”It has been said that England in-vented the phrase, ‘Her Majesty’s Opposition’,” wrote Walter Bagehot; “that it was the first government which made a criticism of administration as much a part of the polity as administration itself.” For decades, British governments have paid lip-service in parliament to Bagehot’s words – dissenters were best kept inside the tent.
Today, however, the criticism that matters rarely seems to be the one voiced in parliament. Take the ground-breaking Stephen Lawrence campaign. After he was killed on an Eltham street on the night of 22 April 1993, the then MP for Eltham, Peter Bottomley, met representatives of the police and council leaders. Over the following months, Bottomley visited the incident room at Eltham police station, met Sir Paul Condon, then Metropolitan Police Commissioner, and raised the issue in parliament. For four years, the Lawrence case was repeatedly brought to the attention of the House of Commons, including the tabling of a total of 20 parliamentary questions and an early day motion. Nothing happened.
The Lawrence family brought an unsuccessful private prosecution; then, in February 1997, the jury at the inquest into Stephen’s death returned a verdict of “unlawful killing” – adding “in an unprovoked racist attack by five white youths”. The Daily Mail named the five suspects, under the headline: “Murderers”. Suddenly, the murder moved to the top of the news agenda and Jack Straw, the incoming Home Secretary, ordered the public judicial inquiry that the Lawrence family had demanded.
Where parliamentary representation had failed, legal action and media coverage succeeded in turning round a campaign – not for the first time. Pressure groups and charities are increasingly giving up on parliament as a means of influence, and choosing more direct methods to challenge government: the law, the media and the internet.
The statistics are striking. With a parliamentary majority of 179, this gov-ernment has never been defeated on the floor of the Commons. Yet the decisions of government and public authorities are overturned in the courts twice a day. Judicial reviews have left successive governments with a bloody nose over high-profile issues such as the prosecution of refugees or compensation for victims of crime, and in hundreds of planning and welfare cases. When the High Court condemned the decision to imprison refugees for using false papers, the judges rebuked Straw and the immigration authorities for failing to give “the least thought” to their legal obligations under the UN Refugee Convention.
The new Human Rights Act will add to the list of legal challenges when it comes into force on 2 October. An internal government exercise to identify legislation and procedures that might conflict with the rights in the new act produced a list eight pages long. The parents of children excluded from school may bring a case under the right to education. Ethnic minority groups will want to challenge the discriminatory application of police stop-and-search powers. One campaign group plans to challenge NHS “postcode prescribing”, whereby some 80,000 people with cancer are denied access to the latest drugs by their health authority.
The government’s fixation on controlling the news has made it vulnerable to media criticism. From the Snowdrop campaign to ban handguns to the protests against fuel taxes, the media have gleefully helped forge and hone specific campaigns as weapons to corner the government.
Peter Bottomley has experienced the techniques of pressure from both sides. “As a minister for six years, I don’t remember now, with perhaps one exception, a persistent campaign by a single MP,” he says. “To make a minister pay attention, the best thing is an article in the paper – everyone important in the department reads it that day. With a parliamentary question, the only other people who get to hear about it are the parliamentary clerk, the minister’s private secretary and possibly one other.”
Bottomley still believes MPs can be effective, and has been working over the summer in his new Worthing West constituency on the case of another black man, Jay Abatan, whose killer has never been found. Sussex police say that they do not believe the attack was racially motivated. But Bottomley doesn’t want to repeat the mistake he made when he accepted Sir Paul Condon’s assurances in the Lawrence case. “I didn’t make a fuss then. I didn’t ask for an inquiry early enough.” What is he doing differently this time? He held a press conference.
Parliament, the great constitutional home of democratic opposition, is being marginalised. The opposition’s role has been reduced, in the words of Austin Mitchell MP, to “heckling a steamroller”. Much of Whitehall has been hived off into executive agencies or quangos, thereby making any parliamentary scrutiny more difficult. But the spectrum of extra-parliamentary protest has been hugely extended, from the anti-capitalists networked on the internet to the fuel tax protesters linked by mobile phone, fax and CB radio. Even the oil companies, which for years have paid corporate lobbyists to do their bidding at Westminster, are learning about the impact of direct action.
The government is paying for the erosion of MPs’ influence. Their weakness means that those fighting for change now go to the law, the media or the barricades. The fuel protesters almost brought the country to a standstill, and have threatened to do so again. The dissenters have left the tent, and they’re starting to piss in it.
The author’s Campaigning Handbook is published by the Directory of Social Change (email@example.com)