Parliament is in a mess, and MPs have only themselves to blame

'There is a way to restore the credibility of Parliament - by bringing in a system of PR'

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The election of Michael Martin as Speaker of the Commons will no doubt give a small degree of satisfaction to those who are aware of the long-standing and deep-seated anti-Catholic prejudice that disfigured British society for centuries. It is only 300 years since Catholics were banned from voting, sitting in Parliament and practising their religion. One Act of Parliament even introduced provisions for the castration of priests, which, given the vow of celibacy, seems rather a redundant measure.

The election of Michael Martin as Speaker of the Commons will no doubt give a small degree of satisfaction to those who are aware of the long-standing and deep-seated anti-Catholic prejudice that disfigured British society for centuries. It is only 300 years since Catholics were banned from voting, sitting in Parliament and practising their religion. One Act of Parliament even introduced provisions for the castration of priests, which, given the vow of celibacy, seems rather a redundant measure.

As I sat through the interminable voting on Monday, I was struck by the number of MPs who bemoaned the decline in their power and prestige over the past 30 years and seemed to feel that, somehow, one particular candidate or another might reverse the trend. That is nonsense. The Speaker is both bound by the precedents established by the rulings of previous Speakers and a prisoner of the brutal reality that most MPs are more concerned about getting a job as a minister than building a strong Parliament capable of holding the executive to account.

Even in my relatively brief parliamentary career of 13 years, things have become considerably worse. Each new election brings in more fresh, eager young puppies to be contained in the holding-pen until the Prime Minister puts them on the first rung of the ministerial ladder. Whereas, in the past, difficult and voluble MPs were promoted in order to silence them, Tony Blair has followed a markedly different pattern of leaving them to wallow in their impotence.

Those MPs who recognise that their role as chairmen of select committees is to investigate and expose the failure of the executive do not find it to be a stepping-stone to higher office. Increasingly, the whips ensure that select committees exclude those with too independent a turn of mind.

Who can forget the lesson of Diane Abbott, whose temerity in aggressively questioning the Treasury's financial orthodoxy resulted in her immediate removal from the committee by the whips after the election of a Labour government? Nobody has any doubt that the reason that Rhodri Morgan was blocked as Labour's candidate for leader of the Welsh Assembly was his insolence in daring to summon Alastair Campbell to appear before his Commons committee and answer charges that he was briefing against ministers.

Similarly, MPs of this and previous governing parties do themselves no favours by shouting down legitimate questioning from the opposition benches when ministers are caught in various acts of wrongdoing. It is hardly going to increase ministers' respect for Parliament to know that, when caught out, they can rely on the whips to organise a supportive braying mob that will allow them to escape retribution.

The idea, entertained by some MPs, that a new Speaker, however talented, is going to restore public confidence in Parliament, when they slavishly toe the line and support their government, is self-deception. Each Speaker has to realise that if they make life difficult for the government, then the government will make life difficult for them.

Each Speaker also has to deal with the long-established Clerks to the House, who advise on all matters. Time and again I have watched the clerks advise the Speaker, even when the Speaker plainly feels that they are being made to look foolish. The most glaring example in my time was when the Labour opposition had skilfully exploited the rules of procedure to delay the privatisation of British Rail. John Major's government had to get the legislation through that evening to meet a House of Lords deadline and, with real incompetence, had failed to provide a guillotine. Faced with the government in trouble, the clerks simply told the Deputy Speaker (a Labour man) not to call any more speeches and push the business through the uproar.

No, the plain truth is, if MPs wish to restore confidence in the House of Commons, they will have to stand up and do it themselves.

The most important measure would be to curtail the scale of prime-ministerial patronage. In the German Bundestag, the Chancellor can take office only after being elected in a secret ballot of all MPs. Six years ago, several of Helmut Kohl's new members refused to back him in a secret ballot and he only narrowly avoided the ending of his career. Imagine if each member of the Cabinet was elected by a secret ballot of the whole House. Instead of constantly greasing up the Prime Minister, ambitious MPs would start to display some independence of spirit if they wished to prosper. We could go further and insist that MPs in the governing party should have the right to decide by secret ballot whom to nominate for cabinet positions.

All legislation should be submitted to permanent committees of MPs who have chosen to specialise in that particular area. Membership of the committees should be determined not by the whips but by a process of self-nomination and precedence.

One has only to imagine the scale of upheaval required to achieve anything like the above reforms to recognise that there is no prospect of anything remotely like that happening while party leaders have not just their powers of patronage but their increasing control of the selection process for parliamentary candidates.

There is a way to restore the credibility of Parliament - for the voters to do it by changing the voting system so that one-party rule becomes the rare exception rather than the norm. When Tony Blair honours John Smith's commitment to allow the British people a referendum on the voting system, we will all have the chance to drive a stake through parliamentary patronage by creating a genuinely proportional voting system that denies governments an automatic majority when they have only a minority of the votes cast.

Faced with a succession of hung parliaments, we will eventually be able to break the powers of patronage and perhaps even pass legislation to introduce an American-style primary system, so that the voters decide who a party's candidates are, and not a small caucus in Millbank or Conservative Central Office. Who knows? Under that system, I might even have been the Labour candidate for mayor of London.

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