Members of Parliament – Essential, Redundant or Sidelined?

15 Dec

GlobalNet21, an organization facilitating discussion on current issues, organized this event. A stimulating discussion took place in the House of Commons’ Grand Committee Room, and featured three prominent speakers who all offered individual perspectives on the issue: Conservative MP Nick de Bois, who was responsible for hosting the event; Ruth Fox, the Director of the Parliament and Government Programme at the Hansard Society; and Peter Facey, the founding Director of Unlock Democracy. The Hansard Society (an independent organisation responsible for political research, rather than the Hansard who record parliamentary business, have recently conducted several studies on the new intake of MPs, of whom Nick de Bois is one. The talk revealed some innovative ideas to improve relations between parliament and the general public, though stopped short of initiating a revolution of the current political system.

The first to speak was Nick de Bois, who was disarmingly open about his disillusionment with British politics, and possible motivation for holding the event: ‘You may have noticed I’m on the back benches.’ He described the difficulties of getting one’s opinion across to a Cabinet member even as a member of parliament, and claimed the first six months of his time in office he had believed entering the profession was one of the ‘biggest mistakes of my life.’ Perhaps considering the struggle he had to secure his seat in the North London borough of Enfield (he ran three times before being elected) this is understandable. It also might have something to do with the primacy he puts on his constituents’ interests as opposed to the official party line.

He describes a recent attempt by the Coalition to introduce mandatory prison sentences for knife crime, which he campaigned against. Having failed to persuade the members of the relevant Select Committee to repeal the legislation via the orthodox routes of the lobby (an audience with the legislator behind a locked door), or a petition (despite securing 14-15 MPs’ signatures), he admits to using ‘street tactics’ to get his point across. Not only did he leak the story to the Sun newspaper, he managed to catch the Select Committee Chairman, on camera, declaring he was still open to changes in the legislation. Pushing for another audience in front of the media, this time he was successful. But perhaps he was simply lucky: much of the time, Nick declared, he felt he was simply ‘voting fodder for a government’s agenda’.

Next up was Ruth of the Hansard Society, who laid out the findings of the studies she had conducted into new MPs in their first 6 months of office. While it seemed the public wanted their political representatives to be ‘more like us’ in that they understood and cared about day-to-day issues, she believed the range of services they demanded were slightly unrealistic: legislation, ‘local dignitary’ duties opening schools and public buildings, and providing an impeccable appearance, moral example and demeanour at all times. Hansard had discovered that, far from being out of touch with local politics, ‘MPs do more constituency-focused work than any other generation:’ one-third of their time is spent in their constituency, and two-thirds in Westminster; of this one-quarter of their time in the office is spent on constituency case-work. Despite this fact, she feels – and Nick de Bois agrees – they are less well regarded than the previous generation of MPs. Nick described an article in the Mail during the expenses scandal ‘exposing’ him as having claimed the highest payment for travel expenses – in his defence, the sixty pounds he spent on a taxi home from Westminster did save him taking a night-bus home at 2.00 am.

Ruth also believes that MPs are trained in the wrong areas, with public relations skills prioritised over legal or other specialised knowledge. This has become part of the political culture, with sixty-four percent of those surveyed aspiring to a ministerial position, while only forty-nine percent wanted more training and development, which would obviously be necessary to oversee specific sectors or become Select Committee members. She also feels the nature of the parliamentary game of one-upmanship, with its ‘partisan criticism of each other all the time,’ contributes to a general erosion of trust both within parliament and, by proxy, of public trust in them. It was later pointed out that in Denmark it is not permitted for any politician to make personal slights or insults about another – something it was widely considered would be worth introducing here. At least we can be sure that MPs are able now to vote independently of their Chief Whips and party’s agenda: Philip Cowley, of Nottingham University, found that sixty-nine percent of new Conservatives had rebelled, and twenty-eight percent of Lib Dems, which she claims is ‘more rebellions than at any other time in the past.’

