1. An overview of the legitimacy of the House of Commons
The Parliament is the law-making body of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Even after many reforms in recent years, it remains the main institution responsible for drafting and passing the legislation. As prof. A.V. Dicey points out in his work on constitutional law, the sovereignty of the British Parliament is the dominant characteristic of our political institutions and consists of the monarch, the House of Lords and the House of Commons (Dicey, 1924).
This discussion focuses in a critical manner on the House of Commons as the elected branch of the legislature, its primacy and the role of its members, referred to as Members of Parliament (hereby ‘MPs’). It will encompass clarifications on why the House of Commons is the leading Chamber in the British Parliament by taking a look at its composition and the powers conferred to it based on conventions and statutes. In the second part, there will be some considerations on the role of MPs in Parliament and an explanation for two of the main constraints they face in the pursuit of truly serving the people.
2. The House of Commons and its legitimacy as the leading Chamber in the Parliament
Each of the 650 MPs is elected by their electorate to represent their constituency in the House of Commons, composed of ‘frontbenchers’ (government Ministers and opposition spokespersons, which are also called ‘shadow’ Ministers, forming the ‘shadow’ Cabinet) and ‘backbenchers’ (those MPs who are neither part of the government, nor an opposition spokesperson). Furthermore, it also includes the ‘whips’, which are MPs or peers appointed by a political party in order to ensure that its members attend and vote according to party policy. Due to the fact that it is the elected Chamber and therefore intrinsically democratic, the members of the House of Commons are bound to represent their constituencies and their interests to the best of their abilities (Leyland, 2012). In a democratic country, it is surely safe to assume that the elected Chamber should be the leading House, with the appointed House taking an advisory role. Moreover, there are conventions, Acts of Parliament and common law supporting the primacy of the House of Commons despite it being the second Chamber, some of which I shall discuss in the following paragraphs.
An aspect which supports the primacy of the Commons over the Lords is the fact that ‘the Government derives its democratic mandate from its command of the confidence of the Commons’ (Cabinet Office, 2011). Until the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011, the loss of a motion of confidence would have prompted the call for a general election by the Prime Minister. Since the Act came into effect in 2011, the term of a Parliament has been fixed at five years. An early election is possible only in two circumstances: two-thirds of MPs support the proposal of an early election or the government loses a confidence vote and a new government cannot be formed within fourteen days. Therefore, the government is reliant on the support of the Commons to remain in power.
Furthermore, a convention which restricts the powers of the House of Lords, known as the Salisbury Convention, does not allow the House of Lords to reject at second reading any bills of the elected government promised in its election manifesto. The convention was proposed by Lord Salisbury in 1945 after the Labour’s landslide victory and maintained its importance throughout history. This recognises the rights of the government and strengthens the belief in the legitimacy of the elected Chamber (Russell and Cornes, 2001).
Moreover, the primacy of the House of Commons is supported by its financial privileges and the restriction on the ability of the House of Lords to delay passing legislation. The Parliament Acts of 1911 and 1949 govern the relationship between the Houses of Parliament and establish the dominance of the Commons over the Lords by removing the right of the House of Lords to veto money bills completely, meaning that a Money Bill can receive Royal Assent (the formal approval of legislation by the monarch) without the support of the Lords. The right regarding money matters was replaced with the right to veto other public bills. The 1911 Act sets the maximum delay of public bills at two years, with the 1949 Act reducing it to only one year. The validity of the 1949 Act has been questioned in Jackson v Attorney-General  1 AC 262, but the House of Lords held that there are no limits to the type of legislation that could be passed using the 1911 and 1949 Acts and that they are not meaning to empower the Commons, but rather to reduce the power of the Lords over the passing of legislation. Moreover, through reducing the power of the Lords in the legislative process, the first Chamber takes on a supporting role by willingly recognising the primacy of the House of Commons, which makes the passing of legislature run smoothly because the Commons’ intentions will usually succeed (Rogers and Walters, 2013).
