The other day, after lunch in the Palace of Westminster, I made my way to the atrium of Portcullis House, where hundreds of MPs have their offices, and settled down at a table which allowed a clear view of the entire space, with its water features and two rows of fig trees. If you sit there long enough the whole world passes by. On this Wednesday afternoon, however, I was struck by the absence of recognisable faces. There were many staffers and officials, but scarcely any MPs. A sad truth dawned on me: for many of the present generation of MPs, the business of Parliament occupies only two days a week. Most out of town MPs travel down on a Monday morning and leave soon after Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday. Anyone who has seen the chamber on a Thursday, or indeed at any time other than Wednesday at midday, will know it is usually embarrassingly empty. The majority of debates and even important statements are thinly attended. Increasingly the business of Parliament has to be shoe-horned into the two days on which sufficient MPs can be guaranteed to be present.
It’s not that MPs are lazy; on the contrary, many work long hours. It’s just that holding the government to account appears no longer to be a priority for them. The trend has been noticeable for some years but seems to have accelerated. Part of the explanation is that Brexit has so overwhelmed the business of government and public discourse that there is little legislation of any significance and, as a result, nothing to vote on. Three-line whips on a Wednesday or a Thursday are now virtually unheard of. Sometimes weeks go by without a meaningful vote.
Many MPs have young families to whom they are anxious to return, and constituents and constituency parties expect a great deal more from their elected representative than they used to. Long gone are the days when an MP could get away with a quarterly visit to his constituency, where he would be greeted on arrival by the stationmaster in his top hat. Or when grandees like the late Sir Arthur Irvine, who represented an impoverished area of Liverpool, could hold his occasional surgeries in the Adelphi Hotel. Nowadays an MP is expected to live or, at least, have a base in their constituency and to be highly visible.
The facilities available to MPs at the Commons have dramatically improved. The best a new MP could hope for forty years ago was a locker on the library corridor. Postage was strictly rationed and, until the 1960s, MPs were not allowed free phone calls outside London. The secretarial allowance was introduced in 1969 and gradually morphed into the office costs allowance which, by the late 1980s, was enough to enable MPs to establish constituency offices. Over the years these and other allowances have steadily increased, with the result that the role of an MP has been transformed. The downside is that MPs are increasingly constituency-focused and some, especially those who represent poorer areas, have become glorified advice workers, embroiled in issues that in many cases are more properly the province of councillors and local authorities. Some MPs in marginal seats actively prefer to devote their time to acting as fairy godmothers to their constituents. I’m in favour of constituency-based MPs. That’s not the problem. I was one myself. I wonder, however, if the balance has tipped too far. Scrutiny of the executive is what Parliament is supposed to be about.
Almost every MP has a website and many are on Facebook and Twitter, meaning that they are able to keep in touch with party members and constituents as never before. Some have taken to conducting bogus surveys, ostensibly to seek the opinion of the electorate on current issues, but in fact to harvest email addresses for their database in order to be able to communicate directly and frequently – in many cases all too frequently – with the voters. I once overheard an MP boasting that he could address a third of his constituents before breakfast. But bombarding one’s constituents with fatuous propaganda can have the opposite of the desired effect. It can also be a distraction. Witness the serried ranks of MPs, iPhones in hand, tweeting away on Budget Day while the chancellor is still on his feet.
One must, of course, beware old codgers like me claiming that it used to be better in their day. In many respects it wasn’t. The mindless trench warfare during the committee stage of major bills in which the opposition attempted to keep the government up all night is now a thing of the past, thanks in large part to an initiative taken by Tony Blair when he was Labour’s energy spokesman. Faced with a government bill to privatise the electricity industry he identified the three or four major issues he wanted to debate and suggested to the government whips that, if they would allow time for debate on the key clauses at a civilised hour, he wouldn’t filibuster. As a result the opposition was able to get its concerns on record at a time when the outside world was awake and the government got its bill, which was always going to happen anyway.
John Bercow, Speaker of the Commons since 2009, has proved robust in promoting the rights of Parliament at the expense of the executive, grown overmighty in the last half-century. Up to March this year he had granted a staggering 439 urgent questions, each requiring an appearance, at short notice, by a minister at the dispatch box. This compares with the handful granted by his predecessors. No wonder he is cordially loathed by the government, or that he has earned the grudging respect of backbenchers.
