Tag Archives: Westminster

Policy networks and communities #POLU9UK

As we discussed in week 2, if you start your study of British politics by describing the Westminster model, you get something like this:

Key parts of the Westminster political system help concentrate power in the executive. Representative democracy is the basis for most participation and accountability. The UK is a unitary state built on parliamentary sovereignty and a fusion of executive and legislature, not a delegation or division of powers. The plurality electoral system exaggerates single party majorities, the whip helps maintain party control of Parliament, the government holds the whip, and the Prime Minister controls membership of the government. So, you get centralised government and you know who is in charge and therefore to blame.

Yet, if you read the recommended reading, you get this:

Most contemporary analysts dwell on the shortcomings of the Westminster account and compare it with a more realistic framework based on modern discussions of governance … Britain has moved away from a distinctive Westminster model.

And, if you read this post on the pervasiveness of policy networks and communities, you get something like this:

‘Policy networks’ or ‘policy communities’ represent the building blocks of policy studies. Most policy theories situate them at the heart of the policy process.

So, you may want to know: ‘How did we get from the one case of affairs to the other case of affairs?’ (source). Here are some possible explanations to discuss.

One account is wrong

In our grumpy account, we pretty much complain that the incorrect story still wins because it sounds so good. The uncool academics have all agreed that the ‘governance’ story best sums up British politics, but the media and public don’t pay attention to it, politicians act as if it doesn’t exist, and cool Lijphart gets all the attention with his ‘majoritarian’ model of the UK which accentuates the adversarial and top-down nature compared to the utopian consensus democracies in which all politicans hold hands and sing together before agreeing all their policies.

One account is wrong most of the time

When less grumpy, we suggest that our account is correct most of the time. People pay attention to the exciting world of elected politics and governing politicians, but it represents the tip of the iceberg. Most policy is processed below the surface, away from the public spotlight, and this process does not match the UK’s majoritarian image. Instead, policymakers tend to work routinely with other policy participants to share information and advice and come to collective understandings of problems and feasible solutions.

What explains the shift from one image to the other?

If we go for the latter explanation, we need to know how this process works: what prompts a tiny number of issues to receive the excitement and attention and a huge number to receive almost none? I’ll give you some ideas below, but note that you can find the same basic explanation of this agenda setting/ framing process in many theories of the policy process. You should read as many as possible and, in particular, those on framing, punctuated equilibrium, and power/ideas. Combined, you get the sense of two scenarios: one in which people simply can’t pay attention to many policy issues and have to ignore most; and, one in which people exploit this limitation to make sure that some issues are ignored (for example, by framing issues as ‘solved’ by policymakers, with only experts required to oversee the implementation of key choices).

The general explanation: powerful people have limited attention

You’ll find this general explanation squirrelled away somewhere in almost everything I’ve written. In this case, it’s in the networks 1000 words post:

  • The size and scope of the state is so large that it is in danger of becoming unmanageable. The same can be said of the crowded environment in which huge numbers of actors seek policy influence. Consequently, the state’s component parts are broken down into policy sectors and sub-sectors, with power spread across government.
  • Elected policymakers can only pay attention to a tiny proportion of issues for which they are responsible. So, they pay attention to a small number and ignore the rest. In effect, they delegate policymaking responsibility to other actors such as bureaucrats, often at low levels of government.
  • At this level of government and specialisation, bureaucrats rely on specialist organisations for information and advice.
  • Those organisations trade that information/advice and other resources for access to, and influence within, the government (other resources may relate to who groups represent – such as a large, paying membership, an important profession, or a high status donor or corporation).
  • Therefore, most public policy is conducted primarily through small and specialist policy communities that process issues at a level of government not particularly visible to the public, and with minimal senior policymaker involvement.

A specific explanation: even ‘majoriarian’ governments seek consensus even when issues become high profile

I like this story about Brent Spar as an example of ‘bureaucratic accommodation’. In a nutshell (from p577), they argue that we began with a high profile issue in which Greenpeace occupied a Shell oil rig that was due for disposal, got Shell to change its policy through high profile campaigning, but that they came to quieter agreement within government by agreeing on specific policies without shifting their basic principles. Many of us saw the conflict but few saw the consensus building that followed (and, in fact, preceded these events). There are many stories like this, in which relatively short periods of highly salient policymaking ‘punctuate’ much longer spells of humdrum activity.


