Us and them: Our feeble parliament is hurting our politics

The clean-up of parliament: A slow, painstaking, incomplete task
The clean-up of parliament: A slow, painstaking, incomplete task
Alex Stevenson By

Parliament has a problem: no-one understands what it actually does. There is no bigger or more pressing reason for dramatic reform.

Even well-educated, generally informed people utter regrettably unfortunate phrases like "the chamber of the Commons – that's where the government meets, right?" In fact research for the Audit of Political Engagement from the Hansard Society found 63% of people think parliament and government are the same thing.

"The problem is there's a deep misunderstanding in the country that parliament and the government are the same," says Graham Allen, chair of the political and constitutional reform committee.

It's been this way for decades – even centuries – but just five years ago there was a very real sense that things might, just might, be about to change.


After the scandal

In 2009 the then leader of the opposition made a bold pledge: to support a change to the status quo.

"If we're serious about redistributing power from the powerful to the powerless, it's time to strengthen parliament so it can properly hold the government to account on behalf of voters," Cameron said.

"The House of Commons should have more control over its own timetable, so there is time for proper scrutiny and debate."

Amid public anger over the expenses scandal, politicians of all parties were determined to be seen to be doing something about it.

The result was a groundbreaking report from a cross-party committee headed by Tony Wright – the former Labour MP who now works as an academic at Birkbeck College in London.

Amidst pressure from the media and a clamour for change from the public, all the parties agreed to push ahead with Wright's proposed changes in their 2010 election manifestos. The coalition agreement pledged to bring forward his committee's proposals for reform "in full".

Sir Peter Viggers' duck house became an iconic image summing up the scandal

This month marks the fifth anniversary of its publication. Now seems like a good moment to ask: how did it do?

"The government has implemented virtually all of them," says Tom Brake, deputy leader of the Commons.

This is correct. But it does not disguise the fact the end result has been disappointing.

The one change everyone can agree has been a triumph is a reduction in the whips' authority. Select committee chairs and members are now elected by MPs, not appointed by government lackeys. This has largely meant those in the job have stayed around longer and have done a better job. They rely on the approval of backbenchers, not the government.

'Big Six' chiefs being grilled by the energy and climate change select committee

Then there is the creation of a backbench business committee, which has allowed MPs to control a chunk of parliamentary time to do with as they please. At first, the backbenchers in charge of it weren't sure what to do with this new power. They decided the topics in private and allowed troublemaking eurosceptics like Peter Bone to bring inconvenient issues that the government didn't want to talk about to the fore.

It was a case of playing by fire. This was a risky business; the 81 Tory MPs who rebelled against the government on a motion calling or an EU referendum seriously embarrassed the prime minister. The pressure was on.

And then came another big moment, when in June 2011 Conservative MP Mark Pritchard defied the government by pressing ahead with his debate on a ban on wild animals in circuses. "I had a call from the prime minister's office directly," Pritchard said, recalling the intense pressure brought to bear on him by his party leader. "I was told unless I withdraw this motion that the prime minister himself would look upon it very dimly indeed."

That was the last straw for ministers. From then on they adopted a new approach: to let the Commons do what it like in backbench time, but to ignore its decisions entirely. Meanwhile the rules were changed, making the backbench business committee elected like every other one – by party and on a secret ballot – to ensure it could never again be hijacked by any particular group.

Supporters of parliament are left divided. Some senior backbenchers now believe the committee should stop bothering having a votable motion at the end of the session. Given it is non-binding, what is the point? Others think there is still some usefulness in preserving the option, however. "We have long arguments about this," one figure involved in the committee admitted.

The final big recommendation of the Wright committee was another bright idea: the creation of a House business committee. This would see backbenchers and the government come together to plan what parliament is going to spend its time debating in a reasoned, rational way.

Over the last two years the prospects for this becoming reality have withered on the vine. They are now officially dead.

"It proved impossible to find a way," Brake says, of ensuring the committee would be in control of "individual members" rather than just being packed with government supporters "to ensure the committee was actually just the government in disguise".

Yes, individual MPs were never going to be given enough power to actually stop the government doing what it wants. That would have been a step too far. But by letting backbenchers in on the process it would at least have started a conversation, reformers believed.

There are alternatives.

Some believe the House business committee is the one idea from the Wright committee that should never be embraced. There are better ways to open up the process, they suggest.

The answer comes on a Thursday with business questions. This is the opportunity for MPs to grill William Hague about the procedural scandals that are inflicted on the Commons every week - scandals like the guillotine motions brutally cutting short debate on vital issues. Instead MPs tend to use the session to raise pet concerns about this or that.

How about creating a scheduling committee where the leader of the House could answer questions every week? MPs could even hold a vote on the proposed schedule for the following week; this would be the moment for backbenchers to raise concerns about issues like the European arrest warrant, when the government unnecessarily won itself negative headlines for messing with the spirit of parliamentary rules.

The Leader of the House is not going anywhere near this sort of idea. Neither will Labour. Until the backbenchers can at least agree on a way forward, there is not even the slightest chance of any reform.

Division and disappointment: The legacy of a scandal

Five years on from Wright and the expenses scandal which triggered it, there have been some changes. But mostly there have just been disappointments.

"This is an 800-pound gorilla versus a mouse," Allen says of the relationship between government and parliament.

"Fundamentally the psychoanalysis of the gorilla is that deep down it knows its power is not legitimate because it is not directly elected. So to get legitimacy it must have control of a legitimate institution to endorse what it does."

Graham Allen MP, chair of the political and constitutional reform committee

Allen's analogy is rather well-developed, actually. He talks about the backbench business committee having managed to set out its parameters "while not stinging the foot of the gorilla and getting stomped on". He applauds John Bercow for complaining about government outrages in these terms: "The mouse can squeak as it's trodden upon, and that is permissible. Long may the Speaker be a great squeaker."

Bercow's achievements shouldn't be downplayed: thanks to the increased use of urgent questions he has succeeded in making parliament more relevant for journalists covering the big news stories of the day. Now he wants to go further, perhaps by reforming the arcane language used in parliament in order to make it "more relevant to what "people are debating and discussing in the Dog And Duck".

It's a nice idea, but it doesn't solve the problem. Parliament is too close to government, so it's no surprised the general public are just as confused and alienated as ever. The majority of voters remain fundamentally confused about the role parliament has.

"There's a perception for people outside the Westminster village that politicians listen to party donors, to lobbyists, and they don't listen to voters," says Alex Runswick, the director of campaign group Unlock Democracy. "That's not entirely fair, but there's a perception they're cut out of this process. It's so important we challenge that and find ways of doing politics better… It's this idea that politics is not something that is done to people, but that they can proactively engage with it."

But there is not much impetus behind efforts to fix it. The 'us' and 'them' in British politics continues to dominate. Not even the great reforming zeal which followed the expenses scandal has managed to fix that.

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