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Parliaments are not monoliths. They are highly complex political organisations. Anthony King’s 1976 article ‘Modes of executive–legislative relations: Great Britain, France and West Germany’ was one of the first to point out the importance of the multiple relationships inside legislatures – including some relationships that are often hidden from view.
King argued that the most important of these in the British parliament was the ‘intraparty mode’: between the government and its own backbenchers. Others, such as the ‘non-party mode’ or ‘cross-party mode’, he judged to be weak at Westminster.
King's objective was to strip away the noise and present parliamentary dynamics as a set of stylised relationships between different actors. The fundamentals of this analysis have stood the test of time very well in the last 40 years, and the article remains a classic. But since it was published, a great deal has also changed.
King's view on executive–legislative relations in the UK
King's analysis of relations began with a simple diagram, which he used to demonstrate that there were three potentially significant modes the House of Commons. The most obvious and visible was the opposition mode (OFB + OBB → G), combining the opposition frontbench and backbench against the government. This was the classic form of Westminster parliamentary conflict, operating between the parties. As long as the government had a partisan Commons majority, however, this mode was unlikely to make much, if any, impact on Parliament's decisions.
The second possible configuration was the non-party mode (GBB + OBB → G), uniting government and opposition backbenchers. This described occasions when parliamentarians worked across party lines, for example in select committees. King was intrigued by this mode, but dismissive of its applicability in the UK.
This left the intra-party mode: the relationship between the government and its own backbenchers (GBB → G). King's central insight was that this—often less visible—relationship was in fact Westminster's most important. Governments found it harder to resist attacks from within their own ranks than from the opposition. King therefore concluded that “government backbenchers are the most important Members in the House”.
Though King’s insights were prescient, we argue in our recently-published article in the Political Quarterly that there are four key areas where parliamentary developments in the UK since 1976 require his conclusions to be reassessed.
1. A changed party system
Since King wrote his analysis the presence of a third party, and others too, has substantially increased in the House of Commons, Today, to ‘ignore the minor parties’, as he explicitly did, is not an option. The change has been most notable when a single party majority is lacking. During 2010–15 the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition clearly introduced elements familiar from King's analysis of multi-party Germany. Post-2017 it is now the Northern Irish DUP upon which the government became dependent. In this respect, managing the House of Commons has become significantly more complex than it used to be.
2. The establishment of the select committee system
King presciently noted the potential of specialist committees to encourage members to ‘change their perception of their own roles’—ceasing to see themselves narrowly in party terms, but instead as parliamentarians. At his time of writing, this freedom was largely denied to British MPs.
However, the subsequent establishment of a system of departmental select committees – from 1979 onwards – has built bridges across party lines, enabled MPs to develop expertise in particular policy areas and networks among external specialist groups, increasing their confidence to challenge government decisions. This has strengthened King’s non-party mode.
3. Backbench dissent
Political parties in the House of Commons have also become significantly more challenging for leaders to manage and hold together. Backbench dissent has been increasing, both in frequency and importance, since 1970.
Many rebellions are relatively small, and often occur on trivial or minor issues, but they can on occasions be large and involve important policy matters. During the 2010–15 parliament, backbench dissent was a significant factor in determining government policy towards the EU, including being one of the drivers of the subsequent referendum.
Moreover, the threat of Commons defeat, and government moves to placate backbench critics, drive more major policy shifts than are visible through defeats. The intraparty mode has hence become more challenging.
4. More confident and party-balanced House of Lords
The House of Lords was King's blind spot. He gave no consideration to the second chamber whatsoever, as the Lords was then viewed as a fairly sleepy political institution.
The key change, to both the Lords’ composition and behaviour, came with the Labour government's reform of 1999. This ejected the great majority of hereditary peers, leaving a far more balanced chamber in which no party has a majority. Partly as a consequence, peers have come to feel more confident in challenging government policy. Alongside other changes, this has contributed to a much strengthened cross-party mode at Westminster.
As an unelected body, both convention and logic dictate that the Lords should respect the will of the elected House of Commons, and a Lords majority against the government is relatively powerless unless it can find support from a majority of MPs. Lords modes can thus only be assessed for their effectiveness once coupled with the Commons—where the intraparty mode remains key.
The most high-profile recent example demonstrating such dynamics occurred in autumn 2015 on the Conservative government's attempt to cut tax credits. A Lords defeat initially fiercely resisted by ministers went on to be quietly accepted as it was realised that many government backbench MPs agreed with the Lords. In today’s Parliament we must consider modes of executive-legislative relations on an explicitly bicameral basis.
Tony King's 1976 analysis of executive–legislative relations retains a core of wisdom and judgement that transfers to the present. But he captured the dynamics of the ‘old’ Westminster just as the system was on the cusp of change.
The widely-noted transformation of the party system in the 1970s, and the establishment of the House of Commons select committees, which boosted cross-party working, occurred just after he wrote. In subsequent years further procedural changes, coupled with the substantial membership reform in the House of Lords, changed things further.
King's central vision, and pioneering approach, was to appreciate that parliaments must be understood not as monoliths vis-à-vis executives, but as complex organisations comprising various interacting groups. But his analysis lamented Westminster’s relative weakness.
It is a shame that King himself never revised this important work; he might have been cheered by what he found.