Group activities

So, in our group work we can explore the key themes through examples. I’ll ask you to identify the conditions under which Westminster-model-style activity happens, and the conditions under which we’d expect policy communities to develop. I’ll ask you to compare issues in which there is high salience and conflict with issues that are low salience and/ or low conflict. I might even ask you to remember some high profile issues from the past then ask: where are they now?





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Week 2. Two stories of British politics: the Westminster model versus Complex Government #POLU9UK

I want you to think about the simple presentation of complex thought.

  • How do we turn a world which seems infinitely complex into an explanation which describes that world in a few minutes or seconds?
  • How do we choose the information on which to focus, at the expense of all other information, and generate support for that choice?
  • How do we persuade other people to act on that information?

To that end, this week we focus on two stories of politics, and next month you can use these questions to underpin your coursework.

Imagine the study of British politics as the telling of policymaking stories.

We can’t understand or explain everything about politics. Instead, we turn a complex world into a set of simple stories in which we identify, for example, the key actors, events and outcomes. Maybe we’ll stick to dry description, or maybe we’ll identify excitement, heroes, villains, and a moral. Then, we can compare these tales, to see if they add up to a comprehensive account of politics, or if they give us contradictory stories and force us to choose between them.

As scholars, we tell these stories to help explain what is happening, and do research to help us decide which story seems most convincing. However, we also study policymakers who use such stories to justify their action, or the commentators using them to criticise the ineffectiveness of those policymakers. So, one intriguing and potentially confusing prospect is that we can tell stories about policymakers (or their critics) who tell misleading stories!

Remember King Canute (Cnut)

King Canute


If you’re still with me, have a quick look at Hay’s King Canute article (or my summary of it). Yes, that’s right: he got a whole article out of King Canute. I couldn’t believe it either. I was gobsmacked when I realised how good it was too. For our purposes, it highlights three things:

  1. We’ll use the same shorthand terms – ‘Westminster model’, ‘complex government’ – but let’s check if we tell the same stories in the same way.
  2. Let’s check if we pick the same moral. For example, if ministers don’t get what they want, is it because of bad policymaking or factors outside of their control? Further, are we making empirical evaluations and/or moral judgements?
  3. Let’s identify how policymakers tell that story, and what impact the telling has on the outcome. For example, does it help get them re-elected? Does the need or desire to present policymaking help or hinder actual policymaking? Is ‘heresthetic’ a real word?

The two stories

This week, we’ll initially compare two stories about British politics: the Westminster Model and Complex Government. I present them largely as contrasting accounts of politics and policymaking, but only to keep things simple at first.

One is about central control in the hands of a small number of ministers. It contains some or all of these elements, depending on who is doing the telling:

  1. Key parts of the Westminster political system help concentrate power in the executive. Representative democracy is the basis for most participation and accountability. The UK is a unitary state built on parliamentary sovereignty and a fusion of executive and legislature, not a delegation or division of powers. The plurality electoral system exaggerates single party majorities, the whip helps maintain party control of Parliament, the government holds the whip, and the Prime Minister controls membership of the government.
  2. So, you get centralised government and you know who is in charge and therefore to blame.

Another is about the profound limits to the WM:

  1. No-one seems to be in control. The huge size and reach of government, the potential for ministerial ‘overload’ and need to simplify decision-making, the blurry boundaries between the actors who make and influence policy, the multi-level nature of policymaking, and, the proliferation of rules and regulations, many of which may undermine each other, all contribute to this perception.
  2. If elected policymakers can’t govern from the centre, you don’t get top-down government.

What is the moral of these stories?

For us, a moral relates to (a) how the world works or should work, (b) what happens when it doesn’t work in the way we expect, (c) who is to blame for that, and/ or (d) what we should do about it.

For example, what if we start with the WM as a good thing: you get strong, decisive, and responsible government and you know who is in charge and therefore to blame. If it doesn’t quite work out like that, we might jump straight to pragmatism: if elected policymakers can’t govern from the centre, you don’t get strong and decisive government, it makes little sense to blame elected policymakers for things outside of their control, and so we need more realistic forms of accountability (including institutional, local, and service-user).

Who would buy that story though? We need someone to blame!

