Written by Jake Roberts
Upon watching BBC Two’s Inside The Commons, which finished its four part run on Tuesday (I apologise for being a week late with this – the calls of soulless minimum wage labour beckoned me), the main thing I was struck by was just how incredibly antiquated all the corners of our Houses of Parliament are. It was not a new feeling to me; having visited Parliament as a shamefully nerdy birthday gift last December, I was, again, struck by the grandeur of the palace, the Victorian outfits, the mock-Gothic architecture and the centuries old paintings that decorate every wall. But Parliament was in recess – it was merely a building I was walking around while listening to an audio tour which kept getting interrupted by John Bercow.
With Inside The Commons, though, Parliament was no longer just a building but a living, breathing legislature. And it turns out that it is not just the building that is archaic – so are its operations. The show, narrated by Michael Cockerell, takes mischievous glee in exploring the various out-dated ‘quirks’ of Parliament, from each day beginning with morning prayers to Black Rod being shut out of the Commons every year before the annual State Opening of Parliament (there are many more, even more specific and bizarre). The presence of the larger than life Commons Clerk Robert Rogers, draped in Victorian clothing like many other members of staff, in the first episode further added to the feeling that the Commons was a kooky old law factory as opposed to a modern, efficient legislature.
I imagine some may be “charmed” by these traditions or ‘quirks’. Perhaps there is a certain nostalgia if your upbringing was particularly aristocratic, Victorian or just tragic in general. The Conservatives in the programme generally were of this mindset. David Cameron described the Houses as “like a school”, which would only be the case if you went to some aristocratic fuck-off expensive independent school founded in the thirteen-whatevers, or Hogwarts. Unfortunately, David Cameron is not a fictional character played by the dreamy Daniel Radcliffe, so in his case it’s the former.
The same applies to fellow Etonian Jacob Rees-Mogg, who plays the role of the de facto protagonist or Gilligan-esque antihero of the documentary depending on your perspective, popping in to make various cameo appearances in every episode. With every appearance, Rees-Moggs becomes increasingly smug, posh, condescending and all-round insufferable, butting in to defend the 18th century traditions of Parliament as if without them society would crumble and we would all lose our Buckinghamshire country houses to the bloody taxman. His appearances would be funny if he were not actually an elected representative who for some reason actually has some influence over how we are governed. In one depressing sequence, Rees-Mogg filibusters a Private Member’s Bill called the Affordable Homes Bill, which proposes to mitigate the effects of the unpopular “bedroom tax”. Taking delight in his ability to spew convoluted waffle intended to harm those less well off, the bill makes little progress at committee stage. It is then effectively killed off by staunch Conservative opposition, with the Chancellor denying it a money resolution, preventing it from moving on to the next ‘stage’ of the law making process. All this, despite getting a majority vote in the Commons following a Lib Dem rebellion. It makes for angering watching. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eoTSo1uB22c
But I digress. What I was trying to express before I got blinded by my hatred of Jacob Rees-Mogg was that although these ‘quirks’ might be charming to a select few, they acutely reflect a Parliament that is not just hopelessly out of touch and unrepresentative, but also inefficient on a practical level.
The fact is, walking around the Houses of Parliament does not make you feel like a citizen, it makes you feel like a subject, and that is not how it should be. It may be idealistic, but we should be more seriously striving towards a Parliament that is more representative and welcoming, and not isolating. If we do not, injustices such as the bedroom tax, 4 years of real wage decreases or austerity in general will continue to fracture our society and democracy. And, to me at least, there seem to be few big, simple, constitutional ideas that would begin to reverse the direction we are heading in.
For starters, proportional representation. This is my personal first step in any ‘democratic revolution’. The electoral system we have at the moment, first past the post, is remarkably unrepresentative (as this article from May2015.com shows http://may2015.com/featured/would-you-like-5-million-votes-and-4-seats-or-1-million-votes-and-56-seats/). It is designed to produce majorities, and consequently hugely inflates the power of the two biggest parties while massively silencing the voice of any minority party. As a result, Westminster becomes more and more of a bubble as the main two parties dominate the political airwaves. It is such a broken system that political parties are practically forced to play it like a game: important figures in the party are parachuted into safe seats where they are unlikely to lose, while pouring massive resources into marginal seats. The Electoral Reform Society estimated in 2010 that about 60% of seats were ‘safe’, while around 80 were ‘very marginal’. In other words, first past the post makes most people’s votes insignificant (http://www.electoral-reform.org.uk/wasted-votes/ 52.8% of votes were ‘wasted’ in 2010) while putting huge significance on swing voters in marginal seats – a tiny percent of the electorate. It is a wholly undemocratic system that thieves most voters of any power for the sake of producing ‘stable’ majorities.
