The collapse of the centre, and reforming the House of Commons

Together with national journalism, national politics is held in high disrepute. In the public mind the expenses scandal is seen alongside the hacking scandal. Turnout at elections continues to decline. We are told this week of a proposed 11% pay rise for MPs. Never mind the details that it is proposed by Ipsa and not by MPs, and there is a reduced pension later on – the 11% headline is what will stick in the public memory. And it gets worse.

In his recent blog the leader of Manchester council complains about MPs having ‘nothing better to do’ than put their oar in on council issues, such as the state of the roads or the level of Council tax.

Women MPs are said to be planning to stand down at the next general election in unprecedented high numbers, having endured the sexism of “debate” behaviour in the House of Commons along with feeling irrelevant as MPs – so near government and yet so far from being included.

Until recently, it was the received wisdom that the introduction of Select Committees of MPs was a great step forward, giving MPs a strong scrutinising role across the departments of government, being able to take the time to master their brief. But apart from the Public Accounts Committee, it is hard to see that these scrutiny committees have much improved an aspect of government policy or delivery in recent times. MPs on other committees may bemoan that the PAC gets all the star witnesses, and therefore TV coverage, but good and steady work in the background should still be possible for any select committee worth its salt.

Talking about his book, The Blunders of Government, (2013), Professor Anthony King has commented that reform of the House of Commons is now more important than trying to modernise the House of Lords, and he is right.

I had a recent conversation with a young man from Scotland. Last year I would have said that Scottish Independence was unlikely, the vote maybe 35:65. This year I’m not so sure. What crystallised this change for me was talking to this young man about the feelings of his friends about the bedroom tax (spare room subsidy). It is keenly felt by them, rightly or wrongly, as indicative of a wide gulf between the cultures and economic pressures of the south east of England and of Scotland.

I would like to think that a stronger, reformed House of Commons would have sensed this feeling early on and spoken its truth to power. But instead, MPs themselves say they feel sidelined, left only to issue local press releases on the state of the roads.

In 2014 the independence vote will come after the European elections, which themselves seem set to widen divisions within the parties as well as between them. All this fracturing within the House of Commons will be unedifying and will not help Parliament regain public trust.

Maybe we should vote for Professor King instead.

Disclaimer – personal views only, as ever.

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