Yet, things get complicated when you try to identify a moral built on who to blame for it:

There is a ‘universal’ part of the story, and it is difficult to hold a grudge against the universe. In other words, think of the aspects of policymaking that seem to relate to limitations such as ‘bounded rationality’. Ministers can only pay attention to a fraction of the things for which they are formally in charge. So, they pay disproportionate attention to a small number of issues and ignore the rest. They delegate responsibility for those tasks to civil servants, who consult with stakeholders to produce policy. Consequently, there is a blurry boundary between formal responsibility and informal influence, often summed up by the term governance rather than government. A huge number of actors are involved in the policy process and it is difficult to separate their effects. Instead, think of policy outcomes as the product of collective action, only some of which is coordinated by central government. Or, policy outcomes seem to ‘emerge’ from local practices and rules, often despite central government attempts to control them.

There is UKspecific part of the story, but it’s difficult to blame policymakers that are no longer in government. UK Governments have exacerbated the ‘governance problem’, or the gap between an appearance of central control and what central governments can actually do. A collection of administrative reforms from the 1980s, many of which were perhaps designed to reassert central government power, has reinforced a fragmented public landscape and a periodic sense that no one is in control. Examples include privatisation, civil service reforms, and the use of quangos and non-governmental organisations to deliver policies. Further, a collection of constitutional reforms has shifted power up to the EU and down to devolved and regional or local authorities.

How do policymakers (and their critics) tell these stories, how should they tell them, and what is the effect in each case?

Let’s see how many different stories we can come up with, perhaps with reference to specific examples. Their basic characteristics might include:

  • Referring primarily to the WM, to blame elected governments for not fulfilling their promises or for being ineffectual. If they are in charge, and they don’t follow through, it’s their fault linked to poor judgement.
  • Referring to elements of both stories, but still blaming ministers. Yes, there are limits to central control but it’s up to ministers to overcome them.
  • Referring to elements of both stories, and blaming other people. Ministers gave you this task, so why didn’t you deliver?
  • Referring to CG, and blaming more people. Yes, there are many actors, but why the hell can’t they get together to fix this?
  • Referring to CG and wondering if it makes sense to blame anyone in particular. It’s the whole damn system! Government is a mystery wrapped in a riddle inside an enigma.

Joe Pesci JFK the system

In broader terms, let’s discuss what happens when our two initial stories collide: when policymakers need to find a way to balance a pragmatic approach to complexity and the need to describe their activities in a way that the public can understand and support.

For example, do they try to take less responsibility for policy outcomes, to reflect their limited role in complex government, and/ or try to reassert central control, on the assumption that they may as well be more influential if they will be held responsible?

The answer, I think, is that they try out lots of solutions at the same time:

  • They try to deliver as many manifesto promises as possible, and the manifesto remains a key reference point for ministers and civil servants.
  • They often deal with ‘bounded rationality’ by making quick emotional and moral choices about ‘target populations’ before thinking through the consequences
  • In cases of ‘low politics’ they might rely on policy communities and/ or seek to delegate responsibility to other public bodies
  • In cases of ‘high politics’, they need to present an image of governing competence based on central control, so they intervene regularly
  • Sometimes low politics becomes high politics, and vice versa, so they intervene on an ad hoc basis before ignoring important issues for long periods.
  • They try to delegate and centralise simultaneously, for example via performance management based on metrics and targets.

We might also talk, yet again, about Brexit. If Brexit is in part a response to these problems of diminished control, what stories can we identify about how ministers plan to take it back? What, for example, are the Three Musketeers saying these days? And how much control can they take back, given that the EU is one small part of our discussion?

Illustrative example: (1) troubled families

I can tell you a quick story about ‘troubled families’ policy, because I think it sums up neatly the UK Government’s attempt to look in control of a process over which it has limited influence:

  • It provides a simple story with a moral about who was to blame for the riots in England in 2011: bad parents and their unruly children (and perhaps the public sector professionals being too soft on them).
  • It sets out an immediate response from the centre: identify the families, pump in the money, turn their lives around.
  • But, if you look below the surface, you see the lack of control: it’s not that easy to identify ‘troubled families’, the government relies on many local public bodies to get anywhere, and few lives are actually being ‘turned around’.
  • We can see a double whammy of ‘wicked problems’: the policy problem often seems impervious to government action, and there is a lack of central control of that action.
  • So, governments focus on how they present their action, to look in control even when they recognise their limits.

