Parliament has changed enormously during my 34 years as an MP – but three criticisms of it have not changed. First: it is just a talking shop and a waste of time. Second: MPs are voting fodder doing what the whips tell them. And third, that it is too adversarial and we should unite to do what is best for the country.
Looking back, I am convinced that the first of those criticisms is only half true; the second no longer true: and the third the opposite of the truth.
It is true that Parliament is a talking shop, but wrong that it is a waste of time. The very word Parliament comes from the French ‘parler’. There are only two ways to govern a country. Either, the government imposes the laws and taxes and we have no say in the matter. Or, the way we have evolved in this country over a thousand years, where no law can be imposed, no tax levied unless it has been discussed in principle and in detail until it wins the assent of a majority of elected representatives of the people. Debate is better than decree. The two red lines down the centre of the Chamber keep us two sword lengths apart so that we use words not swords to win consent.
MPs may once have been docile lobby fodder. In the 1950s whole years passed without a single vote being cast against the whip. But that has been less true in each successive Parliament. During Mrs Thatcher’s 12 years as PM her MPs cast some 4259 votes against the government whip. During Tony Blair’s 12 years the number of dissenting votes rose to 6520. And in each subsequent Parliament the whips have been less successful in herding their flocks into their lobby. Why? In my first parliament, if constituents wrote urging me to oppose some government measure, I would send back the official departmental reply – and usually heard no more. Subsequently, as voters became less deferential some began to write back criticising the official letter. I would compose something more convincing – and usually heard no more. Come the internet, some would take issue even with my arguments. And sometimes they would convince me rather than vice versa. This combination of less deferential voters and far greater exchange of views has encouraged Members to disregards their whips more frequently.
Consequently, governments must now persuade rather than bully their MPs, modify their policies or win over other parties. On the whole, this is desirable and makes Parliament a more vibrant and interesting place – though it is odd that few of our commentators have noticed this. Of course, it could go too far. If all MPs abandoned all party loyalty and voted on each issue according to their own preference, stable government would become impossible and electors would not have a proper choice between alternative governing parties. A balance between party loyalty and independent judgement is necessary.
The criticism of our adversarial system and pressure to all work together for a common objective, though well meaning, is potentially dangerous. It is virtually a call for a one-party state. Good government needs a vigorous opposition to keep it on its toes. Sadly because of Labour’s disarray we lack that at the moment. My greatest concern for democracy in this country is the potential extinction of Labour outside London – unless it can reconnect with its patriotic working class roots.
I think Harold Macmillan said that when both front benches agree, still worse when Parliament is unanimous, it is invariably wrong. Certainly, the greatest mistakes in my time have come when the adversarial system has not operated properly. The Climate Change Act was passed with just 5 dissenting votes including mine. All the main parties were competing to signal their virtue which required a disregard for cost. Throughout the Bill’s passage no supportive Member discussed its cost even though the government’s own cost benefit analysis showed the potential cost was twice the maximum benefit. You did not have to disagree with the objective to conclude that we should look for a way of tackling global warming which cost less than the benefits. During the final vote, it snowed in London in October for the first time in 74 years. But that Providential hint that projections of global warming might be exaggerated failed to disturb the consensus!
When sending our troops into action it is always difficult for the Opposition to be too adversarial. But agreement between the front benches during the long prelude to the Iraq War, meant the evidence for the existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction was not properly examined even though, as I showed at the time, a close reading of the government’s own dossier and the Blix Report showed that there were none.
The most sustained collusion between the two front benches was over the EU. Opposition to the slow seepage of power from Parliament to unaccountable EU institutions was consigned to a brave handful of Members, ridiculed as head bangers and worse. I tried to highlight the seepage of power away from Westminster by introducing a Bill to relate our pay to our power. The oddest thing was the reluctance to acknowledge that this was happening. Ministers nobly defend and accept responsibility for Brussels’ legislative progeny, in whose conception they have often played little part. They prefer to claim paternity rather than admit impotence-the fate of the cuckold across the ages.
There are still areas where Parliament has colluded to prevent debate – notably about immigration. Just raising the topic risked being labelled a racist. As a result, we will be intellectually unprepared when we have to extend immigration controls over EU citizens.
The taboo on discussing immigration extended to the two areas where its consequences have been most marked – housing and training. Governments have made more than a dozen statements about housing without once alluding to the impact of mass immigration. In my experience, most of our social problems and many of our economic problems are either caused or aggravated by the acute housing shortage. Yet both front benches pretend that allowing a net 4 million people (mainly of child bearing age) to settle here has no effect on the availability of homes.
Likewise, both front benches justify mass immigration by claiming that we need to import skills. A healthy society would make training British people the priority and import skills as a last resort. Instead we import skills first and consigned domestic training our domestic workforce as an afterthought. Consequently, the amount spent on training has declined and fewer UK born workers have vocational and technical skills than any of our competitors.