Another advance has been the rise of the select committees, which were established by the then Leader of the House, Norman St John Stevas, in the first year of Thatcher’s reign. Had she had any idea where the introduction of select committees would lead, she would have strangled them at birth. They have the power to summon ministers and officials and to poke their noses into any aspect of policy that takes their fancy. This, combined with the televising of Parliament, has made them an important part of the political landscape. In recent years they have flexed their muscles in areas previously undreamed of. The only reason we have seen the bankers, or Rupert Murdoch or Philip Green having to account for their sins is that they have been summoned by select committees. These days there is even a committee to which the intelligence and security services are supposed to be accountable – an imperfect one (it reports to the prime minister rather than Parliament and its reports are censored) but light years ahead of where we were thirty years ago, when the public was not even permitted to know the names of the service heads, never mind what they got up to. Chairing a select committee is now remunerated, making it an alternative to a ministerial career. The chair of one of the main select committees has more influence than most junior or middling ministers.
There has been a substantial increase in the number of female MPs. Since the war there has always been a handful of formidable female MPs – Barbara Castle, Bessie Braddock, Margaret Thatcher, Gwyneth Dunwoody – but never enough to change the boys’ club culture. It was not until the Blair revolution of 1997, which saw the election of 101 Labour women, that the tide began to turn. Since then the number of women in Parliament has steadily increased and now stands at 208, or about a third of the House. There are also a growing, though still small, number of MPs from ethnic minority backgrounds.
On the Labour side at least, the means by which the glass ceiling has been broken has been controversial. Such a large number of female MPs were elected in 1997 thanks to the introduction of mandatory all-women shortlists, which caused great resentment in some constituency parties. It is not uncommon for a vacancy in a women-only safe seat to attract as few as four or five applicants, as opposed to up to fifty or sixty in a constituency open to allcomers. Some of the existing women MPs were strongly opposed to all-women shortlists. ‘I’ll know we’ve got true equality in this place,’ Gwyneth Dunwoody said to me after the 1997 election, ‘when there are as many mediocre women as there are mediocre men.’ Then, with a mischievous glint in her eye, she added: ‘And do you know, I think we are nearly there.’ I went along reluctantly with all-women shortlists because I could see no other way of increasing the proportion of women MPs, but my feeling now is that the shortlists have done the job they were intended to do and should be phased out.
In one respect, the arrival of a significant number of younger female MPs changed the culture in Parliament not entirely for the better. Family-friendly hours are fine in theory, but in practice, since most MPs’ constituencies are beyond commuting distance, the principal beneficiaries are a relatively small elite of London-based MPs. The curtailment of late debates has meant the collapse of the evening economy of the Palace of Westminster. Another, little noticed consequence has been a dramatic reduction in opportunities for social interaction between backbenchers and ministers. Votes at 10 p.m. meant that ministers had to spend time in the tearoom (yes, and sometimes in the bars) engaging with the poor bloody infantry. A good deal of informal business also got done. These days, ministers are increasingly a class apart.
Every so often a ‘moderniser’ suggests that MPs should be permitted to vote by pressing a button rather than traipsing through the division lobbies and having their name ticked off by the clerks. I might have gone along with this myself before I was elected. But the division lobbies are the only place it is possible to track down ministers unaccompanied by an entourage. Everyone, including the prime minister, has to show up when there is a three-line whip, although the recent decline in such votes has lessened this opportunity.
Much has been written about the culture of entitlement at Westminster. The great expenses meltdown of 2009 was the low point, immensely damaging to the public image of Parliament and politicians generally. With hindsight, however, we can see that it was a triumph for the democratic process. The abuses were exposed as a result of the Freedom of Information Act introduced by some of the politicians who later found themselves in the firing line. Some long overdue reforms were introduced: the rules relating to what can and cannot be claimed were tightened; the system is now properly audited.
More recently there has been the suggestion that Parliament was a hive of sexual misconduct. The tabloids were thrilled by the prospect of another scandal to rival the expenses scandal, but it never took off. Some accusations were made, a couple of heads rolled. ‘I was surprised how little there was,’ a friend remarked. So was I, given that Parliament is a workplace for about five thousand people. Potentially more damaging in the long run is the fact that many MPs can only be bothered to turn up for two days a week. A government that is allowed to function more or less unchallenged will become a law unto itself. And, after all, if MPs don’t take Parliament seriously, why should anyone else?