Illustrative example: (2) prevention and early intervention

If you are still interested by this stage, look at this issue in its broader context, of the desire of governments to intervene early in the lives of (say) families to prevent bad things happening. With Emily St Denny, I ask why governments seem to make a sincere commitment to this task but fall far shorter than they expected. The key passage is here:

“Our simple answer is that, when they make a sincere commitment to prevention, they do not know what it means or appreciate scale of their task. They soon find a set of policymaking constraints that will always be present. When they ‘operationalise’ prevention, they face several fundamental problems, including: the identification of ‘wicked’ problems (Rittell and Webber, 1973) which are difficult to define and seem impossible to solve; inescapable choices on how far they should go to redistribute income, distribute public resources, and intervene in people’s lives; major competition from more salient policy aims which prompt them to maintain existing public services; and, a democratic system which limits their ability to reform the ways in which they make policy. These problems may never be overcome. More importantly, policymakers soon think that their task is impossible. Therefore, there is high potential for an initial period of enthusiasm and activity to be replaced by disenchantment and inactivity, and for this cycle to be repeated without resolution”.

Group exercise.

Here is what I’ll ask you to do this week:

  • Describe the WM and CG stories in some depth in your groups, then we’ll compare your accounts.
  • Think of historical and contemporary examples of decision-making which seem to reinforce one story or the other, to help us decide which story seems most convincing in each case.
  • Try to describe the heroes/ villains in these stories, or their moral. For example, if the WM doesn’t explain the examples you describe, what should policymakers do about it? Will we only respect them if they refuse to give up, like Forest Gump or the ‘never give up, never surrender’ guy in Galaxy Quest? Or, if we would like to see pragmatic politicians, how would we sell their behaviour as equally heroic?


Filed under POLU9UK, public policy, UK politics and policy

British politics, Brexit and UK sovereignty: what does it all mean? #POLU9UK

 This is the first of 10 blog posts for the course POLU9UK: Policy and Policymaking in the UK. They will be a fair bit longer than the blog posts I asked you to write. I have also recorded a short lecture to go with it (OK, 22 minutes isn’t short).

In week 1 we’ll identify all that we think we knew about British politics, compare notes, then throw up our hands and declare that the Brexit vote has changed what we thought we knew.

I want to focus on the idea that a vote for the UK to leave the European Union was a vote for UK sovereignty. People voted Leave/ Remain for all sorts of reasons, and bandied around all sorts of ways to justify their position, but the idea of sovereignty and ‘taking back control’ is central to the Leave argument and this module.

For our purposes, it relates to broader ideas about the images we maintain about who makes key decisions in British politics, summed up by the phrases ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ and the ‘Westminster model’, and challenged by terms such as ‘bounded rationality’, ‘policy communities’, ‘multi-level governance’, and ‘complex government’.

Parliamentary Sovereignty

UK sovereignty relates strongly to the idea of parliamentary sovereignty: we vote in constituencies to elect MPs as our representatives, and MPs as a whole represent the final arbiters on policy in the UK. In practice, one party tends to dominate Parliament, and the elected government tends to dominate that party, but the principle remains important.

So, ‘taking back control’ is about responding, finally, to the sense that (a) the UK’s entry to the European Union from 1972 (when it signed the accession treaty) involved giving up far more sovereignty than most people expected, and (b) the European Union’s role has strengthened ever since, at the further expense of parliamentary sovereignty.

The Westminster Model

This idea of parliamentary sovereignty connects strongly to elements of the ‘Westminster model’ (WM), a shorthand phrase to describe key ways in which the UK political system is designed to work.

Our main task is to examine how well the WM: (a) describes what actually happens in British politics, and (b) represents what should happen in British politics. We can separate these two elements analytically but they influence each other in practice. For example, I ask what happens when elected policymakers know their limits but have to pretend that they don’t.

What should happen in British politics?

Perhaps policymaking should reflect strongly the wishes of the public. In representative democracies, political parties engage each other in a battle of ideas, to attract the attention and support of the voting public; the public votes every 4-5 years; the winner forms a government; the government turns its manifesto into policy; and, policy choices are carried out by civil servants and other bodies. In other words, there should be a clear link between public preferences, the strategies and ideas of parties and the final result.

