a neoliberal character. Often framed in terms of ‘making work pay’, this policy line prevailed even where it meant the state subsidising the low wages that the operation of liberalised labour market provided. New Labour’s brand of neoliberalism departed from Thatcherism chiefly in the scale of its ambition; it pursued big state, rather than small state neoliberalism.

Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party divides opinion. From the soft-left rightwards many remain to be convinced by the virtues of a less managerialist, more full-blooded socialist policy offer. However, those wedded to Labour’s recent past record in government are likely to find events overtaking them. Politically, the notion that the private sector knows best was never truly popular and is now looking increasingly incredible. The Carillion collapse follows on from the Olympic Games G4S catastrophe and the Southern Cross care homes failure. In the meantime, both the Department for Work and Pensions’ flagship Work Programme, the privatisation of probation services, and the East Coast mainline bailout show the intellectual bankruptcy of this approach. Labour politicians would be wise to relinquish their party’s past attachment to the politics of roll-out neoliberalism.


About the Authors

Ewan Gibbs lectures in Sociology and Social Policy at the University of the West of Scotland.



Sean Kippin is the Assistant Editor of the LSE British Politics and Policy Blog, and a Doctoral Candidate and Associate Lecturer at the University of the West of Scotland. His research centres on the Co-operative Party and its relationship with New Labour.



All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science. Featured image credit: Marco Verch/ CC BY 2.0


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