How effective is Parliament as a check on the executive?

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How effective is Parliament as a check on the executive?

One of the main functions of Parliament is to hold the Government to account. This is done by forcing the Government to justify their policies and bills in the form of structured debate within the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Parliament also forces the Government to defend their actions, such as the decision to cut £81bn from public spending in the recent spending review. This Government decision will no doubt be debated in Parliament throughout the next few years.

One of the reasons why Parliament is so weak in relation to Government is party domination. In virtually every general election, one party will win over 50% of the seats and therefore have a majority. This means the governing party will get its way all the time. In recent times two parties have dominated – Labour and the Conservatives. The other parties, including the Liberal Democrats, are all weak by comparison. This is the most important factor for Parliament being weak in relation to Government. The British electoral system of first past the post benefits Labour and the Conservatives who win lots of seats, for the Liberal Democrats and the small parties FPTP does not benefit them at all, this is why the Lib Dems have campaigned for alternative vote (AV) which was a key part of the 2010 coalition agreement. The main problem the Lib Dems have is that they keep finishing second in constituencies. So despite a large share of the vote, they do not win many seats.

It is important to remember that 2010 is an exceptional election. The electoral system ensures that the most popular party has the most seats. In 1974 and 2010, this is not the case. Even though the Conservatives won the most seats, 307, they lacked an overall majority in Parliament. This meant they had to form a coalition with the Liberal Democrats (who won 57 seats) in order to have a majority in Parliament.

The main problem is that parties can win over half the seats with just a third of the vote. Labour’s election victory in 2005 saw them win 356 seats (out of 647) with just 36% of the vote. By comparison, the Conservatives and Lim Dems won 198 and 62 seats respectively with a similar share of the overall vote. With a majority of 64, Labour could never be defeated unless its own members voted against a bill. The party had majorities of 179 and 167 in 1997 and 2001.

Parliament is also weakened due to party loyalty. MP’s will stick up for their party even if it goes against their personal beliefs. At the 2010 Labour party conference which saw Ed Miliband elected party leader, Harriet Harman and several other Labour MP’s were applauding Miliband’s anti Iraq war comments even though they had voted in favour of the Iraq War in 2003.

The House of Commons is dominated by the governing party. Backbenchers within the governing party will usually tow the lie. They rarely speak out, criticise or rebel against Government policy even if they disagree with it. They will still vote for legislation they disagree with. Conservative and Lib Dem MP’s will support the coalition even if their proposal goes against their own beliefs. Several MP’s such as Bob Russell have openly disagreed with coalition policy, yet will still vote in favour of it as they want the coalition to succeed. If the coalition is divided it will favour the opposition.

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The Prime Minister also has a role to play, s/he chooses the ministers for the Government so they are loyal to him/her. The Prime Minister is the person who people want to be on the right side of because the PM can put them in the Government. Backbenchers do not want to be on the backbenches forever. They have inferior pay and status, which weakens their ability to influence decisions. Apart from Private Members Bills, they don’t make much difference. By agreeing with the Government, they are keeping their chances of joining the Government alive.

An ex Labour MP ...

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