The WM serves this purpose in a particular way: the UK has a plurality (‘first past the post’) voting system which tends to exaggerate support for, and give a majority in Parliament to, the winning party. It has an adversarial (and majoritarian?) style of politics and a ‘winner takes all’ mentality which tends to exclude opposition parties. The executive resides in the legislature and power tends to be concentrated within government – in ministers that head government departments and the Prime Minister who heads (and determines the members of) Cabinet. The government is responsible for the vast majority of public policy and it uses its governing majority, combined with a strong party ‘whip’, to make sure that its legislation is passed by Parliament.

In other words, the WM narrative suggests that the UK policy process is centralised and that the arrangement reflects a ‘British political tradition’: the government is accountable to public on the assumption that it is powerful and responsible. So, you know who is in charge and therefore who to praise or blame, and elections every 4-5 years are supplemented by parliamentary scrutiny built on holding ministers directly to account.

Pause for further reading: at this point, consider how this WM story links to a wider discussion of centralised policymaking (in particular, read the 1000 Words post on the policy cycle).

What actually happens?

One way into this discussion is to explore modern discussions of disenchantment with distant political elites who seem to operate in a bubble and not demonstrate their accountability to the public. For example, there is a literature on the extent to which MPs are likely to share the same backgrounds: white, male, middle class, and educated in private schools and Oxford or Cambridge. Or, the idea of a ‘Westminster bubble’ and distant ‘political class’ comes up in discussions of constitutional change (including the Scottish referendum debate), and was exacerbated during the expenses scandal in 2009.

Another is to focus on the factors that undermine this WM image of central control: maybe Westminster political elites are remote, but they don’t control policy outcomes. Instead, there are many factors which challenge the ability of elected policymakers to control the policy process. We will focus on these challenges throughout the course:

Challenge 1. Bounded rationality

Ministers only have the ability to pay attention to a tiny proportion of the issues over which have formal responsibility. So, how can they control issues if they have to ignore them? Much of the ‘1000 Words’ series explores the general implications of bounded rationality.

Challenge 2. Policy communities

Ministers don’t quite ignore issues; they delegate responsibility to civil servants at a quite-low level of government. Civil servants make policy in consultation with interest groups and other participants with the ability to trade resources (such as information) for access or influence. Such relationships can endure long after particular ministers or elected governments have come and gone.

In fact, this argument developed partly in response to discussions in the 1970s about the potential for plurality elections to cause huge swings in party success, and therefore frequent changes of government and reversals of government policy. Rather, scholars such as Jordan and Richardson identified policy continuity despite changes of government (although see Richardson’s later work).

Challenge 3. Multi-level governance

‘Multi-level’ refers to a tendency for the UK government to share policymaking responsibility with international, EU, devolved, and local governments.

‘Governance’ extends the logic of policy communities to identify a tendency to delegate or share responsibility with non-governmental and quasi-non-governmental organisations (quangos).

So, MLG can describe a clear separation of powers at many levels and a fairly coherent set of responsibilities in each case. Or, it can describe a ‘patchwork quilt’ of relationships which is difficult to track and understand. In either case, we identify ‘polycentricity’ or the presence of more than one ‘centre’ in British politics.

Challenge 4. Complex government

The phrase ‘complex government’ can be used to describe the complicated world of public policy, with elements including:

    • the huge size and reach of government – most aspects of our lives are regulated by the state
    • the potential for ministerial ‘overload’ and need to simplify decision-making
    • the blurry boundaries between the actors who make policy and those who seek to influence and/ or implement it (public policy results from their relationships and interactions)
    • the multi-level nature of policymaking
  • the complicated network of interactions between policy actors and many different ‘institutions’


  • the complexity of the statute book and the proliferation of rules and regulations, many of which may undermine each other.


Overall, these factors generate a sense of complex government that challenges the Westminster-style notion of accountability. How can we hold elected ministers to account if:

  1. they seem to have no hope of paying attention to much of complex government, far less control it
  2. there is so much interaction with unpredictable effects
  3. we don’t understand enough about how this process works to know if ministers are acting effectively?

Challenge 5. The policy environment and unpredictable events

Further, such governments operate within a wider environment in which conditions and events are often out of policymakers’ control. For example, how do they deal with demographic change or global economic crisis? Policymakers have some choice about the issues to which they pay attention, and the ways in which they understand and address them. However, they do not control that agenda or policy outcomes in the way we associate with the WM image of central control.

