Unpicking one or two issues with Westminster and local government politics
In part this blogpost bounces off the back of Iain Dale’s blogpost Why I am Falling Out of Love with Politics. Iain was one of the pioneers of political blogging and was the brains behind Total Politics magazine. We may not agree on many things politically, but then politics would be a boring place if it was full of people who did nothing but agree with each other. I watched with interest during my civil service days Iain’s ultimately unsuccessful attempts to get into Parliament. Again, while I may not agree with his politics, I think he’d have made more than a half-decent MP in the mould of someone like Dr Sarah Wollaston MP – independent-minded and not cowed by whips. Indeed, it’s those MPs that have an interactive social media profile that seem to be the ones who are more independent-minded.
Thus we come to Question Time
…which this week was particularly woeful. A couple of my Twitter friends were in the audience this week and the feedback from one of them was about the level of cynicism and disbelief about what the politicians were saying. Ben Bradshaw, the former Culture Secretary, and Anna Soubry, the Health Minister came in for particular criticism on Puffles’ Twitterfeed. It reminded me of when Ben Bradshaw got slam-dunked by an audience member in a previous episode at the height of the expenses crisis. Bradshaw was trying to explain to the audience why it was ‘for Parliament’ to sort out the expenses crisis, not the Government. The first thing I thought to myself was: “Does the general public differentiate between Parliament and Government?” (Or for that matter, Government and the Civil Service?)
How far have we progressed from the expenses scandal?
On things like select committee independence and the use of urgent questions, I’d like to think they have been two of the success stories. But the problem for me remains that Parliament still behaves in a manner that is subservient to the executive rather than a powerful scrutiniser of it. It is all too easy for the government of the day to dismiss select committee reports almost without having read them. Parliament too – not just through the payroll vote but through the patronage of the whips mean that there is very little chance of backbenchers getting together and compelling the government to act. We saw this on the Votes at 16 debate. On a free vote, the Commons voted in favour. But will we any concrete proposals stemming from it? I’m not holding my breath. (Irrespective of the merits of the proposal).
The nature of debate
It’s stunted. Big Time. Whether it’s on BBC Question Time, questions to ministers in Parliament, or even when politicians are interviewed in the news, the format significantly restricts the ability to explore in detail any specific issues or policies.
In the first two cases, there is no chance for follow-ups. One of the things we saw in Leveson was the impact of a skilled scrutiniser (Robert Jay QC) being able to develop an argument through a series of very well thought-through questions. The career of Jeremy Hunt should have been ended at Leveson. Instead, in my view he allowed his special adviser to take the hit. But Hunt survived a no-confidence motion – a motion very rarely used in Parliament. A bad day for Parliament, a bad day for politics.
With departmental questions, once a month the ministerial team of each department has to appear before the House of Commons to respond to questions from MPs. I say “respond” rather than answer because all too often questions are not properly answered. Because individual MPs have only one shot (and unfortunately want to make a party political point), it’s all to easy for ministers to respond with ‘yah boo sucks’. That goes for the current and previous administrations too. Trying to make that single parliamentary question land is not easy at all. In one sense, John Bercow (The Speaker) has forced MPs to sharpen up their acts with shorter, sharper questions that get to the point, rather than allowing rambling theses to be read out. But the problem remains that without a format that enables MPs generally to develop arguments and points, we are lumbered with lines-to-take tennis. Which is just like BBC Question Time.
What would a different format look like?
As someone said on Twitter – I forget who – what about having a format where a particular issue can be unpicked in a public forum over an hour or 90 minutes. One subject over a period of time that forces politicians to go beyond lines to take. You could even encourage people to submit their own questions or perhaps even more usefully, lines of questioning for the panel to deal with. Having a host who is a skilled questioner would be essential here. I’ve seen the format work in other countries, so why not here? The challenge here would be persuading the (broadcast) media to trial this.
As far as Parliament goes, having counsel permanently attached to select committees would make a huge difference for me. Precedent has been set with the Banking Commission. Why not for the rest of them?
Politicians: Are you a do-er or a scrutiniser?
