It is not uncommon for political commentators to opine the need for Britain to have a written constitution, or articulate that Britain is currently in Hailsham’s ‘elective dictatorship’ (which itself referred to minority or small majority governments exercising power and treated Labour as illegitimate). However, these opinions do not analyse how power functions and is expressed in the legislature and to what extent the legislature can enforce its will on society. 

Even though a majority party controlling the UK House of Commons is theoretically near omnipotent (as it combines the executive and the legislature) the composition of political parties limits what they can actually agree on and pass into law. As outlined here the impact of voters becoming more volatile is that governing parties in non-proportional representation systems are struggling to form cohesive electoral coalitions. Even Donald Trump with a majority in congress and the judiciary accomplished less than any president who had this same advantage before him.

This leads to difficulties in internal party management as parts of the party want diametrically opposite things. Such happened with the Brexit process between 2017 and 2019 which demonstrated that the 2017 parliament was not capable of agreeing a deal no matter the parliamentary arithmetic. The solution was for the Conservatives to fine tune the electoral coalition established by May in 2017, leading to a dramatically different parliament. However, the result of this has been a dysfunctional government that has too many MPs representing contrasting interests at odds with some of its internal orthodoxies. Hence the government’s Marcus Rashford inspired brace of free school meal u-turns.

Consequently, the government is now a slave to society’s contradictions as mediated through the electoral process. Like Labour, the Conservative party is haunted by the caricature of the Red Wall voter that it is desperate to please even if these efforts risk alienating voters in its traditional heartlands. This is why Johnson is still in place as Prime Minister, because many Conservatives believe that he is still their best hope of winning an election and are unwilling to part with what they consider to be their ticket to continued power. Perhaps his recent impunity from breaking laws his government set and enforced demonstrates the farce of there being no parliamentary mechanism to eject a sitting prime minister, but even if this mechanism existed it is unlikely it would be used.

No amount of constitutional reform can prevent a party who have democratically achieved a sufficient majority and institutional influence (and there is a good chance that the Conservatives would achieve this no matter the shape of reform, even if via coalition) from keeping their leader in power if they want to. Thus, the actions of the ruling body in the legislature are dictated by their addiction to power, not the absence of a constitution.

Excessive focus on the mechanisms of government does not adequately consider society’s wider dynamics. Even if the current government was a savvy legislature-controlling machine instead of a BYOB social club, this would not necessarily mean that there would be legislative supremacy in practice. In the abstract, the law is meaningless, what matters is how it is enforced. The current government can pass laws, but unless there is the public buy-in and the capability to enforce obedience (as there was during lockdowns, although this always felt time-limited) they do not matter in practice. Currently, the state machinery for administering and dispensing the law is broken and underfunded to the extent that many laws have minimal practical impact. For instance, the government could legalise recreational drug use, but the public are well ahead of the Government in this respect.

As well as the impact of the legislature being limited by the chasm between the law in theory and practice, it is also limited by extra-parliamentary forces that constrain and shape its output: for instance, the media and capital. A welcome consequence of the war in Ukraine is that it has cast a light on the extent to which ‘dirty money’ has influenced UK politics. Though even ‘clean’ money has exerted considerable influence on UK politics in the past, hence Gordon Brown’s deal with the city. Regardless of the legislative structure in the UK these forces will continue to shape (though not dictate) society and the discussions in the legislature. A pertinent question is how these forces are democratised and what bulwarks can be constructed in opposition to them. The trade union movement (and institutionalised religion) used to be one such obelisk and was democratic, ish. At its peak it was capable of challenging the government and helping shape legislation, as is demonstrated by its victory over the 1971 Industrial Relations Act and the introduction of the Social Contract in 1974.

Reforming the structure of the UK legislature or making it harder for one group to control a majority in, is not unimportant. However, wishing a party to remove their hugely unpopular leader is not, as some would contend, a constitutional question. A society cannot be healthy unless its component parts are also democratised, if this is not done then it does not matter what shape the legislature takes.