A dull job in need of some imagination

Parliament's problem isn't that there are too many MPs, it's that they lack the guts to win back their power; Mr Fishburn has a nutty, glossy kernel of truth concealed under his husk of bunk
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The Independent Online
Are there too many MPs? And are they much use? These two useful questions have been raised by Dudley Fishburn, the reluctant and disillusioned Member for Kensington. His explanation of why he didn't want to carry on being a Tory MP has stuck in the craws of his colleagues: in the restaurants of Westminster, they are choking on Fishburn.

Any denunciation of a trade by someone quitting it is bound to cause splutters from those left behind. The estate agent who rises at the firm's annual dinner to announce that he can stick the filthy lies and tedium no longer would be heard with no more patience than Dud among the Members. A newspaper columnist who quit because newspaper columnists were such frightful people (and we are) would not be rewarded with sympathetic obituaries from the peerage of punditry.

So we should aim off a bit as the political class closes ranks against Mr Fishburn. As with estate agents and commentators, MPs are well aware that most of the public will agree with the deserter. And this makes them angrier still.

Mr Fishburn's argument is shaped like this: MPs don't have enough work to do, so there should be fewer of them. Then, in rousing conclusion: ''Modern society needs fewer politicians, not more. It is a madness we shall come to regret.'' Strictly speaking, most of this is nonsense. MPs have an unending supply of complaining constituents to deal with - the conscientious local Member is everyone's servant, and a very slave to cranks - and it is hardly as if there aren't enough difficult issues to go round.

Nor does the connection with numbers make obvious sense. For the millions of Britons stuck with a lazy, silly or merely unsympathetic MP, it feels as if there are too few conduits to power, not too many.

And this is democracy we are talking about. It is based upon Parliament - that is, MPs. If there is too little for MPs to do, then we are suffering from a serious political illness that cannot be cured merely by cutting their numbers. Power has shifted from states to markets and supranational institutions. Are we therefore to regard Parliament as some sunset industry requiring large-scale redundancies in order to compete?

Yet Mr Fishburn has a nutty, glossy kernel of truth concealed under his husk of bunk. The truth is that MPs, even when busy, don't impress one by their evident usefulness. There is plenty for them to do, but a lot of it is either routine or futile. And when intelligent, ambitious, restless people such as Mr Fishburn notice this, they find it hard to ignore.

I vividly remember the by-election that he won to enter the Commons. I sat in the front row of his daily press conferences being extremely rude to him, on the shaky grounds that being rude to candidates was essential to democracy. He was very good-humoured about it. But he fought tenaciously to get into Parliament. Why? Because he thought that being an MP would be important and interesting. Now he is quitting - not because he hasn't enough letters to answer but because he finds it isn't. In short, he's bored.

Boredom is part of the condition of the modern MP. To arrive at one's desk each morning to face mounds of mail, full of complaints, bitter feuds, sad little tales and imperious demands on your time - no one pretends that this is exciting.

Then there is the business of the House. For most of the time, it means just sitting and listening - a condition most of us haven't had to put up with since the end of full-time education. Imagine having a family of interminable windbags and being forced to listen to them with a polite expression for a large portion of your adult life.

It's a bit like that. To sit through days of detailed committee-stage discussion about the legal and technical language of a bill you only quarter- understand; that is not fun. To sit in the chamber and wait through hours of your colleagues' speeches for that significant nod from the Speaker and your own chance - well, that's tedious, too.

Then there are the days of travelling up the constituency and back again, the same route for years, scribbling or dictating replies to letters. We mock MPs for their free lunches and corporate dinners, but, in truth, you need to be a seriously deprived individual to look forward to your next glass of warm Chardonnay from a swarm of lobbyists, or to think a plateful of unwell cow is worth an evening spent listening to the Cement Manufacturers of Eastern England.

No fun. Yet these people are MPs, aren't they? They are members of the glittering, romantic Mother of Parliaments. How can having so much power be boring? Here we come to the great conundrum, the mystery spotted by Mr Fishburn: how can a body which claims to be sovereign, the key institution of a centralised democatic state, be so weak?

Even leaving Europe aside, the real power of Parliament has sunk to a shameful low. There is no assertiveness over the quango bosses, or the regulators, or the heads of the new government agencies, or the ministers themselves. Crown powers are never seriously challenged by the elected chamber. Hosts of regulations and orders pass through on the nod. Key issues are hidden in legalese which MPs rarely understand.

In the chamber, the tight daily grip of the party whipping system means that debates rarely lead to an unexpected vote or a change of national policy. Of course, these debates are boring; they are not attached to anything real.

The job of helping constituents is still a real one. But this used to come low in the hierarchy of an MP's self-justifications. Now it generally comes first, and sometimes first on a list of one. Increasingly, too, it means redirecting mail to civil servants who are not directly answerable to MPs.

Don't get me wrong. Individual members still press issues, think and speak bravely and occasionally pass legislation that makes Britain a better place. But most are caught in a desperate round of empty ritual; the shrewd ones are those who feel humiliated by it.

It is possible to imagine a different Parliament. It would be one that seized back control over hosts of appointments and policies. It would be one whose Members saw themselves simply and proudly as Members, rather than as temporarily unemployed ministers. That would mean they would be less controlled by party whips; they would constitute a Parliament whose debates shifted policy and led ministers to resign or apologise. It would be rough, unpredictable and stroppy; a place really worth fighting to get into.

That reformed Parliament is very near to us, and very far away, too. It is very near because there is no constitutional or legal barrier to such a radical reclaiming of its power. And it is far off because it seems so hard to imagine our present MPs having the imagination or collective guts to achieve it. Mr Fishburn's realisation that he was an underemployed cipher was right, honest and admirable. But his conclusion couldn't have been more wrong. What this parliamentary democracy needs is reform, not resignation.