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What is meant by the effectiveness of the commons check on the
executive is basically, how able is the house of commons to prevent
the Government (executive) from getting its own way or forcing its
will upon the people of Britain. In theory the commons level of
effectiveness is constant as each Member of Parliament has an opinion
on every bill or motion that is put forward that is based on
conscience. This is not practicable, however, as the party system and
the party whips change this. The whips tell MPs which way to vote and
can impose sanctions upon those MPs who rebel against the government.
Therefore when considering the effectiveness of the commons as a check
on the executive one must consider how that effectiveness can change
with each general election. For example, John Major was extremely
limited in the power he could exercise as Prime Minister as his the
Tory party was the biggest party by only twelve seats and so he could
easily be outvoted if a policy was widely opposed.
The opposite of this would be the first of Tony Blair’s terms in
office. With over four hundred New Labour Members of Parliament Blair
could afford to push almost any policy he wanted and expect it to be
passed with a comfortable majority. Gradually the number of New Labour
dissenters has grown and there have been a number of backbench
rebellions against Blair. He has, however, survived all of these by
virtue of his huge parliamentary majority.
Many commentators have suggested that in the coming 2005 election
Blair will be returned to office with a majority reduced by thirty to
forty seats. If this is the case it is likely that Blair will be
forced to operate as if he were heading a minority government as Major
did. Should this happen then the commons will be more effective at
controlling the executive.
As I have hinted, in New Labour’s first term 1997 to 2001 the Labour
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backbench rebellions and most Labour MPs were toeing the party line.
Some commentators went as far as to accuse Labour MPs of being
spineless and gutless, a bunch of wimps. They were not being seen to
make an effort to control the executive.
However, since the 2001 general election the number of rebellions has
risen sharply. In November and December 2001 there were twenty two
separate backbench revolts against the government’s anti-terrorism,
crime and security bill and the following month forty six Labour
backbenchers voted against the government’s controversial proposal to
introduce single faith schools. In late 2004 ninety six Labour MPs
voted against the government’s introduction of top-up fees in
universities in England in the second largest rebellion of Labours two
terms. Not all ninety six voted against the government at the same
time though and so were not able to inflict a defeat.
The largest rebellion saw one hundred and twenty one Labour MPs vote
against war in Iraq.
Ultimately though Blair’s huge majority has prevented his legislation
being defeated and so the executive has still been getting its way.
The best chance for the government to be defeated was only last week.
Charles Clarke’s (home secretary) anti-terrorism bill scraped through
parliament by a mere fourteen votes. The Liberal Democrats, who hold
forty six seats, failed to appear in parliament for this vote and as
such passed up the opportunity to veto Labour’s legislation and
inflict an embarrassing defeat upon Tony Blair in the run up to the
In the commons the opposition is able to question government policy
and raise public awareness about issues. The idea of the opposition
party is that it constantly pushes and questions the executive and
prevents the government simply doing as it pleases. However, given the
recent performance of the Conservative party one could be forgiven for
not realising that this was the case.
One of the devices designed to check on the executive is Prime
Ministers questions. The leader of the opposition, currently Michael
Howard, is allowed to ask six questions of the Prime Minister and
Charles Kennedy, leader of the third party, is entitled to ask three.
The Prime Minister also takes questions from the floor, which are
chosen by the Speaker.
The idea of Prime Ministers Questions is that the Prime Minister is
exposed in public and can be examined by his peers. This prevents
him/her from simply allowing others to take decisions on their behalf
as they will need to know about policies when questioned. It has been
argued, however, that since Prime Ministers Questions has been
televised, it has become a piece of theatre in which the leaders of
the two main parties try to “score points” off each other. Prime
Ministers Questions has been described as “yah-boo politics”, politics
at its basest level.
During all discussion in the House, the Speaker of the House,
him/herself an MP, chairs the debate. The idea is that this person
ensures fairness of the debate, in that both sides can be heard, are
given a chance to make their view known and also to examine the other
All these features of the House are designed as a check on the
executive. There are also further measures for scrutinising the
There are many departmental select committees. These are set up to
examine not only how the executive goes about its business but what
business it carries out. These committees usually consist of twelve
or thirteen MPs who sit in a horseshoe shape. They are designed in
this way to be non-confrontational and all members of the committee
put aside ideological differences when sitting on one in order to
check on the Executive.
One of the most well known or prominent such committees is the
Departmental Select Committee for Transport, of which the outspoken
labour rebel and personal enemy of Tony Blair, Gwyneth Dunwoody is
The reports published by such committees are an example of effective
checking on the executive as the government must give great
consideration to the findings of the committee’s reports.
In conclusion I think that it is fair to say the effectiveness of the
common’s check on the executive is variable and dependent on certain
conditions. There are times when opposition parties wield far greater
power than the Conservatives currently do but there are other measures
in place to check on the executive when opposition parties do not do
Despite the best efforts of party leaders and whips, there will always
be those who vote for what they believe in and so ultimately there
will always be some sort of check exerted upon the executive by the
commons, however weak.