How has the UK government addressed these challenges?

We can discuss two key themes throughout the course:

  1. UK central governments have to balance two stories of British politics. One is the need to be pragmatic in the face of these five challenges to their power and sense of control. Another is the need to construct an image of governing competence, and most governments do so by portraying an image of power and central control!
  2. This dynamic contributes to state reform. There has been a massive build-up and partial knock-down of the ‘welfare state’ in the post-war period (please have a think about the key elements). This process links strongly to that idea of pragmatism versus central control: governments often reform the state to (a) deliver key policy outcomes (the development of the welfare state and aims such as full employment), or (b) reinvigorate central control (for example, to produce a ‘lean state’ or ‘hollowing state’).

What does this discussion tell us about our initial discussion of Brexit?

None of these factors help downplay the influence of the EU on the UK. Rather, they prompt us to think harder about the meaning, in practice, of parliamentary sovereignty and the Westminster model which underpins ongoing debates about the UK-EU relationship. In short, we can explore the extent to which a return to ‘parliamentary sovereignty’ describes little more than principles not evidence in practice. Such principles are important, but let’s also focus on what actually happens in British politics.


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We need better descriptions than ‘evidence-based policy’ and ‘policy-based evidence’: the case of UK government ‘troubled families’ policy

Here is the dilemma for ‘evidence-based’ ‘troubled families’ policy: there are many indicators of ‘policy based evidence’ but few (if any) feasible and ‘evidence based’ alternatives.

Viewed from the outside, TF looks like a cynical attempt to produce a quick fix to the London riots, stigmatise vulnerable populations, and hoodwink the public into thinking that the central government is controlling local outcomes and generating success.

Viewed from the inside, it is a pragmatic policy solution, informed by promising evidence which needs to be sold in the right way. For the UK government there may seem to be little alternative to this policy, given the available evidence, the need to do something for the long term and to account for itself in a Westminster system in the short term.

So, in this draft paper, I outline this disconnect between interpretations of ‘evidence based policy’ and ‘policy based evidence’ to help provide some clarity on the pragmatic use of evidence in politics:


See also:

Governments think it’s OK to use bad evidence to make good policy: the case of the UK Government’s ‘troubled families’

Early intervention policy, from ‘troubled families’ to ‘named persons’: problems with evidence and framing ‘valence’ issues

In each of these posts, I note that it is difficult to know how, for example, social policy scholars should respond to these issues – but that policy studies help us identify a choice between strategies. In general, pragmatic strategies to influence the use of evidence in policy include: framing issues to catch the attention or manipulate policymaker biases, identifying where the ‘action’ is in multi-level policymaking systems, and forming coalitions with like-minded and well-connected actors. In other words, to influence rather than just comment on policy, we need to understand how policymakers would respond to external evaluation. So, a greater understanding the routine motives of policymakers can help produce more effective criticism of its problematic use of evidence. In social policy, there is an acute dilemma about the choice between engagement, to influence and be influenced by policymakers, and detachment to ensure critical distance. If choosing the latter, we need to think harder about how criticism of PBE makes a difference.


Filed under agenda setting, Evidence Based Policymaking (EBPM), Prevention policy, public policy, UK politics and policy

Westminster is more powerful than you think, but only if you dismiss its importance

Cowley tweet 4.1.15

When studying the role of parliament in the UK, it is common to argue that it is more powerful than you think. If the dominant narrative is that parliaments are peripheral to the policy process, then let’s show you what is wrong with that narrative.

I’ve done it myself several times (e.g. this article and this book pp104-7), partly because it’s a good hook for publication (and partly because David Judge was my PhD supervisor*). However, when I discuss these issues with students, I tend to conclude that an influence score of more-than-zero is still a low score. It’s a bit like me telling people: ‘I look pasty, but I can run faster than you think’.

