Friday, 6 June 2014
The Westminster sausage-machine
We should be grateful that Labour speakers in the early exchanges on the Queen's Speech debate did not resort to the "zombie government" rhetoric which has featured so strongly during the recess. The most notable culprit is the shadow Leader of the House, who seems convinced that the Commons is doing its work only if it is churning out legislation throughout its working hours (and preferably creating new imprisonable offences while it is at it). Of course, the full - probably too full - programme of Bills has stemmed the criticism. Some of these are overdue and worthwhile, like the recall and pubco legislation.
But this interchange on Wednesday:
illustrated that party managers and spin-doctors still treat the debating chamber with contempt. Speaker Bercow stands up for ordinary members so far as he is able, and has been subject to sniping from the Conservative side in part for it. However, it does require some sacrifices of media publicity by the leaders of the coalition to the benefit of the House as a whole. This will be difficult for David Cameron and Danny Alexander whose previous careers were in public relations. Restraint from the front bench of the Labour Party would be welcome, too. Mr Speaker: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his point of order. If Ministers have prepared material which they feel would be helpful in understanding the full import of the Queen’s Speech, I have no doubt they would wish to share it with hon. and right hon. Members as soon as possible.
Parliament is more than a machine for producing legislation - though Private Members' Bills have also been shamefully deprived of time in recent years. The great parliamentary speeches and interchanges of this generation which come to mind have been occasioned by self-standing motions or ministerial statements - the latter showing a welcome increase during this parliament. My one exception is the speech by Stephen Dorrell in favour of Lord's Reform, ironically in support of a Bill which the coalition was unwilling to assign proper parliamentary time for scrutiny. (It will no doubt be said during next year's election campaign that this or that party voted against the Lords Reform Bill. The truth is that each major party in the Commons voted in favour of the Bill; it was only the dispute between the two front benches over time allocation which prevented its proceeding.)
Peter Oborne in the Telegraph wrote that this government may rank with the greatest. It was certainly a game-changer, showing that continental-style coalitions can, even in the UK's antiquated system, be efficient and stable. Otherwise, I would say its legacy will be mixed. Steve Webb's pension improvements will stand for a long time. The shift back from casino capitalism to an industrial base for the economy will support us through the next hard times. There are many improvements which have received virtually no public recognition, like the Green Investment Bank, which will actually have some power thanks to Liberal Democrats. But then welcome support for pensioners and low-paid workers were counter-balanced by mean attacks on benefits (though these would have been even meaner without the Liberal Democrats in government) and may easily be reversed by future governments. Nothing has been done about the scandal of brass-plate companies through which UK money is able to flow abroad without the taxman being able to put his hands on it. The answer to the scandal of fixed-odds betting terminals is not to tax them (which merely makes them more attractive to the Treasury) but to repeal Labour's Gambling Act 2005.
For me, the great changes introduced in 2010 relate to the working of parliament. Cabinets may no longer appoint chairs of select committees which scrutinise among other things government decisions. Time is set aside for debates on matters decided by ordinary members, through the medium of the Back Bench Business Committee presided over assiduously by Natascha Engel. There are still improvements to be made and evidence (as above) that the executive is grabbing back power.
The signs are that there will be another hung parliament in 2015 or, if one party has a majority, it will be a slim one. This could be an arena in which the back-bench gladiators are able to reassert themselves and strike a blow against the executive and the party machines and for the people who put them there.
[Later: for a more informed comment, read Lord Tyler here.]