For me, this is what differentiates whether someone wants to be an effective backbencher or whether they have ministerial ambitions. Again, for me the problem is structure. I don’t have a problem with people who have ministerial ambitions per se. I still remember the case of Labour’s Georgia Gould when she was fighting to be Labour’s candidate for what was seen as a safe Labour seat amidst what was not the cleanest of contests. The interview that still stands out is this one. Have a look at the last four paragraphs. Therein lies the structural problem. By being open about ministerial ambitions, detractors can accuse her of not wanting to put the needs of potential constituents first – hence her immediate reaction. Coming back to my oft-made point, this is one of the reasons why executive and legislature should be separate. If people like Georgia want to aim for ministerial office, that’s fine. But let’s not have the steps towards it involving being parachuted into a safe constituency (irrespective of political flag) in the process.
How safe is your seat?
This is the problem that does my head in locally too. I happen to live in the constituency of Cambridge. In the school I am a governor for, the constituency is South Cambridgeshire. The former constituency has been held by each of the three main parties in my lifetime. The latter constituency is a safe-as-houses Tory stronghold. Ideal seat for a minister/shadow minister? It won’t surprise you that South Cambridgeshire is Andrew Lansley’s seat. Cambridge on the other hand has a more vibrant feel to it because it is more closely contested, even though the local Conservatives have struggled to make their votes in the last general election convert into council seats in the City Council – they only have one. On the County Council (we’re two-tier in the city, three-tier in rural areas of the county) the Conservatives dominate. Can you see the potential problems already? City councils historically run by Labour or Liberal Democrats having to work with a Conservative-run county council? The point is not one being better than the other, rather different local political parties with different visions struggling to see eye-to-eye for the benefit of the city.
I’ve seen this in constituencies where it’s the other way around too. In another part of the country I saw from afar the differences between one Labour MP who had a safe-as-houses seat vs another who had a very tight marginal seat. For one Labour MP it meant not having to work nearly as hard as the other, who had to be out and about in the town far more regularly.
Who gets to decide who stands?
This is one of the other problems. There is the sound principle that if you want to stand for a party, you’ve got to put in some ground work. You can’t just rock up and demand to be selected. This is one of the issues that several of my Conservative Twitter-friends and followers (I do have them) mentioned with the idea of open primaries – citing Louise Mensch as an example. Far better they say, for the local party to select a long-standing councillor who has done the years – sometimes decades – of work locally, than an A-lister with HQ backing.
Yet given the percentage of the population that are members of political parties, doesn’t it feel strange that the structures we have give a small minority of the population this ability to filter who does and does not get selected? I mentioned Iain Dale for the Tories at the start of this article. Jon Worth is a classic case for Labour. Labour, you’re idiots for not selecting him as one of your candidates for the next European Parliament elections. And it happens far too much. Independently-minded talented people who can think for themselves are squeezed out through the selection processes so that, all too often we are left with compliant lobby-fodder who will do the bidding of party leaderships.
How much control are political leaders prepared to relinquish?
The elephant in the room in this social media world. The bonds that may have brought and held people together 40 years ago are not the same ones as today. The large and relatively stable communities have given way to much more mobile populations. The large employers of yesteryear (with the large trade union membership that often went with them) are few and far between. But how vibrant are local parties these days? I have one Labour and two Conservative club houses in my neighbourhood. But how ‘inclusive’ do they look when (for one of them in particular) there is a big board that says “Members Only”?
When it comes to party policy making, to what extent are members allowed to be free thinkers and to what extent are they expected to parrot the lines given from Party HQ? The civil service is trying to run with the idea of open policy making. Shouldn’t political parties be doing exactly the same thing too? Or is it much easier to be a wealthy major donor of a political party in order to get the ear of the leadership? £50,000 for the Conservatives’ Leadership Group if you’re interested – scroll to the end.
It’s not just the Conservatives with issues on party funding. The Committee for Standards in Public Life recently published it’s 14th report. The executive summary is essential reading – and says that the issue of party funding must be resolved because of “suspicion about the motivation behind large donations and what is received in return”.
If you want to get a feel for some of the other issues around politics, policy and public life (and what needs to be done), read that report. Because standards matter.
[Updated to add:]
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