I say this after reading Russell, Gover, and Wollter’s (2015) excellent empirical analysis of Westminster’s influence over the past decade. It is ‘more influential than is widely recognised’, but what does that really mean? Let’s break down (what I take to be) the article’s 3 key points:

  1. The non-influential argument is untested empirically. This is a good way to justify Russell et al’s empirical work, but I think it’s a bit misleading. I think there is a lot of empirical work on policymaking out there which fails to pick up on any Westminster influence whatsoever. For example, in a lot of my interview research, it has not occurred to participants (including interest groups and civil servants) to mention the role of Westminster unprompted because it is so far down the list of relevant factors.
  2. The vagaries of the bill process give a misleading picture of low MP influence. When we study the legislative amendment process we find that the majority of successful government amendments are innocuous (exaggerating its success) and many amendments by MPs are designed to prompt debate, not succeed (exaggerating their failure). True. This is partly because, by the time a bill gets to Parliament, it is already a draft Act. The government has little interest in changing something already negotiated in detail with interested groups, and MPs are often looking to make points or seek clarity. Yet, for me, this clarification does little to accentuate parliamentary influence. Rather, it warns against the conclusion of non-influence using misleading measures (not the same thing as demonstrating influence).
  3. To gauge parliamentary influence you need measures which take ‘anticipated reactions’ into account. The government’s bill teams take great care to anticipate parliamentary reaction to bills, and produce draft legislation accordingly. Further, much government legislation is prompted by MPs (via, for example, committee reports and MP bills). Both of these points are important, but they remain partial because government actions are prompted by 101 things. We know that ministers and civil servants take Parliament into account in many cases, but in how many cases can we say that parliamentary influence is decisive or near the top of the list of most important factors? This question is explored in more depth in Russell and Cowley’s excellent article,  but still to challenge the idea that Parliament is completely unimportant. We are still left with the argument: ‘if you think Westminster’s is really unimportant, Westminster is more powerful than you think’.

Where is the public policy analysis?

Russell and Cowley aim to ‘adopt a public policy lens, asking which parliamentary actors and processes exert influence, and at what policy stage(s)’. Yet, they cite almost none of the contemporary public policy literature (not even Jordan/ Richardson’s books after 1979, one of which engages with post-1979 developments).

For me, the value that you’d expect public policy analysis to add relates to its range of perspectives. A focus on networks was often to highlight the limits to ministerial as well as parliamentary power, since the state is so large that elites have to delegate most policymaking to other people, and can only keep track of a small proportion of government activity. Further, a focus on ‘street level’ actors and organisations further accentuates the sense that government policy is often delivered by routine, with a tendency for ministers and parliamentarians to pay attention to a tiny part of that activity. Perhaps most importantly, the contemporary literature tends to highlight the problems with a focus on stages to describe how policy is made. Or, if you are really keen, there is a discussion by Rod Rhodes and colleagues of the extent to which politicians maintain the fiction of the Westminster model of government, which can affect how they describe the role of Parliament and the importance of traditional forms of accountability.

I think that this kind of discussion informs the empirical analysis: if you ‘zoom in’ to look for evidence of (ministerial or) parliamentary influence you  will find some. However, if you are adopting a ‘public policy lens’, it seems worthwhile to also ‘zoom out’ and consider how this evidence connects to the wider public policy literature. A focus primarily on Richardson/ Jordan as the classic 1979 text, then King/ Crewe 2013 as something more up to date, only seems valuable if one wants to stick it to the older generation without engaging with more thoughtful or empirical analysis.

Where do we go from here?

If you are interested in these arguments, you should follow ‘politicsphd’, who is working in depth on the issues as they relate to the Scottish Parliament’s bill process. He has some points which are directly relevant to Westminster analysis, including:

  • We need more measures of influence. For example, we need to measure the overall effect of amendments rather than rely on counting substantive amendments (e.g. by comparing the bills before and after submission);
  • We need to go beyond vague classifications of legislatures. We should focus more on important variations in parliamentary influence, on a bill-by-bill basis, rather than focusing primarily on an often misleading gauge of overall influence according to some bills which may or may not be representative.

My argument is simpler and based on the application of ‘bounded rationality’ to legislatures such as Westminster:

  1. Actors like MPs and MSPs only have the ability to pay attention to a tiny proportion of the issues processed by governments. So, they promote few to the top of their agenda and ignore the rest. They engage in ‘serial processing’: considering one issue at a time.
  2. Elected policymakers partly overcome this problem of serial processing by overseeing ‘parallel processing’ within government. A government breaks down policymaking into a huge number of discrete issues processed in different parts of the organisation. British parliaments tend not to have the resources to perform a similar role or keep up with the policy process in British government.
  3. So, you might expect the parliamentary equivalent of ‘punctuated equilibrium’: a tendency for parliaments to focus intensely on a small number of issues (with the potential for significant influence) at the expense of the vast majority of others.

