Memo to MPs: remember the power of the vote

The docile Millbank pager-brigade decided no longer to tolerate efforts to stitch up the Commons

It was an image more of a Presbyterian minister than of a proud Catholic that Michael Martin created for himself when he finally sat in the Speaker's chair shorn of the traditional accoutrements of wig, knee breeches and silk stockings. Presumably, this was Mr Martin's outward concession to the various requests for "modernisation" that dominated the chaotic and farcical scenes preceding his election.

It was an image more of a Presbyterian minister than of a proud Catholic that Michael Martin created for himself when he finally sat in the Speaker's chair shorn of the traditional accoutrements of wig, knee breeches and silk stockings. Presumably, this was Mr Martin's outward concession to the various requests for "modernisation" that dominated the chaotic and farcical scenes preceding his election.

Too many MPs during the Speaker's stakes were only focusing on the abolition of the visual trappings of parliamentary tradition in order to address the problems of poor public perception. Mr Martin has played very well to this gallery, and he even made much of his concerns for staff kept late by all-night sittings. His speech in support of his bid for the chair was more akin to a hustings for shop steward of the Commons' cleaners and tea ladies (many of whom used to revel in the prospect of extra overtime).

Nevertheless, the Commons has made its choice for the Speaker's chair, and that, for the time being, should be an end to the matter. Some good at least has come out of these bizarre proceedings. Sir Edward Heath's irascible performance during the election of the Speaker was a watershed that finally convinced even some Tory diehards that his departure should coincide with the end of the current procedural era.

And the normally docile Millbank pager brigade has at last decided that it will no longer tolerate attempts by the two front benches to stitch up the House of Commons. Insofar as the Labour backbench rejection of the Tory toff Sir George Young was a protest at the bully-boy tactics of some in the Government, it bodes well for the future. If a boldness has finally entered the soul of New Labour MPs, who are beginning to realise that the ministerial limousine may not, after all, convey them through the remainder of their political careers, then this is a welcome development.

There are some important lessons for the Tories. They are still in high dudgeon at Mr Martin's election, and there is dark talk in the corridors that he is only a "temporary" Speaker. Such talk should stop. The Tories muffed their chance by putting up a former Cabinet minister as their "official" choice. A certain sourness has entered their collective spirit, and it needs to be exorcised.

Unusually, Eric Forth, the normally robust defender of Parliament, let himself and the Tories down badly when he attacked Mr Martin for giving his views on his job to a press conference rather than to MPs. Mr Martin began as he should continue - by letting Mr Forth know that he would not be browbeaten or bullied. Mr Martin can anyway be forgiven for wanting to make his peace with the press. He was, after all, the former chairman of the Administration Committee who threw the hacks off the Commons' Terrace a few years ago.

All attempts to bully Speakers must be resisted, and the Tories need to recognise that the battle against Mr Martin has been lost. They must also resist the temptation to oppose him in his constituency at the next election, as some of them are suggesting. Modernisation is a far more important challenge to them.

Getting MPs back into the chamber should be a major objective. This problem is highlighted this week by an important contribution from Greg Power for the Hansard Society in his paper Creating a Working Parliament. Mr Power notes that, apart from the weekly half-hourly Prime Minister's Question Time, it is rare for more than 100 of the 659 MPs to be present.

Most MPs are only now beginning to recognise the appalling spectacle the Commons has presented to the public, and the task for them is to improve their procedures - beyond serving their personal convenience. Cutting the chamber's hours by holding shorter debates would be one way of focusing attention on what Mr Power describes as "specific provision for public interest".

Take, for example, the rail chaos of the last few days. By the time anyone in Parliament wakes up to the public outrage, the moment will have passed. The Hansard Society paper recommends that the Opposition should trade its debating time for the opportunity to call for a government statement on a topical issue and question the minister. Accepting these proposals, Parliament would allow more MPs to contribute and ensure that the Commons was being responsive to issues of public concern.

Tony Benn, who is sadly leaving the Commons at the next election "to devote more time to politics", hit the nail on the head when he castigated the failure of Parliament even to meet last month to discuss the fuel crisis or the Middle East.

But all the updating of the procedural mumbo-jumbo in the world will make no difference unless MPs recognise the potential power that they have always had - and could wield, if only they could forget the dream of becoming Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for paperclips. Labour MPs were determined to get their man in the chair, regardless of "if you value your career" threats from government ministers.

Emboldened by this first taste of their own power, they could now raise the level of parliamentary accountability by standing up to ministers on matters of policy. The power of the vote in the division lobby is the oldest, most traditional, and yet the most formidable, modernising power that MPs still have to make government and themselves accountable to the general public - if only they would use it.

mrbrown@pimlico.freeserve.co.uk

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