Monday, 28 October 2019

Restoring parliament

"Westminster politics is seen as aggressive, entitled, phoney and unprofessional, a braying bear pit hopelessly out of step with modern workplaces, where respect and empathy are increasingly valued." says Harriet Harman reflecting on her 40 years in parliament.

This is, of course, a bid for the Speaker's chair. She will make all the right noises but nothing will actually change. Leaving aside that Harman has a questionable record, the problem is bigger than any one person's capacity to resolve. Half the problem is our media.

Were I to go out into the high street and ask passers by to name a few MPs the responses would be predictable. There seems to be two kinds of MPs. Those who seek the media spotlight (and get it) and those who do all in their power to avoid it. We know everything about the former and nothing about the latter so our perceptions of MPs form up on the view that they are narcissistic, slippery and quite a bit thick.

Of the ones who do register in the public eye most will be prolific tweeters. Their time in the Commons is viewed less as an opportunity to make a pertinent point as it is to provide fodder for their next social media video clip, signalling to the folks back home that they're raising issues important to them, or parading their own right-on credentials.

Too often are we subjected to grandstanding and lip wobbling emoting along with staged walk outs or sit-ins - which tells us virtually everything they do is calculated in accordance with the "optics". It was bad before social media when MPs competed to get their face on the Six O'clock News, but now MPs have their own media operations where they can prepare and promote their own selectively edited content.

Respect for parliament really comes down to one factor. The more we see of them the more we hate them. The 24/7 media circus sustains this behaviour and encourages the cynical manipulative stunts we see all the time now - which has even spread to select committees. The dull forensic questions don't make it into the public eye but the finger-wagging and hectoring does. Unless there's a gimmick, the media isn't interested. 

The obvious answer is that cameras need to come out of the Commons. Having cameras in their creates a cottage industry in punditry which turns our MPs into performing seals. We cannot talk about trust in parliament when the presence of CCTV is an implicit statement that we do not trust them. Nothing they ever say or do is off record. Trust simply cannot happen when they are never let out of sight. 

But of course there is no putting that genie back in the bottle. Were MPs to move toward the removal of cameras they would face predictable accusations of seeking to hide from scrutiny. We could perhaps ration TV footage and limit it to special events and PMQs but that wouldn't be sufficient for the media mob.

Since we cannot, there is really only one answer and that is to dramatically reduce the role of Westminster in our politics. We need to see a lot less of them. We need to starve the media beast. This unhealthy politico-media bubble needs breaking up and moving out of London. Possibly the only thing in politics more inane than a virtue signalling MP is a Westminster lobby correspondent.

For all that we saw unedifying squabbles over the prorogation of parliament I was certainly not alone in asking what they would usefully do with the time otherwise. As it happens, nobody was remotely surprised to see parliament half empty and when it did sit, its output was of such little value that they may as well not have bothered. The fact is that we don't need parliament to sit passing laws all year round. Much of what it does could be devolved to local politics and would be improved for doing so. 

Brexit has done much to erode public confidence in our so-called democracy, stretching the limited abilities of MPs to the max, but if it wasn't this then it would be something else. Public frustration with our political process is partly why the public voted to leave the EU in 2016. We are long weary of the shenanigans and parlour games. We are tired to the hypocrisy and heartily sick of having it foisted on us without having a meaningful say.

As it happens I voted to leave the EU simply because I do not believe that decisions taken far away can ever be democratically informed decisions and the more centralised the decision making the more likely it is to be an ideas cartel, closely guarded by the corrupt and self-serving. That is true of Brussels but it is also true of London - which is why Brexit of itself does not solve very much - if anything at all.

For the last few months parliament has done itself no favours by obstructing our departure and many have warned that if they succeed in overthrowing the referendum of 2016 then there will be blood in the streets. There are days when I believe that and days when I'm not so sure. I think perhaps the effect would be much more subtle.

If we reach a stage where MPs have manoeuvred to silence the voice of half the country to assert their own supremacy, and so doing killing off any chance of meaningful change, then the public will quietly conclude that voting is pointless and leave them to it. They perhaps might like that but the consequences is a collapse in respect not only for parliament, but also the rule of law. If we are not ruled by a body with gravitas and legitimacy then the conventions that bind us, that make up a functioning society, will simply fall away.

If we ever are to restore public faith in our system then we must take the power away from Westminster and put it in the hands of the people. They won't always be right or even wise but at least then they will own the consequences of their decisions. For as long as the public are ruled over rather than participants in their own democracy, the rulers will always be the object of hate. That is not a sustainable basis for government. 

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