Politics – just a dayjob?

New Labour's proposals to modernise parliament treat the House of Commons like The Office.

Jennie Bristow

Topics Politics

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Do we care whether MPs vote at 7.30pm or 2.00am? Are we bothered that their holidays will change, that Commons debates will be shorter, that bills are passed by a different procedure?

I guess the answer would be no. This week’s debate on modernisation of the UK House of Commons has excited MPs and a few political commentators, but otherwise will pass the world by. In their own terms, the changes proposed by Robin Cook, Commons leader and a senior Labour figure, could easily be ignored. But the motivation behind these proposals deserves scrutiny.

Insecurity, managerialism and feminisation come together to inform this debate about the working practices of Parliament, and provide a stark illustration of the degraded character of political life today.

‘The best case for modernisation is that this house will lose its authority if it is seen by the nation to be out of date’, argued Robin Cook. ‘I love the Commons but I want it not to dwindle gently into a museum attracting visitors on the strength of an heroic history. I want the Commons to remain the great forum of our nation in which the views of the public find voice and their opinions are heard.’ (1)

In other words, the problem with Parliament is that it is seen to be old-fashioned. If the workings of the House of Commons came into line with other, more ‘normal’, aspects of modern life, this would take political life out of its current doldrums, and put it back at the centre of things.

No doubt many of the House of Commons’ working practices are archaic. But Cook’s emphasis is not on the problem of being out of date, but on the problem of being seen to be out of date. This tells us more about politicians’ insecurities about how their relationship with the electorate than it does about any genuine concerns to move Parliamentary institutions forward. And as usual, the problem and the solution are posed the wrong way around.

The reason MPs are so detached from the public is not, as Robin Cook implies, because they appear too strange and aloof – and the solution is not to make them more like ‘normal’ working people. In many ways, politicians’ detachment from their voters is because they are not aloof enough. They represent no big ideas, no grand principles – and so they appear as rather hapless, boring people, doing a not-very-important job not-very-well. On this basis, how encouraging the electorate to gawp at this process through a new Commons visitor centre is going to reinvigorate anything is a mystery.

A striking aspect of the Commons reform debate is the extent to which MPs have made comparisons with ‘other workplaces’. ‘Surely one of the incomparable differences about the unsocial hours that the house works is the fact that it is unusual in other workplaces to find subsidised drink, subsidised food, and television sets that are almost invariably tuned to sports programmes – almost exclusively football’, said Glenda Jackson, Labour MP for Hampstead and Highgate.

Alice Mahon, Labour MP for Halifax, used a similar example to defend the current working practices. ‘In the real world people outside work nights, they work shifts, factories work 24 hours a day – dare I mention firefighters, nurses, the police, local authorities’, she said.

Whatever you think of politics, the idea of the House of Commons as a ‘workplace’ is rather odd. What was once supposed to be an institution housing people who ran the country according to principles they believed in is now presented as The Office – and subject to the same petty squabbles and working practices as every other company in the UK. ‘The sole purpose of the measures before the house tonight is to produce a more effective parliament’, said Robin Cook. This reflects the managerialist impulse behind politics today, where the dictates of efficiency and audit count for everything, and the clash of ideas for nothing.

The Tory Party, in its own sad little way, tried to hold out against Cook’s modernisation proposal on a variety of grounds. It is ‘half-baked’, said Shadow Commons Leader Eric Forth. It is impractical, objected Gregory Barker, Conservative MP for Bexhill and Battle – arguing that, given his children’s bedtimes, he was no more likely to see them if voting finished at 7.30 than if it finished at midnight.

Sir Patrick Cormack, Conservative MP for South Staffordshire, tried to make a more principled point. ‘Being an MP isn’t a job. It’s a way of life’, he said. ‘We aren’t here to serve our personal convenience…but to hold the government to account.’ It’s a nice thought – but the reality of politics today means that being an MP has become a job, and nobody in Parliament – least of all the Conservatives – can even hope to hold the government to account.

The spirit behind Cook’s proposal is, after all, that no political matter today is urgent enough to require debating into the night before a vote – so why not go home for your kids’ teatime and vote the next day? As a description of the banality of politics, at least Cook’s motivation for change is accurate. This debate might purport to be about how the public views politics, but it is far more about how politicians see politics, and their role in it.

