In the fourth of a series of blogs marking the 20th anniversary of New Labour coming to power, Crick Centre Research Associate Alexandra Meakin examines how parliament has changed in the two decades since 1997.
The MPs that gathered to hear the Queen’s Speech on 14 May 1997 cast a very different picture to those attending parliament’s showpiece event in the years and decades previously. A total of 120 women had been elected to the Commons in the general election two weeks’ earlier, almost doubling the proportion of women in the House. The mass of dark suits on the green benches became interspersed with blocks of brighter colours: Joni Lovenduski (1997) argued that the “extraordinary sight” of the women taking their seats for the first time earlier that month would “provide a lasting and powerful image of the new parliament”.
But twenty years on, how does the 1997 Parliament look now? Were the changes in representation permanent, and did they affect how politics operated?
First, the proportion of female MPs steadily increased (after a small drop in 2001). The 2015 General Election saw a record high of 191 women elected and a milestone was reached in March 2016 when the number of women elected to the Commons in its history (456) surpassed the number of men then serving as MPs. In other ways too, the composition of our MPs has more accurately reflected the diversity of our population (although with a long way still to go): the number of black and minority ethnic MPs has gone up by more than 400% in the last twenty years (from 9 MPs to 41). Thirty-five MPs in the 2015 Parliament openly identified as LGBTQ, the largest number in any legislature across the world.
Has this change in membership changed how parliament operates? The House of Commons that met on 14 May 1997 might have considered itself a fresh start from its sleaze-plagued predecessor (the new MPs included the independent former journalist Martin Bell who had defeated Neil ‘cash-for-questions’ Hamilton). Twelve years later, however, several of those new MPs were facing their own disgrace in a far bigger scandal, when widespread abuse of the expenses system was revealed by the Daily Telegraph. The magnitude of the crisis left a shadow over Westminster that is arguably still present. A stronger Commons emerged in its wake, however, with stronger select committees; more topical issues being raised on the floor of the Chamber; and greater opportunities for the public to engage with debates and the work of the House.
While there was an immediate difference in the image of the Commons on 14 May 1997, on the other side of Central Lobby, the Lords appeared the same—but only for a short time. The result of the House of Lords Act 1999 led to an even more dramatic change than experienced in the Commons, as the removal of all but a rump of 92 hereditary peers drastically changed the size and composition of the Upper House. The “temporary” compromise the 1999 Act entailed has lasted for some 18 years, with further attempts at reform defeated while the size of Lords rises due a steady increase in political appointees. While questions about the future size and functions of the second chamber remain, the Lords in the 2015-2017 Parliament was active and assertive, challenging the government on issues from Brexit, to disability benefits, and higher education. Lord Norton of Louth (2016) argued Parliament is now more effective than it has been for 150 years.
Of course the story of how parliament has changed in the last twenty years does not end here. When the Queen returns to the Palace of Westminster on 19 June 2017, she will face a new flock of MPs: each parliament is shaped and determined by a general election in both the composition of the Commons and the role of the Lords. When we look back on the 2017 general election in another two decades’ time, what changes to our politics will we be able to trace back to this moment?
Alexandra Meakin is a Research Associate in the Sir Bernard Crick Centre, Dept. of Politics, University of Sheffield
Notes: This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series.