The public gets what the public wants

13 Oct 06
DAVID LIPSEY | Parliament returned this week. So who gives a stuff?

Parliament returned this week. So who gives a stuff?

This is the fag-end of a seemingly unending session that began with the general election of May 2005 — remember that?

Few memorable pieces of legislation remain to be decided. There are not that many unquelled rebellions nor opportunities for their lordships to bloody the government’s nose. No reshuffle is pending; and for once the leaders of both the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties are secure in their places.

Politics has been rather exciting during the summer recess, with the Labour Party at one stage threatening to go back to its

death-wish days. Now that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have apparently reached a truce, it is hard to see things picking up.

So Parliament returns, unmourned in its absence, unnoticed in its presence, barely meriting a paragraph in even the heaviest newspapers.

Now, this is not yet another lament about the uselessness of Parliament. As a participant/observer of the place, I would not wish to bite the hand that feeds me. And one great advantage of being in the place is seeing the amount of modestly useful work that is going on.

It is 33 years since I started work at Westminster, and I have no hesitation in saying that the place is immensely improved. The average quality of MPs is higher. Then, the Commons in particular was heavily populated with failed businessmen and ex-trade union bigwigs who had failed to get the plum jobs on their unions’ executive and the TUC.

Today’s MPs could not dream of the amount of drink that was then consumed — most of the time many members were too legless to work.

MPs, it is true, no longer crowd the chamber, although quite what benefit the nation derived from bums on green baize I do not now recall.

Instead, they tend to be in their offices, with their staff attending to their constituents. When I first began work for Anthony Crosland, who later became foreign secretary, it was a rough week when 30 Grimbarians wrote to beg his assistance. Thirty a day would be a light load now.

However, MPs, for all their moaning, are not just welfare officers. Take, for example, the rise of the select committees. Those who lobbied for them did so on the grounds that politics was not just about big set-piece rows, but about the minutiae of holding the executive to account.

And that the select committees do, the best of them, anyway. Their work has been supplemented by the most significant of all recent parliamentary reforms: the growth of pre-legislative scrutiny, where committees take evidence on Bills before they get to the floor of either House.

MPs are now nearly all full time on the job (no sniggers!). Their offices are better staffed. They are properly briefed. On any single subject of importance in public policy, there must be at least six MPs who are remarkably well informed; and at least six peers too. The debate at, say, the Parliamentary Labour Party’s backbench group on health is remarkably well informed and probably the single most effective way of keeping ministers in touch.

Parliament is better equipped too. The quality of both Commons’ and Lords’ libraries, for example, is quite remarkable.

Finally, a word on my dwelling place, the Lords. The chamber 33 years ago was dead on its feet. Although we do not have elections, even fervent believers that we should, such as the academic Meg Russell, have noted the House’s revived belief in its legitimacy. Because the results of votes are unpredictable, you get huge turnouts for divisions, and an air of excitement (if that is not a contradiction in terms in a House where members’ average age is 69).

The Lords is not mostly important for what it does. It invariably backs down in the end. It is important for what the government would do if it did not know it had the upper House to deal with.

So if Parliament is so improved, why do so many believe it is dying? One answer, of course, is that its proceedings are of no interest to the press. For Parliament is at its best over policy, a nd most policy is not of interest to the mainstream media.

But there is another which perhaps goes deeper. Essential to the character of Parliament was the perceived nature of its members. They were accepted as being representatives only in the Burkean sense of representative, owing the electors their judgement.

That phase in history, for better or worse, has passed. Today, although most people spend little time studying politics, they nevertheless insist that their views are what should matter.

Polls, focus groups, referendums, citizens’ juries — these are the arbiters of what the people want. And it is taken for granted that, by and large, what the people want they should have. Reform Parliament as you will; while that is the case it will remain a sideshow.

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