This was slightly contradicted by the next speaker Peter Facey, who portrayed a picture of a government in fairly tight control: when voting on legislation, the government apparently lost the House of Commons vote only five to six times. He puts the decline of the political system down to the erosion of local support for individual parties. He cites the declining membership of the Liberal Democratic party, from 100 000 in the 1990s, to around 60 000 today, and declares the pattern to be similar for the other major parties. Thus government is becoming increasingly centralised – contrary to David Cameron’s widely trumpeted ‘Big Society’ project. He is strongly critical of the House of Lords’ repeal of part of the Localism Act, which had previously enabled local residents of a constituency, if support of an issue totalled five percent of its population, to bring that issue to referendum (though they still have some say over tax spending.)

While he believes the MP’s role is to act as ‘gatekeeper’ between the individual and the state, they cannot fulfil this purpose without local party support and funding, and with enough feedback from the public on the success of their policies. Under the current system, he stresses, ‘the reality is your MP is not there to agree with you,’ but to make their own informed decisions on your behalf. ‘MPs are essential – but we have to help them,’ with more understanding and also more outreach projects from the government. He is campaigning himself for a law which will mean that any petition containing more than 2 million public signatures will automatically bring an issue to national referendum or legislation.

After each of the experts had had their way the floor was opened for questions: Senake wanted to know if it would be beneficial to have more transparency in the system, utilising modern technology, or ‘systems that actually make things happen,’ to quantify MPs’ productivity. Nick pointed out that it is already required for local councils to publish details of any expenditure above £5000, which Peter felt had led to an explosion of largely useless information. There is now ‘so much data that is out there that you can hide things in plain sight.’ He felt that, more important than what MPs were spending their lunch money on, was to know how they felt on the issues that concerned their constituents, on which they were notoriously hard to pin down. Many did not even bother to register their opinions on barometers like the EDM, a measure of gauging politicians’ opinion before a question was formally raised. Nick, however, believed that when MPs did make up their mind and vote on an issue – the only real way of determining whether they had acted in the interests of their constituents and the public – there were means in place to monitor them. He mentioned independent website ‘theyworkforyou.com’, which displayed how each borough’s local MP voted.

Two other proposals were, first, the total abolition of political parties – with each candidate standing as an independent – and greater devolution of powers to local government. On the first issue, it was believed to be a beautiful ideal but unrealistic in principle. Nick, who had working knowledge of the system, believed that working within a party platform provided ‘clarity and leadership.’ He described how contacts from the Kuwaiti government, whose form of parliamentary representation is formed entirely of independents, often confessed to him that they ‘never get anything done.’ On the second, he was also averse to reform of the current system, which he limited to giving local government more power to encourage small businesses, and possibly a degree of autonomy over local income tax. Peter claimed this was not nearly far enough; that under the current system ‘we do not have local government.’ The autonomy of councillors over key issues like local policing and healthcare is nonexistent. In Birmingham the local government cannot even make decisions about how the buses run – a phenomenon which has given rise to the phrase ‘postcode lottery,’ whereby councils’ powers vary according to their luck in regional geography.

The question seems to come down to whether the problems with the system are down to voter and local government apathy, or whether voter and local government apathy are due to the current system. While Ruth claimed that, of those surveyed, only 50% of the public wanted more of a say in national decision-making, and 55% in local, this may be due to a sense of general disillusionment and disenfranchisement. Global21 organizer Francis Sealey pointed out that in Sweden, which has Europe’s highest electoral turnout, 80% of expenditure comes from local income tax, over which residents have a much higher level of control and which acts to engender more of a sense of local community. Perhaps the thing Britain needs first, though, is a greater understanding of the sheer range of duties an MP is required to fulfil. And, unlike a regular job, the ultimate assessment of their performance – re-election –  has ‘almost nothing to do with achievement,’ at least on a personal level. They are judged also on the achievements of their party, and on socio-economic circumstances, and media hype, over which they have virtually no control.

 

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