To conclude this section, the statutes and conventions presented clearly show that the primacy of the House of Commons is widely recognised in the legislative process. The aforementioned conventions and legislature show that its primacy is enshrined within the law, securing its position in relation to the first House. It should represent the will of the electorate, which is something that in recent times has sadly been frequently forgotten.
3. Role of the MPs – are they ‘truly serving the people’?
As I already mentioned at the beginning of this discussion, each of the 650 MPs is elected through the first-past-the-post system to represent their constituency (Leyland, 2012). Once elected, however, the electorate does not have any way of making sure that their MP is following what has been set in their manifesto. The political party to which the MPs usually belong, as there are only very few MPs who are independent, can pressure them into following the party’s policy. Parties employ the office of the Whip as a method of ensuring that backbenchers support the leadership of their parties and take part in all important debates and votes (Westmacott, 1983).
In addition to voting along party lines, MPs have other roles to fulfill. In her lecture on the role and the functions of MPs in the UK, Lucy Powell, MP for Manchester Central, outlined four main roles that an MP has to fulfil nowadays. She thinks of her position in a very broad sense, spanning from her parliamentary and political role to local representative of her constituency and her role in the media as a public person (Powell, 2018). This shows that the roles of an MP are very diverse and require the individuals occupying this position to possess an understanding of the interests of many groups e.g. constituents, charities, lobby groups etc. and combine these in the most efficient way in order to achieve a result which would satisfy a majority of stakeholders. At the same time, they need to present themselves in a way that would keep the support and approval of their electorate (Oliver, 2003). However, in answering the question of whether MPs serve the people, one must regard the constraints on the ability of MPs to truly represent the people who elected them.
As Oliver (2003) claims, it is commonly known that the majority of people imagine MPs to be part of the upper-middle class, privately-educated, heterosexual, white males. Even though the 2017 election brought forth the most diverse Parliament as of yet, there are still massive inequalities, which stand in the way of a just representation of the diverse electorate that the UK has in most constituencies. According to BBC (2018), 6,9% of the UK Parliament elected in 2017 identify as LGBT, 8% are part of an ethnic minority, 32% are female and 51% went to comprehensive schools. While these figures represent a major improvement to past years’ Commons, they show that the composition of the elected House does not yet truly represent the makeup of the British society. It is surely unrealistic to expect the House of Commons, as previously described, to be able to represent all minorities in a just way. Therefore, the phrase ‘serving the people’ should be amended to ‘serving a distinct group of people’, most of them already privileged based on their race, gender, educational background or sexual orientation. Those who are not included in that distinct group ‘may not always have effective <<voices>> through which their interests may be made known and responded to’ (Wilson, 2018).
Furthermore, representing different interests leads to certain tensions between the many roles that an MP needs to satisfy. As stated in Powell’s lecture, the time MPs get to deal with a particular issue is in the majority of cases very brief (Powell, 2018). This leads to the question of whether it is possible for officeholders to dedicate enough attention and engagement to the matter at hand in order to achieve what his or her constituents would want him or her to achieve. When regarding the example of parliamentary committees, more often than not the members vote along the lines of their political party, due to lack of knowledge on the topic or fear of losing the endorsement of their party. Therefore, the representation of constituents’ wishes is clearly limited by other obligations necessary to be fulfilled in order to remain in favour of one’s party, which in an increasing number of cases will only represent the wishes of a small portion of their constituents.
The present article showed in general terms some of the reasons why the House of Commons is the leading Chamber in the UK Parliament and debated whether MPs truly serve the people in today’s context. The Commons draws its power from its elective nature, secured through statutes, but faces issues regarding its composition which makes it non-representative of today’s society. Furthermore, it can be argued that a culture of ‘politics for the sake of politics’ emerged in the past years which has made the genuine representation of interests more difficult for MPs. Therefore, there is a necessity for more diversity in the House of Commons in order to make sure that it can truly serve all people and not only a select few. Recent developments such as Brexit have shown the challenges which the Westminster Parliament has to face in order to fulfil as many wishes and interests of the electorate as possible.
By Adelina Maghet
This material was published in Lawyr.it Vol. 6, September 2020, available only online.
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