In other words, think of parliamentary influence in terms of two sides of the same coin: if you identify influence in some areas, recognise the limited influence in most others.

For more of that sort of argument, see Key policy theories and concepts in 1000 words.


*In my first year as a politics undergraduate I learned that Westminster was only important to the tourist trade (my lecturer was Jeremy Richardson). In my 3rd year I learned that Richardson and Jordan were quite wrong (my lecturer was David Judge). In my 4th year I learned that policy networks were at the heart of explanation and that Parliament rarely featured (David Marsh). During my PhD on networks I put in a chapter on Parliament – CHAPTER_3 – to try to please David Judge. I worked briefly for Mark Shephard and we made the ‘more influential than you think’ case for the Scottish Parliament. Then I went full circle by working closely at Aberdeen with Grant Jordan. I now talk a lot about bounded rationality, which is at the heart of my explanation for limited parliamentary influence: MPs/ MSPs don’t have the resources to be particularly influential.


Filed under Scottish politics, UK politics and policy

What will be the role of constitutional issues in the UK General Election 2015?

From the vantage point of Scotland, you would expect constitutional issues to dominate the UK General Election. The famous ‘vow’ almost ensured its place in the debate, because the idea was that each political party would engage in the Smith Commission and include its recommendations in their party manifestos. Although the SNP was one of the least satisfied parties, it has already begun to campaign on the idea that the others might drag their feet come election time. Yet, it seems inevitable that all of the main parties will include something very close to the Smith recommendations. Indeed, Scottish Labour argues that one part of it (devolving the licenses to ‘frack’) can be done now, with an amendment to the current Infrastructure Bill at Westminster.

We have also seen some opening exchanges that show how much the constitutional question is in the minds of Scottish politicians. Most notably, Jim Murphy’s apparent promise, to use the proceeds of the UK ‘mansion tax’ to fund 1000 more nurses than the SNP would promise, has raised issues about the extent to which people can make meaningful promises for devolved areas in UK elections, and the role of the Barnett formula, since the promise depends on a UK Labour government in 2015 using the money on health (or another fully devolved area) and a Scottish Labour government in 2016 using the Barnett consequentials to fund more nurses.

This is the normal routine in Scottish elections, where parties tend to drape themselves in the Scottish flag and fall over themselves to show that they are standing up for Scotland. It is not yet the norm in England, although there are early signs that things are changing. Murphy’s claim was met with predictable opposition from Boris Johnson, who claimed that it represented a tax on London to pay for services in Scotland. It was less predictable that some Labour MPs would agree so publicly (unless you buy into the idea that the internal Labour debate was manufactured).

This short-lived debate shows the potential for a new dynamic that we saw developing during the independence referendum campaign: the so called English backlash, built on the idea that an increasing number of people in England feel that Scotland has a disproportionate advantage in the Union and that it is time to stand up for England’s interests (also note the longer, and largely justifiable, sense in Wales that it does far less well from the current arrangements than Scotland). Whether or not people feel this way might be less important than the political capital that parties can gain from the claim. Particularly since the rise of UKIP, it has become more tempting to refer specifically to interests in England, to push back against Scottish claims for more powers, and/ or to seek assurances that there will be some sort of equivalent move in England (currently, the periodic focus is English Votes for English Laws). However, I doubt these issues will dominate the election in England. In the UK as a whole, Scotland may have disproportionate influence, or receive disproportionate attention, but it is still small beer.

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5 Rules for Westminster Elections

  1. Tell people why they shouldn’t vote for their favourite party: if you vote for X, you really get Y, so vote for Z, even though you want X.
  2. Deny that you would enter a coalition with any other party, even if you have no chance of being in government on your own.
  3. Promise to lower taxes and increase public spending. Or, only promise to tax rich people to pay for low paid public servants.
  4. Suggest that your opponents are making promises that they can’t afford, or making the campaign too personal, then make some of your own promises and keep it personal.
  5. If you are not campaigning, be cynical about the tactics of political parties, and suggest that all politicians are corrupt and unelectable. Give the impression that you are above it all, without suggesting a useful alternative to representative democracy.

I forgot number 6: object whenever a party agrees with an idea that you claim is yours. You don’t want their support; you want to exploit the fact that they don’t support you.

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Filed under UK politics and policy