Stephen Hesford, Labour MP for Wirral West, best summed it up. ‘When [my constituents] come up to me at constituency meetings, they ask, “Stephen, how often are you down there? You work through the night, do you? You are there till 10 o’clock”. They do not mean, “You’re my hero, you’re fantastic, what stamina you must have, I voted for you because you’re a muscle man”.’ It is understandable that constituents might greet with incredulity the idea that Commons debate should be taken seriously – that this incredulity is shared by the politicians who represent them should raise an eyebrow, at least.

The growing disdain MPs have for their ‘jobs’ is starkly reflected in the feminisation debate. One of the spurs behind the modernisation proposals was to make Parliament more female-friendly. Oona King, Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, argued that for MPs who are also parents, ‘working from 9am to 11pm or midnight precludes having a life of any description’, and pointed out the relative shortage of women in Parliament.

‘If, when I go home at the end of the week, I am not tired because of sitting here until 10 or 11 o’clock at night, but have had a reasonable working day instead, I can better be a good mother to my family as well as a good MP to my constituents’, said Caroline Flint, Labour MP for Don Valley.

As with most debates about family-friendly policies, this is not about practical resolutions to parenting problems, but about how MPs see their priorities. King, Flint and others are saying that they do not want to dedicate their lives to running the country – they want to put this job in perspective, and give equal priority to their personal lives and responsibilities.

The need to make political institutions more open to women has been used as a Trojan horse for driving out confrontation in political debate, employing anti-democratic measures like women-only shortlists of MPs in an aim to boost ‘genuine’ representation, and encouraging politicians to express their feelings as much as their ideas. In the modernisation of the Commons debate, it is used as a practical-sounding cover for expressing the half-hearted jobsworthiness of the modern MP. It’s enough to make you cry.

But let’s face it, whether or not the Commons clock is altered, the degradation of political life is already well underway. Take last week’s example – the sudden resignation of education secretary Estelle Morris.

The Estelle Morris saga

Estelle Morris was the perfect New Labour combination of middle-manager and therapist. Her tendency to meddle in everything (and think later, if at all), combined with her obsession with targets and her self-conscious persona as thickie former (PE) teacher from the provinces, meant that she practiced politics as a deputy manager would run a call-centre. She consistently failed to rise above those whom she was managing, preferring instead to pose as their friend and equal, as somebody who really ‘cared’.

This went down well with the teaching unions, always gluttons for flattery. More significantly in the grand scheme of things, it meant that she could not sustain the position of a government minister in charge of UK education. Her lack of authority caught up with her, and she bottled it. But what did she blame for her inability to cope? Managing a big department – as though an education secretary’s role comes down to management skills. And, of course, the ‘modern media’.

‘Modern media’ seems like a curious formulation for somebody who, like Morris, is well below pensionable age. But what she meant, of course, was not the modern media as opposed to the Guardian circa 1945, but contemporary politicians’ relationship with the media. Lacking in politics or principle, and faced with no accountability within parliament, today’s politicians spin everything outwards to the press.

Morris’ entire persona was developed to take advantage of this situation – a big-hearted lightweight can get headlines where, in the past, she would have failed in a political debate. Unfortunately, as she discovered, the headlines can go against you. When they did, she resigned. Why? Because today’s notion of political accountability means heads on a block.

In a previous era, Morris might have felt compelled to sort out some of the problems she created. Furthermore, she might have felt that there was more at stake than her own, individual feelings and reputation. But she went with her heart and jumped ship.

Morris’ resignation was not shocking in itself. In an era of personalised, petty gesture politics, this is the kind of thing we have come to expect. What was grotesque was the reaction to it. Morris was proclaimed brave, compassionate, principled, sensitive – to the point where you almost expected a tabloid campaign to send messages of support to ‘Our Estelle’. It was said that she did the Right Thing – not in resigning because she had to, but in recognising her own weaknesses. And the ‘modern media’ started soul-searching, worrying whether it had been too hard on somebody who, after all, was only trying her best.

The Commons reform debate shows how little politicians expect of themselves. The Estelle Morris saga shows how little we expect from politicians. You can only wonder how long it will be before somebody suggests abolishing politics altogether, on the grounds that it is just too much hard work.

(1) All quotes from Highlights of the Commons reform debate, Guardian, 30 October 2002

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Topics Politics


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