Our new MPs: young, but more interested in trivia than rebellion

House of Commons Reform

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Sometimes the reforming spirit breaks out in the unlikeliest of quarters. Yesterday Lord Richard, leader of the House of Lords, confirmed that he was planning to modernise the Tudor ceremony through which new members are introduced to his chamber. The antiquated 11-minute ritual in which peers take their places then stand, doff their caps to the Lord Chancellor, and sit three times is to be speeded up in order to cope with a spate of ennoblements, he said.

This move is pure pragmatism, of course. "I think I am entitled to some celerity in the way my troops get in. It's not unreasonable," Lord Richard said yesterday.

But elsewhere in the Palace of Westminster, the story is quite different. Just three months after the wind of change began blowing through the House of Commons, the door has slammed shut and the dust is beginning to settle once more.

As MPs pack their trunks and prepare to return for their Autumn term, a survey has revealed that the new guard elected in May are barely more keen on modernising the place than their predecessors. In the heady days after the election, it really seemed that renewal was on the cards. With 250 new members out of a total of 660, everyone was sure that the stuffy, Victorian procedures of Parliament would be swept away.

Above all, there would be outright rebellion against the gang warfare which is British politics. Now in the presence of normally-functioning adults, the schoolboy humorists would be too embarrassed to continue the catcalls and whoops that too often pass for Commons debate, and would desist.

Change will not come so easily. This week the parliamentary House Magazine printed the results of a survey conducted among 192 of the 253 new members. There was no shortage of complaints about Parliament and its ways, but the picture that emerged did not suggest the existence of a great, radical, reforming movement.

Almost half the new MPs disliked some aspect of the procedures of the Commons, but only three had a problem with the adversarial nature of the debates. Far more were worried about the size of their offices.

Just one in 10 complained about the "museum-like atmosphere" of the Commons - slightly less than the number who listed the historical feel of the place as a plus point. More MPs were worried about the lack of space, though, and one in seven felt the need to point out that there was too much paperwork.

The "incomprehensible" order paper, the amount of time spent hanging around waiting for late-night votes and even one MP's need for "an office with a window, please" featured in the replies. On the plus side, there was the excellent library, helpful staff and good food. (This last, presumably, was from the 15 per cent who worked as teachers or lecturers and therefore became used to school dinners.)

Calls for a new style of politics did not ring out. Nor did the need for MPs to hold the Government to account or to act independently. No- one expects newly-elected Labour MPs to feel it is time yet to haul their own masters over the coals for their mistakes, but it is striking that almost two thirds of them put "advancing the party cause" on their lists of their three most important roles. One even admitted that getting promoted to the front bench was his chief aim in life.

Loyalty and compliance are the order of the day, and both those who put "being independent minded" at the top of their lists were Conservatives.

Austin Mitchell, Labour MP for Great Grimsby for the past 20 years, carried out the survey with Professor Philip Norton from the University of Hull. He said the new intake seemed to see themselves as party people rather than as Parliamentarians. Diligent and committed they may be, but radical they are not. "I turn away both depressed and admiring," he said. "I had high hopes that there was bound to be a tide of change because people would come in and want to improve things. Evidently, not. I think it's the facts of political life. They have been very well organised for campaigning purposes and they haven't really been introduced to Parliament yet."

Talk to any new MP on this subject and you are almost certain to receive a barrage of ideas on how Parliament could be improved. The problem is, most of them are too busy to do much about it.

Jane Griffiths, Labour member for Reading East, is typical. There was no point in jumping in with both feet to demand change during those first weeks after the election, she said. But her first impression of "some sort of Victorian music hall", had persisted. She worries that some of her colleagues will become institutionalised and will stop worrying about change once they have learned to use the House's labyrinthine procedures.

It is time the place was opened up, she added. Just this week she brought in a party of 10 elderly constituents, two of them in wheelchairs, only to find the rules prevented her from taking more than three at once into the tea room, even in the quiet of the recess.

Jenny Tonge, Liberal Democrat member for Richmond Park, has nicknamed the House, with its gothic architecture and gloomy oil paintings, "Dracula's Castle."

She told a story she heard about the top hat that members must wear if they want to make a point of order. A few years ago, apparently, there were complaints that this procedure was ridiculous and antiquated, and that it caused several minutes' delay in the chamber while the hat was fetched from its place at one end of the room. So a Commons committee had a think, and came up with a solution. They bought an extra hat for the other end of the room.

Tea rooms? Oil paintings? Hats? Austin Mitchell's survey was clearly right. Asked what they want to change about the House, the new MPs will come up with a raft of trivia.

The truth is that all these small irritations go together to make up a whole that is cumbrous, needlessly confrontational and laughably remote from real life in the 20th Century. The really remarkable thing about the place is that anything is ever achieved there at all.

There is a tide of change in the Commons, but it is not flowing strongly enough to sweep the establishment along before it. Not surprisingly, the new members are getting on with their jobs. They do want to work in a proper, modern Parliament but they also want to help their constituents and to hold on to their seats for a second term. If anything is really going to change, it looks as if the old guard are going to have to do it themselves.

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