Andreas Whittam Smith: Reasons to be cheerful about the renewal of our Parliament

With one exception, many aspects of the political process are now working better than they have at any time in the past 20 years
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The Independent Online

I am even more interested in the political process than I am in politics. Or in what is under the bonnet rather than who sits at the wheel. Admittedly the first sounds dull compared with the second. But it isn't really. Watching an engine run smoothly or diagnosing its faults can provide a lot of satisfaction. Believe it or not, the same pleasure can be had from examining the machinery of government. Particularly, I should add, now that there is something important to report. Many aspects of the political process, with one exception to be described later, are working much better now than they have been at any time in the past 20 years.

What do I mean by the political process? It is the relationship between members of Parliament and their constituents. It is the ability of Parliament, particularly the second chamber, to hold the government to account. And it is the quality of the draft legislation put forward for approval.

So far as the relationship between MPs and their constituents is concerned, the news is excellent. I wasn't displeased to see the growing embarrassment of the Deputy Prime Minister and leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, as he struggled to reconcile his party's manifesto promises on university tuition fees with Coalition policy. For surely this ghastly episode will have a good result: political parties will be more careful in the future not to make rash promises in their manifestos that mislead electors. For who would want to be in Mr Clegg's shoes? How Harriet Harman taunted him in the House of Commons: "We all know what it's like: you're at freshers' week, you meet up with a dodgy bloke and you do things that you regret. Isn't it true the Tories have led him astray? Isn't that the truth of it?"

The ejection of Philip Woolas from his parliamentary seat by a specially convened election court for knowingly making false statements during the recent campaign is equally a matter of note. It's the same point as the one above. It stands whether or not Mr Woolas succeeds in having his case judicially reviewed in a favourable manner. The lesson will be learned that you cannot go around misleading electors when you run for office. The Tory MP Edward Leigh missed the issue entirely when he observed that what worried him was that "if this is allowed to stand, it will be virtually impossible for there to be really robust debate during elections." No, what would be impossible, Mr Leigh, would be for there to be dishonest debate during elections.

The Government's proposals to redraw the boundaries of numerous constituencies to make them more equal in terms of population would work in the same way. For it would mean that almost every MP would face an extra layer of uncertainty at the next election as the nature of his or her constituency changes. As a result, members who intend to seek re-election will have to take more fully into account the low opinion that the electorate holds of them as they go about their business during the rest of the present Parliament. They will have to be able to give a more convincing account of their performance at Westminster than they have in the past.

Perhaps this factor is already at work. For Coalition MPs are much more rebellious in terms of voting against their Government than has happened in any previous Parliament going back to 1945. Until this session, cohesion was the norm, rebellion the exception. Yet so far during this Parliament the opposite has been true: rebellion has become the norm, cohesion the exception. Out of the first 110 divisions in the Commons since Parliament resumed, there have been rebellions by government MPs in 59 divisions. The two academics who have compiled these figures, Philip Cowley and Mark Stuart, say "that is a rate of rebellion of 54 per cent, simply without parallel in the post-war era."

At the same time, the new Government as a matter of policy has decided to disclose much more information about the workings of Whitehall than ever before. In particular the publication of Departmental business plans with timetables, whilst sounding very managerial, provides a useful help towards holding Government to account. On the other side of the ledger, however, one has to enter as a debit the Government's proposal to reduce the size of the House of Commons by fifty members to 600. This will weaken the ability of Parliament to hold the executive to account. You need feet on the ground to do this job properly.

Finally, the political process must be such that only well researched and carefully drafted bills are put before Parliament. Readers who followed the legislative output of government during the past twenty years will know that properly prepared legislation is the exception rather than the rule. Frankly it is too early to say whether there has been an improvement. But one can observe that the presidential style of government practised by Mr Blair and Mr Brown has gone. The dynamics of Coalition government means that policies have to be argued for between the two partners. When these divisions reach the press, I say "three cheers". That is how it should be. As a result, the Cabinet table has replaced the Prime Minister's sofa as the place where final decisions are taken.

Yet the many readers who believe that the Coalition has embarked upon a dangerous programme of budget cuts, including reductions in welfare benefits, will wonder whether a better machinery of government and, as they would see it, worse policies are really compatible. What happens if one does all the little things right and gets one big thing wrong? The answer, of course, is disaster.

Yet what I am really describing is an enhanced system of checks and balances. My argument is that the "checks" have become stronger. Just as the new Government launches a series of dramatic policy initiatives, so the hurdles that it must cross to realise its objectives have become higher. Coalition MPs have to pay more attention to the opinions of their constituents than they have in the past. The Government has to pay more attention to persuading its backbenchers of the rightness of its policies than any recent administration. And the Prime Minister, David Cameron has to pay more attention to his Cabinet colleagues than his recent predecessors. This push-pull considerably raises the chances of success.