by Chris McLaughlin
As a divided, bewildered and frustrated nation braces itself for an imminent general election, the role and very purpose of Parliament is coming under scrutiny.
Brexit and the failure to reach a collective decision one way or another about the best way to fulfil the mandate of the 2016 referendum have reduced the institution to what many castigate as the “zombie parliament”.
“We don’t know what we are doing or what we are for anymore,” said one Labour MP staring into his glass in the Commons Strangers’ bar. Behind him the annunciator screen relaying progress on business in the chamber indicated that the House would be rising early. Again. This time after only three and a half hours.
Later, another Labour MP, from the other end of the party political spectrum, told Newsnight that the Commons was like “the Marie Celeste”, MPs were “asking ourselves what we are doing here” in what she called “the theatre of the absurd”. It was, the member for Wakefield suggested for good measure, “the end of days”.
And that was before the Supreme Court ruled that Boris Johnson’s prorogation had “frustrated and prevented” the Commons from doing its work. MPs duly returned to the Chamber to present an unedifying spectacle of acrimony and abuse. Parliament back in action.
At times in the legislative hiatus of Brexit the Government has failed to put forward sufficient business to keep the chamber busy for full-day sittings, ministers could barely be bothered to come into Parliament to oppose issues tabled by the Opposition parties to fill the time.
While the deadlock over Brexit has been mainly to blame for the severity of the paralysis, it is by no means the only cause. The rot set in a long time ago. Parliament’s disconnection from the people, it’s failure adequately to speak and act for, yet alone include, vast swathes of those it purports to represent is not new. The subject fills the bookshelves of academics, constitutionalists, lawyers and the great and good up and down a country dubbed the “Mother of all Parliaments”.
Nine years ago, a two-year inquiry by a specially appointed Speaker’s Conference concluded that: “At present, few people think that MPs understand, or share, the life experiences of the people they represent.” Well blow me down! - might be the polite response of the millions who have reached voting age since and who could be forgiven for having missed the resultant difference.
That report lamented the “under-representation” of groups such as women, ethnic minorities, LGBT as well as the decline in people voting in elections and the shrinkage in political party membership. Back then, it didn’t include environmentalists. Churches, trade unions and adult education colleges it said “longer have as strong a role in communities as they did in the past”.
Yet individual participation in politics has now risen beyond measure and Labour has dramatically reversed the historical decline in membership, just two factors in mounting pressure for radical reform.
The members of that Speaker’s Conference – mostly MPs - asked Government to “consider” a list of concerns. And that was that. Like all of the inquiries before, and some more specifically limited ones since, there was an inbuilt fault. It looked at how best MPs could represent people in an unchanged, unchallenged framework; not how adequately the framework fitted the requirements of the people. Bottom down, not bottom up.
All major change, from the “great” Reform Bills of 1832, 1867 and 1884 which “gave” the vote to first a minority and then a majority of men while specifically excluding women, came as a result of struggle by those denied a democratic voice. Universal suffrage was won in struggle but not till all women had equal voting rights with men in 1928. Less than 100 years ago. Our modern Parliament is merely in its adolescence, with plenty of room for maturity. The struggle now is against the vested-interest complacency which says: If it ain’t broke don’t fix it.
Well, it is broke. So what would be better? First, no fundamental reform will work without something drastic being done about the Lords which, inconveniently, is currently showing more energetic application than the Commons to the task of democratic discourse, with better attendance and forensic debate. Fully, elected, fully appointed, a hybrid, abolition or transformation into a night club called Ermin’s? The question has not been resolved.
For the Commons, there has been talk – in the absence of much else – about a complementary role for a national Citizens’ Assembly to “muscle up our feeble democracy to fight populism and elitism and answer the question of how to reconnect with the people it is meant to serve”. The sticky problem has been in deciding on the membership of such a body, and how to fit in all the great and good who think it’s a great idea.
Meanwhile, progress is being made. As the Palace of Westminster literally crumbles away, a temporary replica is planned elsewhere to house MPs while refurbishment takes place. It is in the same confrontational configuration as the present chamber and, like its parent, will deliberately have too few seats for all our representatives to take their seats at the same time. Maturity may be slow.