Another thing the programme made me want to do was just simply move Parliament. As in, just move it to Manchester, for example. There are numerous advantages to this. Firstly, it allows us to be represented in a centuries old building that’s impossible to navigate (many MPs in the series had ‘amusing’ – ie. not really amusing – stories of getting lost in the maze of corridors) and just scer-eams ‘entrenched class system’. Secondly, it would allow us to rejuvenate Parliament’s operations, doing away with stupid Victorian traditions like voting with your feet (literally – MPs vote by walking into an ‘Aye’ or ‘No’ lobby in an 8 minute interval. It is a process that could be done in seconds electronically) while fully embracing modern technology that would streamline democracy and, in theory, better connect the electorate to their representatives. Lastly, it would give some much needed relief to London and the South East (which is hogging all the job creation http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/divided-uk-for-every-12-jobs-created-in-the-south-one-is-lost-in-the-north-9986656.html while concurrently having the highest house prices in the UK by a large margin) and help truly rebalance our economy by revitalising the northern economy (where ‘north’ pretty much means ‘anywhere that isn’t London or the South East’, such is the depressing situation we are in) which has, figuratively speaking, been laid to waste for over 30 years now. It is a catchy and populist soundbite to say ‘we’re going to make a northern economic powerhouse’, but an attempt to move Parliament would at least show they were somewhat serious. The Tories, especially, have nothing electorally to gain from investing in a northern infrastructure – they are widely reviled in many parts of the north, and running more trains or buses isn’t going to change that (public transport and infrastructure aren’t particularly hot political topics, though they should be).
Am I being facetious? Mostly. After all there are plenty of ways to revitalise regions of an economy without relocating an entire legislature there, and the whole process of relocation would most likely be rather disruptive to the whole process of running a country. But the whole sentiment behind the idea, an idea dreamed up by me as a response to the ‘Westminster bubble’ so curiously documented in Inside The Commons, is still pertinent. No, we may not need to move Parliament completely (although if we want to, Generation Rent recently outlined a way to http://www.generationrent.org/a_new_look_for_parliament ), but it is quite clear radical change needs to be taken in order to trigger cultural changes that will strengthen our democracy and rebalance the economy. Proportional representation is just one way of doing this, and there are numerous others. Tax breaks for businesses centred in deprived areas, increased public transport investment outside London and the South East (transport spending per head is £2,700 in London, compared to an absolutely shocking £5 per head in the North East http://www.ippr.org/news-and-media/press-releases/transport-spend-per-head-is-p2700-for-london-but-p5-per-head-in-north-east ) and huge investment in a currently small green industry, which could be located in the north of the country and create huge swathes of jobs are just a few ways of economically balancing things. From a democratic point of view an embrace of modern technology could do wonders, for example electronic/internet voting for the public in elections and for MPs on bills, as could more devolution and localism, which would in theory bring politics closer to the public and make Westminster feel less like a distant monolith.
As a heart-warming coda, I feel I should mention that Inside The Commons didn’t just fill me with dread and pessimism about the state of our democracy. In spite of the disturbing presence of Jacob Rees-Mogg throughout, the show made a concerted effort to document the trials and tribulations of MPs who were actually genuinely good people, trying to stand up for causes they believed in. The first episode followed Labour’s Sarah Champion, former social worker, fighting for an amendment in a bill that would better protect victims of child abuse. Warm, open and charismatic, she was a welcome reminder that not all MPs are drab and narcissistic careerists. Steve Rotheram, Labour MP for Liverpool Walton, meanwhile, was a hugely refreshing presence in the series. A former bricklayer who worked his way up, Rotheram stood in stark contrast to many of his colleagues, many of whom could be described simply as middle class drones who followed the university – thinktank -special advisor – safe seat – MP route. In short, more MPs like him are needed. Finally, there was even a seemingly okay Tory MP that popped up sporadically in the programme, member for Brigg and Goole Andrew Percy. Armed with a Lancashire accent and a self-deprecating sense of humour, Percy was surprisingly personable in the programme, a statement not befitting of many Conservative MPs. Put simply, he was the Luigi to Jacob Rees-Mogg’s Waluigi.
Nonetheless, there was the continued sense throughout the programme that these ‘good MPs’ were fighting for change in an environment that resisted it. “Backbench MPs have no real power” many were told. In an age of increasingly fractured politics, this surely can be the case no longer. Let’s hope so.