Parliament is crumbling, and that isn’t just a metaphor.
We should all be concerned for the physical safety of the thousands of people who have to work in the enormous Westminster folly, built on a swamp, a firetrap with miles of wiring and gas pipes, which is absolutely falling to bits.
But we should worry much more about the safety of our democracy.
It’s the day after Bonfire Night and too many people are saying Guy Fawkes had the right idea. But it’s not the PEOPLE who want to be EXPLODED, it’s the building that traps them in a democracy time-warp.
|Private Eye, even less subtle about the state of Parliament|
The way we run Parliament is as gothic and arcane as the building itself.
Last week saw another attempt to bring the voting age down to 16 defeated by a process called “talking out”. The Deputy Speaker even refused a request to call a vote because the issue was so important but had only had an hour and twenty minutes debate. So important, then, that it will be shoved to the back of the queue and probably never talked about again, at least not for this backbench bill.
This makes Parliament look ridiculous, and impotent, and deliberately opposed to the issues of young people.
And it happens time and time again. This rule makes no sense to the public, and give a ridiculous amount of power to a certain group of Tory backbenchers who, because they have been gifted with safe seats and so do not need to bother going back to their constituencies on Fridays, can spend their time shooting down legislation basically on a whim. This isn’t democracy. It’s as bad and corrupt as the Rotten Boroughs.
Last week the House of Lords, Nick Clegg’s efforts to reform it having been sunk by the unholy alliance of Tory backbenchers and the Labour Party, proposed measures to voluntarily reduce the size of the World’s second-largest unelected chamber. If all Parties agree – and if the Prime Minister agrees to stop stuffing the place with more Tory peers, itself unlikely given that that power of patronage is one of the few levers remaining to her in her weakened condition – then the upper chamber will diminish from over 800 peers to merely around 600 by 2029.
Asked why not just introduce a mandatory retirement age, the response comes no that would be unfair because Labour Lords tend to be so very much older than Liberal Democrats and so would have an unfair outcome. Well okay, what about retiring people on the basis of attendance, or lack thereof? No, that would be unfair also, because it would seem, Liberal Democrats peers have a much better attendance record than other lords and ladies also.
And what if Lord Tarquin decides he doesn’t want to give up the ermine? Well, hope the reformers, we might not come to that.
Theresa May’s Government, hardly the most legitimate having lost her majority and bought a billion-pound lifeline from the DUP, has adopted a policy of ignoring Opposition Day motions, and not even turning up to vote.
Last week we saw the Opposition resorting to the manoeuvre of “An Humble Address to Her Majesty” in order to force the Government to disclose the assessments of the impact of Brexit on 58 sectors of the economy.
How can Parliament do its job without transparency?
But what good holding a government to account if that government just ignores you? And the government gets away with holding Parliament in contempt because the people hold Parliament in contempt.
What do people think when they think of Parliament? They think expenses scandal, they now think harassing younger women, and they think Prime Minister’s Questions.
Week in week out we see the grotesque spectacle that is the bear pit of Prime Minister’s Questions. Never Prime Minister’s Answers, of course. Deflect, obscure, quote irrelevant statistics, pass the buck, blame the opposition. And bonus points for titillating the sketch writers. MPs always assure us that this half hour of jeering and name-calling is not typical of the House. And yet it is the bit of the House’s week that is most seen by the public and the bit that is most attended by MPs.
And the chamber and building itself are physically designed, confrontational, oppositional, and too small to hold all the members, to drive PMQs – or any important debate – to be an angry shouting match.
PMQs is not an aberration. It’s merely the most obvious sign that the Houses of Parliament are toxic to democracy.
In a building that is by equal parts Public School, Gentleman’s (with emphasis on the “man’s”) Club and Retirement Home, where the people in charge of keeping order are called “whips”, merging the brutal with the downright kinky, is it really any surprise that bullying and harassment run rampant?
There is a solution. Just get out. Not for the duration of repair, get out forever. Move Parliament out of Westminster. Out of London.
And move the Treasury, the Cabinet Office, the Home Office and the Office of the Prime Minister with them. Probably the Foreign Office and the spending departments too, but at very least those.
Move them to the “Northern Powerhouse” and maybe they’ll take it seriously.
Make big changes to stop the new Parliament being an Old Boys’ Club.
Now’t wrong with being Old unless it’s ONLY for the Old, so make it better with votes at 16.
Now’t wrong with being Boys unless it’s ONLY for the Boys, so make it better with action on gender equality and harassment so it’s a place where people of all genders want to work.
And now’t wrong with being… actually there’s quite a LOT wrong with it being a Club. A Club is for the special members who know the secret handshakes. Westminster is a Palace for nobs; we need a Parliament for people.
Make every vote count. Elect MPs by a proportional system. Of course it should be PR. And British PR at that – multi-member seats and ranking candidates by preference, giving the power to the people.
Make every lawmaker accountable to the people. Replace the Lords with 200 elected senators. Maybe, if you really really must, with 50 appointed cross-benchers – they could speak but not vote. If clashing mandates really really worry you, adopt the Cap’n Clegg solution of electing senators by thirds for fifteen-year terms.
Make MPs subject to a right of recall. Fire them if they are guilty of crimes. It’s no good saying you cannot fire an MP. Right now, an MP will lose their seat if they go bankrupt. Parliament should have the power to suspend for a week, or a month or fire altogether.
Make every vote of the House matter. The government ignores Opposition motions, the Opposition uses them for stunts. Neither is good for democracy. Change the rules so that all Bills before the House are taken in order and debated until they are voted on. And if there aren’t enough members in the House on Friday, carry the debate over to Monday. Ditch the ritual. The Speaker doesn’t need to wear tights. And if people want to say prayers before legislating, let them go to church or mosque or temple*.
(*other places also available.)
But more than anything make it a modern building with proper sized offices and proper IT and proper air-conditioning and enough loos for everyone.
And don’t forget to make room for an HR department.