Teaching Comparative Government and Politics

Friday, November 22, 2013

Are Parliamentary politics changing?

Thanks to Alan Carter for helping me understand things like the debates over grammar schools, comprehensive schools, and assisted places in the UK. (The debates are similar to those I learned about in Germany some 20 years ago.)

Thanks too to the editors at The Economist for writing (in the American edition at least) about politics in ways insulated Americans can understand.

The big question, seems to me, to be whether party and Parliamentary politics are heading for significant changes. The Economist editors hint at those possiblities. I guess we'll have to wait and see.

The 2015 in-tray: A mighty pile of unfinished business teeters over Britain’s next government
DURING the 2010 general-election campaign, the Conservative Party created a satirical broadcast on behalf of the imaginary Hung Parliament Party…. The implication was that voters should return a Tory government with a nice big majority. Perhaps it was too subtle: Britain ended up with precisely the hung parliament the Tories feared.

In many ways the warning was exaggerated…. Yet the government is struggling to deal with many big, difficult issues. A growing pile of tough decisions has been put aside until after the next election, due to take place in 2015. This will profoundly shape the next government—if it does not smother it.

The latest thing to land in the in-tray is press regulation

Another folder, marked “London’s airports”, has gathered dust for more than a year…

Even on its defining mission of repairing the national finances… but have delayed much of the pain until after the 2015 vote.

In January David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister, tried to placate Eurosceptics in his party by promising a renegotiation of Britain’s EU membership…

Partly, this backlog is the product of the hung parliament, just as the Tories warned in 2010. Conservatives and Lib Dems have long disagreed on Europe, nuclear weapons and the role of the state. Where they cannot agree, they do not have a majority. But the in-tray has also swelled because the parties are split internally…

And the pile of unresolved issues tells a bigger story: the British parliamentary machine is under strain. It is designed to generate decisions not through bipartisanship (as in some of its European counterparts) but through debate and confrontation. Government and opposition MPs sit on opposing benches behind their leaders, the two pistons of the decision-making engine. Leaders are supposed to clash, MPs to obey them and one side to prevail.

Three things are jamming this motor. First, smaller parties are curbing the dominance of the two big parties (down from 81% of the vote in 1979 to 65% in 2010), making coalitions more likely and complicating debates… It is harder for Mr Cameron to be sensible about Europe with the UK Independence Party, which wants Britain to leave the EU, nipping at his heels.

Second, constituents are becoming more demanding—petitioning MPs, tracking their voting records online and hectoring them over cherished issues…

Third, partly under pressure from constituents—and partly because the internet also enables MPs to develop profiles independently of their parties—parliamentarians are much less obedient to their leaders…

The next prime minister will enter Downing Street with this pile of unfinished business looming over him. Events will force him to confront much of it. And when he does, it could rend his party, particularly if he has a small majority and is thus at the mercy of troublesome backbenchers. Labour is just as divided over Europe, press regulation, airports and austerity as the Conservatives are… For that reason, the large to-do list may determine who runs Britain. If the result of the election is close, even the most tribal leader may see safety (and political stability) in numbers, and plump for another coalition.

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