16April2014

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Westminster Reflections

After a bruising nine months for Parliament as an institution, there is a widespread desire to see a new House and a fresh start. There are, of course, those of us who are somewhat schizophrenic on this subject for, as I write, something like 150 of us have decided that we will not be contesting the next General Election. There will be more Members standing down than at any General Election since the Second World War – and possibly since 1832. There could be at least 300 new Members after 6 May,  if that is when the election is held.

As one who has loved the House of Commons, and who will miss it greatly, I care deeply for the future after the distressing and demoralising events of this last year. So I hope that what I am going to say will not be regarded as special pleading. However, I do think that someone who knows, and cares, for the House should try to make a case. I am prompted to do so by the consultative document put out by the new body established to oversee the administration of Members’ expenses and allowances. It shows no real knowledge or proper understanding of the unique nature of Parliamentary life.

It does not, for instance, take account of the fact that every Member, save those who hold office, receives the same salary. Nor does it pay sufficient regard to the fact that being a Parliamentarian takes up almost seven days a week for those months of the year when Parliament is in session. Nor does it properly acknowledge that the British Parliament sits for longer than any other. And though many occupations involve a degree of travelling, I can think of no other where the person concerned is always going to a place of work, and is potentially on duty at all times, with no one to share a timetable or a rota. Even during the long Parliamentary recess in the summer – often mistakenly castigated as a long holiday – the average Member will work a good 40-hour week in their constituency.

But enough looking inwards. My greatest hope for the General Election is that there will be a high turnout and that electors will truly want to take part in the democratic process. Inevitably, there will be great focus on the party leaders, Mr Brown and Mr Cameron in particular. But remember that only the voters in their individual constituencies can actually vote for the Prime Minster or the Leader of the Opposition.

To every registered elector who is reading this, I would say: ‘Do not allow this contest to become too presidential in the theatre of your mind. Remember that you are voting for someone to represent you.’

To any candidate, I would say: ‘Do not rely on your leader to carry you to victory but work for your own votes. Hold meetings in your own constituency. Give every elector the chance to question you.’

I have fought each of the last 12 General Elections, and won 10 of them. In every single one, I have conducted a vigorous campaign of local meetings. However, in 2005 I was one of only a handful of Members to do this. I hope that this year many more will do likewise.

When Mr Cameron was elected leader of the Conservative Party, he famously said he wanted to abandon the Punch and Judy style of Prime Minister’s Questions. For reasons that I understand, and sympathise with, he has found that pledge impossible to implement. But if he does become Prime Minister, I hope he will have another go from the other side of the House.

I hope too that he will strengthen and invigorate the Parliamentary week either by having Prime Minister’s Questions twice a week – as every Prime Minister before Tony Blair did – or that he will move Prime Minister’s Questions to Thursday from its current Wednesday slot. Thursday is very much a dead day now and yet I remember a time when it was the busiest and most exciting day of the Parliamentary week. If, on the other hand, Mr Brown gets another lease of Prime Ministerial life he can set his own stamp on his own mandate by initiating similar changes.

Looking back over the years that Mr Brown has been Prime Minister, I reckon the most disappointing aspect of Parliamentary life has been the bitter personal animosity between the two main party leaders. The adversarial style of politics in Britain inevitably means there is a good deal of charge and counter charge that is an everyday part of the cut and thrust of parliamentary life – and indeed there is something invigorating about it. But having seen seven Prime Minister’s in action, and no less than 10 Leaders of the Opposition, I do not remember a time when the invective has sounded as bitter and barbed as it has since June 2007.

I was reminded of this the other day when I read how Jim Callaghan insisted that Margaret Thatcher was properly briefed on Trident while she was still Leader of the Opposition – even though his civil servants tried to persuade him that this was beyond the call of duty. We live in dangerous and challenging times and so I do hope that Mr Brown is emulating his distinguished predecessor during this pre-election period.

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