To say that Ian Dunt’s latest treatise is scathing about our political institutions and the performance of its actors is an understatement. Nine elements of the system – most notably, the members, the role of prime minister, the electoral system, and the civil service – are each in turn scrutinised, with eight of them being found severely wanting. The one part of the system that comes in for praise is, ironically, the House of Lords – ironic because that would ostensibly seem the most anachronistic and least democratic part of the system.
Is the Commons fit for purpose?
A key theme of the book is Dunt’s criticism of how, over time, the executive has taken control of the legislature (the Commons) and emasculated it. Once a party has achieved a majority, it dominates the Commons via party discipline – enforced by the whipping system – and absolute control of the Commons timetable. Governments engage in too much legislation and enforced time pressure which means that most MPs are caught like rabbits in headlights.
Useless tradition fouls up the system. Dunt might have mentioned that the destruction of the Commons by the Luftwaffe in 1941 gave the opportunity to rebuild the chamber in a semicircular form, as used by most democracies. Churchill, however, insisted that the previous ‘opposing benches’ were persisted with and thus helped perpetuate the adversarial nature of debate. What Dunt does point out is that during the Covid pandemic MPs were allowed to vote electronically. Once the height of the pandemic was over, the traditional system of walking through the ‘Aye’ or ‘No’ lobbies was restored at the insistence of Jacob Rees-Mogg. Hence once again a vote takes – or wastes – 15 minutes.
The Commons is there to legislate and ideally, MPs would see their main function as being to scrutinise bills and improve them. The government’s control of the timetable and the operation of the whips means that scrutiny is very poor. The process is hampered by the constant partisanship of government versus opposition. Bills are likely to be scrutinised properly and improved only when they reach the Lords.
Dunt illustrates just how the atmosphere and ‘modus vivendi’ differs between the Commons and Lords. In the latter, expertise is valued, and the place is stuffed with experts. Petty politicking and narrow point scoring are frowned on and the job of close scrutiny is taken seriously. Moreover, it is often the case that a poorly drafted government bill, having passed through the Commons, arrives in the Lords to face a whole series of government amendments. Almost certainly a number of Lords will want to put down their own amendments, but here we find the government ‘playing catch up’ and rectifying faults not previously addressed. In consequence, during the most recent session of parliament, the Lords sat for longer than the Commons.
A system that breeds incompetence
‘Excessive churn’ and ‘short-termism’ are two bugbears of the system. Cabinet reshuffles mean that a minister may remain in that particular post for less than two years. Reshuffles are usually to achieve a political advantage but have the significant downside of preventing a minister from building up expertise. Just as he or she gets their head around the job they are moved to another ministry. Dunt explains how the same applies to the civil service – to gain promotion you have to shift department – and take your institutional knowledge with you.
A new minister arriving in post feels as if he or she has ‘to do something’. Hence something has to be changed – though not necessarily for the better. In consequence, a bill emerges and the whole merry-go-round of pushing poorly drafted legislation through the Commons begins.
Aside from examining the components of the system piece by piece, Dunt provides two fascinating, and very concerning, case studies. The book’s introduction – headlined ‘Failure’ – is an account of Chris Grayling’s attempt to reform the probation system and make part of it operate on a commercial basis. The ‘reform’ proved a catastrophe, caused great upheaval, and had subsequently to be unpicked. At one point evidence emerged that Grayling was going in the wrong direction but the minister simply refused to read the evidence.
The second case relates to the UK’s withdrawal from Afghanistan. Over 17 pages Dunt gives chapter and verse of ministerial failure – stand up Dominic Raab! As I read the chapter my emotions were a mixture of deep sorrow for those left behind in danger, and fury at the sheer incompetence of the cabinet. Other nations acted earlier and more efficiently to withdraw those at risk for whom they had responsibility. The UK performance, in comparison with our peers, was a disgrace.
The possibilities of reform
The author spent many years working in the heart of Westminster as editor of Politics.co.uk. More recently he has been a political columnist on The i newspaper and both jobs have seen him immersed in our political system. The list of people whom he interviewed in preparing this book runs to five pages and the bibliography to many more. In short, Dunt has carried out his research meticulously.
He leaves us with an epilogue that is a series of recommendations as to what might be done to improve matters. Dunt identifies the replacement of the first-past-the-post (FPTP) voting system with some form of proportional representation as the most crucial requirement. Achieving this reform is a major undertaking and would be bitterly resisted by the Tories, who have been perpetual beneficiaries of FPTP – in 2019 Boris Johnson won an 80-seat majority on a 43.5% share of the vote.
Shorter term improvements?
Electoral reform is for the long haul. In the meantime, Dunt gives us a series of more modest and uncontentious proposals. One improvement would be opening up candidate selection to the general public. In 2009 the Conservatives experimented with this and in Totnes 25% of the electorate participated, with Sarah Wollaston, a local GP, emerging the winner. Wollaston proved to be an excellent MP; in fact, she proved so principled that she left the Conservative benches over their “disastrous handling of Brexit”, eventually joining the Liberal Democrats. By that time the Conservatives had already given up on this experiment with selection.
Secondly, an obstacle to effective scrutiny of bills is the imbalance of power between the government, backed by battalions of resources, and the poorly supported backbench MPs. Dunt argues that these MPs should have the services of “a dedicated branch of the civil service, populated by a set cadre of officials” that would give power to their elbows.
On any upcoming battle to reform the existing system, we should bear in mind the last two sentences of Dunt’s book:
“Change will not come from the generosity of those who benefit from the existing state of affairs. It will come from the sustained challenge of those who do not.”