Working to make government more effective


Keir Starmer’s big election win increases the importance of parliament’s scrutiny role

The post-election shake-up of Parliament is an opportunity to do things differently.

Prime minister Sir Keir Starmer (centre front) stands with Labour Party MPs, whom won seats in the 2024 general election
Following Starmer’s doctrine of ‘country first, party second’ the government should reflect carefully on how to facilitate the parliamentary scrutiny that will test and enhance its policy ideas.

There may be no such thing as a supermajority, but the dramatic results of the election will shift the choreography of parliament and the practicalities of government says Hannah White.

Parliament looked very different on Monday. 334 new MPs arrived for the first time with a further 15 returning after a gap in service. Labour’s total has leapt from 198 to 412. The Conservatives have been cut by more than two thirds, from 373 to just 121 MPs. And the Liberal Democrats have leapt from just eight to 72 to become the third largest party at Westminster. But what will this mean for Parliament’s role and how opposition parties can hold government to account?

Labour is in a strong position to achieve its objectives in parliament

The huge Labour majority – 174 – inevitably means that Keir Starmer will find operating in Parliament more straightforward than recent prime ministers who have governed with smaller majorities. Based on Labour’s substantial seat share, the Speaker’s formula will deliver a comfortable majority in all the parliamentary procedures that matter for achieving a government’s objectives – on select and legislative committees and when the whole House votes. Under Blair and Brown, Labour backbenchers were afforded a relatively high degree of flexibility to remain in their constituencies or travel with committees without any risk that government business would not pass.

The greater risk for Labour than being unable to pass its business is of its backbenchers feeling underoccupied and bored. As Boris Johnson quickly discovered, more opposition may be found on the government’s backbenches than on the green benches opposite. Starmer will want to find ways of enabling his MPs to feel meaningfully involved in the business of government. Unlike under Johnson, small groups of Labour backbenchers will not easily be able to thwart the wishes of the government, especially as the greatest dissent looks likely to arise from Starmer’s left who won’t find common cause on many issues with other opposition parties. Though, there are still likely to be tensions that require time and management – particularly with such a disparate array of voter interests in new Labour seats. Labour’s record on Gaza played a role in the few seat losses and near misses on election night – some MPs are now likely to be very focused on how Labour approaches this issue in government. 

The Conservatives will find opposition is harder with fewer MPs

The Conservatives have inherited Labour’s discarded mantle of His Majesty’s Official Opposition. Within the UK’s dualist first-past-the-post system, certain benefits and responsibilities accrue to the runner-up which are distinct from those enjoyed by other common-or-garden opposition parties, even when – as in this situation – the third party is not very far behind. This is because the official opposition has a special constitutional responsibility for holding the government of the day to account and scrutinising their policies via proceedings in the Commons and the Lords.  

The Conservatives will benefit from the increased funding available to the official opposition (including nearly £1 million annually to run Rishi Sunak’s successor’s parliamentary office) and additional opportunities for scrutiny – six questions at weekly PMQs, the chance for a potentially persuasive penultimate speech in most debates, an allocation of select committee chairs and seats on every one.  

But despite these advantages, the reality is that any official opposition operating with 121 MPs against a governing party of 412 will find it more challenging to fulfil its constitutional role than were the parties more equally balanced. Simply finding enough MPs to fill all the positions required – shadowing ministerial portfolios and participating in parliamentary committees – will almost certainly be  impossible, given some of the remaining Conservative MPs – like former PM Rishi Sunak - are unlikely to take on a formal role. More probable is that some opposition MPs will have to ‘double hat’ - shadowing two roles at the same time. The task will be somewhat easier in the Lords where the Conservatives number 274 including experienced ministers unaffected by last night’s disastrous poll result (although 46 of those will depart if Labour follows through on its manifesto promise to abolish the remaining hereditary peers).  

The Liberal Democrats’ election gains give the party greater visibility in Parliament

As the Conservative party looks likely to descend into painful post-match analysis and a fractious leadership contest, it is joined on the opposition benches by an unusually varied set of other parties. Four MPs will take their seats for the Greens and five for Reform, together with an unprecedented number of independents and various representatives of regional parties – including a small surviving rump of just nine SNP MPs after a disastrous night for the Scottish nationalists.  

But the biggest impact on Parliament will be the outcome of the Liberal Democrats’ smart and focused campaign – apparently helped by tactical voting from constituencies determined to remove their Conservative incumbent.

Returning to its former position as the third party in the Commons will give the Liberal Democrats greater speaking opportunities and committee roles, which in the last parliament were afforded to the SNP. These will give the party slightly greater visibility to demonstrate how it is serving the interests of its new constituents – essential if it is to repeat its electoral success at the next election. But this will be an adjustment – it has been a long time since the Liberal Democrats last had to field a full set of frontbench spokespeople.  

The high-drama of the post-Brexit years, with its soap opera of meaningful and indicative votes and late-night defeats, saw Parliament take centre stage.  But the reality is that Parliament’s role has been increasing marginalised, with the last government content to side-step meaningful scrutiny – and therefore rejecting the opportunity to see its plans tested and improved – and MPs showing a disappointing lack of interest in or perhaps understanding of – the often-unglamorous role they can play.  

In some respects, a generation disrupted by the Covid pandemic never learned what the role of an MP in Parliament could be. Training for new MPs will be even more essential than normal as over half of MPs arrive in Westminster for the first time. Thanks to Rishi Sunak’s precipitate choice of election date a few weeks of summer will provide crucial window to assist in this process. 

Labour’s victory provides an opportunity for Parliament 

Getting Labour’s business through parliament may be straightforward given its large majority, but that does not mean the new government should treat parliament as a rubber stamp. Following Starmer’s doctrine of ‘country first, party second’ the government should reflect carefully on how to facilitate the parliamentary scrutiny that will test and enhance its policy ideas. This might involve providing enhanced opportunities for the smaller opposition parties to participate in scrutiny, making greater use of pre-legislative scrutiny to allow opposition parties to spread their limited resources more carefully and making efforts to combine the scrutiny of several related pieces of delegated legislation to reduce the total number of committees opposition parties are required to resource.

All the parties now represented in parliament will need to adjust to their altered circumstances. Parliament now looks very different. The new generation of MPs should seize every opportunity to start acting in different way too.  

Keir Starmer’s plan for government: How will it work?

Watch or listen back to our webinar looking at what Keir Starmer’s first week as prime minister tells us about how he intends to govern Britain. With IfG experts Emma Norris, Joe Owen, Hannah White, and the FT's Jen Williams.

Watch or listen here
Starmer at No.10

Related content