Party Discipline and Elective Dictatorship

Conservative politician Lord Hailsham (1907-2001) coined the phrase 'elective dictatorship' to describe the way in which power had become concentrated in the hands of the executive. He was giving a lecture on the BBC in 1976, at a time when a Labour government was in office with a small parliamentary majority, yet was still able to get most of its legislation through the House of Commons. Hailsham argued that the only real check on executive power is the periodic holding of general elections. In the intervals, the executive can do more or less as it wishes, introducing far-reaching, even irreversible changes.

It has been common to refer to the position of the executive in the UK as an elective dictatorship. This implied that, having been elected with a mandate, the government became all-powerful and there was little Parliament was likely to do to thwart its will. The House of Lords was weak and the majority of the House of Commons was obedient to their party’s leadership and the whips. This reality has now all but disappeared. There is a greater balance between the power and influence of Parliament and the executive.


How party discipline is maintained

Whipping . The whips are often seen as ‘the stick’ that maintains party discipline. The job of the whips is to make sure that MPs know how their parties want them to vote, indicated by debates being underlined once, twice or three times (obedience is essential in the case of a ‘three-line’ whip). The party whips exercise control. In extreme circumstances, an obstructive MP can be suspended from their party, which will damage their career. Whips also remind MPs about prime ministerial patronage and how important party loyalty is. There is a variety of ways in which the whips can make life difficult for uncooperative MPs.

What is the significance of the withdrawal of the whip and deselection?

The work of the whips:

• Advise the leadership about party morale

• Reward loyalty by, for example, advising on promotions

• Punish disloyalty, ultimately by ‘withdrawing’ the whip (suspending membership of the parliamentary party).

In September 2021 allegations were levelled at Conservative whips from Tory backbenchers that there had been threats to withhold funds for their constituencies if they rebelled on key votes. The revelations led many to condemn the practice.

The ‘payroll’ vote. Ministers and shadow ministers must support government policy because of the convention of collective responsibility. This ensures the loyalty of between 100 and 110 frontbench government MPs.

Caroline Slocock, director of the Civil Exchange think tank, commented on allegations related to Conservative whips’ tactics in The Guardian: Every government uses tough tactics to curtail rebellions from its own side on key votes. But it is shocking if government whips are promising to hand out public money (or deny it) to their MPs to buy votes. Public funds should be allocated following clear criteria based on need, with due process. If these allegations are true, the government risks undermining confidence in government — something more important than winning one vote.

Source: ‘Tory whips accused of threatening rebels with loss of local funding’, The Guardian, 15 September 2021

Promotion prospects /Patronage. The greasy pole This is the ‘carrot’ of party unity. Most backbench MPs wish to become ministers, and loyalty is the best way of advancing their careers because it gains them the support of ministers and the whips.

The patronage of the prime minister is a key factor. The PM has control of all appointments to government, as well as dismissals from it. This gives them power over the MPs in their own party. MPs who regularly cause problems for the government are likely to lose their chance of being promoted to ministerial office. This does tend to concentrate their minds on party loyalty.

• ideological unity. Most MPs, on most occasions, do not need to be forced to ‘toe a party line’. As long-standing party members and political activists, they ‘believe’ in their party or government.

The government normally commands a majority of MPs in the Commons. As long as it does this, it can expect MPs to support it out of party loyalty.

● MPs dislike elections on the whole. It creates hard work for them, and there is also the danger they might lose their seat. MPs in the governing party are, therefore, unlikely to do anything that might bring down the government. The Fixed Term Parliaments Act 2011 has, however, reduced this possibility.


Here are some example of government dominance.

· In 2003 the Blair government (elected two years earlier on 40 per cent of the vote) first attempted to abolish the post of Lord Chancellor, without any prior consultation. On meeting constitutional difficulties with its plans, it then carried out a drastic remodelling of the office in the 2005 Constitutional Reform Act.

· In 2011 the coalition government, created the previous year through an agreement that had not been put before the electorate, passed the Fixed Term Parliaments Act.

· David Cameron, backed by the leaders of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties, offered to

devolve more powers if the Scottish people rejected independence in the 2014 referendum.

2019 Theresa May's government attempts to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty without consulting Parliament.

2019 Boris Johnson's government prorogued Parliament. The move was seen by many opposition politicians and political commentators as a controversial and unconstitutional attempt by the prime minister to avoid parliamentary scrutiny of the Government's Brexit plans in those final weeks leading up to Brexit.

2020 The government imposes a lock down on the UK after passing the Corona Virus Bill to extend police powers. This bill was passed with almost no discussion in Parliament.

Executive dominance has tended to arise as a result of a combination of factors:

· the first-past-the-post electoral system, which tends to deliver single-party government, sometimes enjoying the benefit of a large parliamentary majority based on a small share of the popular vote

· the whip system and the prime minister's use of patronage, which reinforce party loyalty and discipline

· government domination of the legislative timetable

· the use of the Salisbury convention and the Parliament Acts to limit opposition to a government's programme from the House of Lords.

In the absence of a codified constitution, the doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty effectively means that the Commons is the main chamber, and whoever controls the Commons is the dominant force in the political system.

The concept of the 'elective dictatorship' is a starting point for posing some broader questions about the relationship between the executive and Parliament.

The influence and effectiveness of Parliament in holding the executive to account

The fusion of powers in the UK parliamentary system enables members of the two Houses to question and criticise the executive. At the same time it also places formidable powers in the hands of a government with a majority in the Commons.

The task of holding the executive to account can be assessed under three headings:

· Parliament's capacity to amend or reject government legislation

· Parliament's scrutiny of other government activities

· Parliament's ability to remove governments and individual ministers.

The weakness of the House of Lords

The Parliament Act 1911 prevented the House of Lords having any control over the government’s financial arrangements (spending and tax). The Act also stated that, if a law is passed in 2 consecutive years in the House of Commons, the Lords cannot block it.

The Parliament Act 1949 stated that the delaying power of the Lords, as first specified in 1911, should be reduced to only 1 year.

The Salisbury Convention was developed in the 1940s. This states that the Lords must not block any piece of legislation which was contained in the government’s last election manifesto. This meant that the unelected House of Lords could not thwart the will of the elected House of Commons and government.

A Changing Relationship ?

Impact of Brexit

Since 2010 there has not been a dominant government majority in the Commons until 2019. This was partly due to the emergence of a multi-party system, with the SNP, in particular, emerging as a major force. If this persists (it may not), the fragmented nature of Parliament makes it harder for the government to control MPs in general. This is especially true, given the persistent split in the Conservative Party.

● In recent years Parliament has insisted on taking over control of UK military intervention abroad. This is largely a legacy of the failed policy in Iraq after 2003. Since then Parliament has demanded that it approves major military adventures and directs military policy. For example, Parliament has been directing the nature of UK intervention in the Syrian civil war.

The House of Lords has become increasingly active and obstructive since 1999. Measures which are not subject to the Salisbury Convention are vulnerable to problems in their passage through the Lords.

● The departmental select committees and the Public Accounts Committee in the House of Commons, led by powerful chairpersons with a good deal of status, have become increasingly aggressive and intrusive. The committees are now more willing to criticise government and to claim a role in policy making.

● The Backbench Business Committee now controls part of the parliamentary agenda and can order debates which may criticise or influence government.

● The backbench members now control membership of the select committees, which used to be controlled by party whips. This has enhanced their authority considerably.