Leading Article: The problem with Parliament...

The week when politicians go on their no doubt richly deserved summer holidays is just the week to take a look at how well we are served by the Palace of Westminster. Why? Because the judgments of politicians themselves on the matter are very often worst of all: better for us to discuss the subject quietly, in their collective absence, and hope that they can be persuaded when they return to view their ingrown world from the outside.

Here are a couple of cases in point. Ann Taylor, Labour's Leader of the Commons, told yesterday's Sunday Telegraph that she thinks possible reforms to Commons procedure might include swipe card voting, time allocations, and - wait for it - applause for speeches and well-made points.

Swipe cards, and better organised debating time, more socially amenable hours, and so on, are all welcome improvements in their way. But happy clappy Commons? No. Up with that we should not put. Ms Taylor was a little hesitant, admitting that too much clapping might not be a good idea; which means, presumably, that the whips would advise MPs in advance of those occasions when spontaneous outbursts are appropriate.

All this nonsense stems from a large crowd of new New Labour MPs coming in and feeling frustrated that they are not allowed to leap about and cheer when Mr Blair arrives at the despatch box, as if Noel and Liam have just walked on stage, but must instead wave their order papers and shout "hear, hear". Well, they need to learn that the Commons is neither a political rally, nor a pop concert, even though they might enjoy either of those alternatives more. It is a debating chamber, and to the extent that the rules keep it that way, the rules should be kept.

Then up pops the cheerful visage of the Conservative leader with more nonsense, this time of the Opposition variety. He alleges that New Labour is a "control freak" government which is in danger of "marginalising" Parliament. In fact, the problem is so serious that it poses a long-term threat to the health of our democracy.

William Hague's evidence for this malign cancer, already rotting away our body politic before it has even had a chance to do a spot of post- election sunbathing, is that the new government is over-using the guillotine (cutting short debate on Bills), reducing Question Time, and talking to people in focus groups outside the House. Now Mr Hague is a young man, but not so young that he cannot recall that the Tories were recently in power for a very long time, and were superbly well practised in all the arts of trampling on Parliament's sensibilities, abusing executive power, ignoring the real wishes of the populace, dismissively mistreating their own backbenchers, and regarding the official Opposition as beneath contempt and not really worth bothering to answer at all.

Indeed, some might say that the Thatcher government was especially prone to presuming itself a one-party state. Two words are a complete answer to Tory complaints that Parliament is being ignored, and democracy at risk: the words are "poll", and "tax", in that order. Frankly, if Mrs Thatcher had had the wit to attend the odd focus group or two she might have learnt something about what people really thought about her version of democracy - but then, that phase of Tory government was concerned with vanguardism, which is famously not very interested in what the people feel, only what they can be made to do. It might also be worth recalling that every major social Bill in that parliament was guillotined, along with all the major public utility privatisations. In fact this government is being rather fairer with the guillotine, by announcing well in advance when it intends to use it, which was not the Tory practice.

No - the real problem lies somewhere between Mr Hague's confected indignation and the inevitable shock of new Labour MPs discovering that Parliament was not created yesterday. The real problem with Parliament is that no one in this government seems able to articulate quite what it's for, other than to keep telling Labour MPs to be "disciplined", and berate anyone who declines to sign up to New Dawn optimism.

So far as the Commons is concerned, a lot of this agonising is merely the consequence of Labour winning such a dominant majority. But the truth is that Parliament does have a problem, and it is the other house - the House of Lords. Mr Blair swung a few friendly faces from among his business world friends into ermine only last Friday. Funny, really, when you think that New Labour is supposed to be in favour of democratising the second chamber. Or is it? The truth is, apart from being opposed to the hereditary principle, no one really knows what Mr Blair intends to do with the Lords. We are told that he is lining up working peers ready to prevent the hereditary Tories from frustrating any central part of his programme. Fine - but surely that cannot be it? Were we not promised more radical reform? What shape might it take? The answer is important, because it will tell us how open Blairism really is to having its policies more or less objectively scrutinised and revised in a separate chamber, and not by placemen, either. Who knows what the people think about updating incidental Commons procedures? Probably they barely care. But we should not clap this government too loudly until we see it start to modernise the parliamentary system itself.