Steve Richards: Don't let a row over the Speaker obscure the value of what takes place in the Commons

The House is still the scene of electric moments – when politics changes in front of our eyes
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The Independent Online

The House of Commons is more interesting than it seems, possibly more interesting than even some MPs realise. But after the recent revelations about MPs' allowances and the Speaker's expenses, the perception is bound to grow that the UK's only elected chamber is disconnected from the real world.

It is easy to see why there is a dangerous mismatch between perception and reality. Debates are largely unreported. The chamber is often empty. The Speaker presides over proceedings in a forbidding but silly wig and, as an added twist, the current holder of the post is under attack for taking a complacent view over MPs' expenses, including his own financial arrangements.

The combination is hardly the best advertisement: come and watch us even if we do not watch ourselves, and, by the way, the chap in the wig is inquiring into our expenses even though there are questions about his own. Thank you and good night.

But it is not time yet to say good night to democracy. That is what we would be doing if the clichés casually applied to the Commons were the whole picture. If MPs were "out of touch"– a favourite cliché – and the Commons disconnected from the real world, we would be would be accepting that democracy in Britain is failing totally, that every few years the voters go to the polls and then the connection with their MP is severed. What would that that say about the judgements of the voters that elect them? What would it say about the elected – so tainted by democracy that they head off for the equivalent of another planet and forget entirely the concerns of those that put them there?

This is not the whole picture. Whenever I watch debates in the Commons, they are nearly always of high quality and relevant to the concerns of voters. In recent days, debates on Europe and Northern Rock provided superb guides to the state of both the Conservative and Labour parties. I would go as far as to suggest that a reading of those particular exchanges would enable you to put a much more confident bet on the outcome of the next election. Contrary to myth, topical issues are raised in the chamber, from climate change to pensions. Student friends of mine ask why politicians are not interested in the environment. The students are surprised when I tell them that the topic is debated often in the Commons.

Each week, Prime Minister's Questions offers a bit of showbiz which everyone likes to denigrate, but then turns up to watch. The event matters too. It is a myth that William Hague's good performances in this forum when he was the Conservatives' leader did him no good. Hague would have been in bigger trouble if he had not performed well. Similarly, if Gordon Brown shook off the chains of "needing to appear prime ministerial" and started to take on David Cameron with more upbeat and witty performances, he would feed a sense, still precariously embryonic, that he is recovering from the disasters of the autumn. Prime Minister's Questions should be meaningless, but it is not.

The most politically significant events still take place in the Commons, electric moments when politics changes in front of our eyes. Thankfully, unelected interviewers cannot replace the atmosphere of an elected arena during events such as Geoffrey Howe's resignation speech, the votes on the Maastricht Treaty that nearly brought down John Major's government and, more recently the night of the vote on top-up fees for students, a knife-edge division taken on the eve of the Hutton report.

Then there was the debate on the Iraq war (although that was neutered by the support of both front benches for Tony Blair's weak backing for President Bush), and the vote on Blair's proposals for schools when he was dependent on the support of the Conservatives – the moment, in my view, when he became doomed as leader of the Labour Party.

All this happened in the Commons and not on the Today programme or in a GMTV studio – moments of high drama, significance and of greater relevance to our lives than anything that happens elsewhere.

Even so, the gaping gap between the half-reassuring reality and the perception does not come from nowhere. Under Robin Cook, the House of Commons sought to modernise itself, but as Cook once admitted to me, he was disappointed about the impact of his reforms. He was right to be. Cook and others were naive in assuming, for example, that if debates started earlier there would be more chance of media coverage.

The House of Commons needs to find other ways of promoting its debates, most of which contain hidden gems and some decent news stories. John Major used to say that if he wanted to bury a news story he would make a speech in the Commons. With the main parties spending a fortune on media advice, the Commons does little to promote its own activities. It could do with a spin doctor.

This is the area where the current Speaker is most flawed. I could not give a damn about the over-hyped row over his expenses, or that he is working-class or that he is Scottish. His problem is that he comes from the oldest of the old parliamentary schools, indifferent to the media to the point of hostility, so institutionalised that outside perceptions about the Commons do not appear to bother him greatly or possibly even attract much of his attention in the first place. When he stands down – it should be soon, but not as a result of the latest flurry of stories – the Commons will need a younger speaker, who does not bother with a wig and will appear on the media to put the case for the institution. MPs must leap a generation, a phrase often applied in leadership contests but just as valid in relation to this role. They must avoid the appointment of another cocooned veteran, complacently in awe of antiquity.

I note that the youngish Conservative MP John Bercow seems to have expressed an interest in getting the job. I cannot see why he would want the post, but ministers tell me that, in spite of the speculation surrounding his political affinities, they do not believe he will defect to Labour, partly because he wants more than anything else to be Speaker – a strange ambition, but one that he holds with a passion. Whoever gets the post must make the Commons look and feel different, rather as Blair changed perceptions of Labour when he became its leader in 1994.

The stakes are high. If MPs fail to act imaginatively, next time the perception of a place disconnected with the modern world will move a little closer to reality.