The Commons in the Age of Contempt

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WE BANG on endlessly, and rightly, about the Government's loss of authority and respect. But the other great loser over the past 30 years or so has been Parliament itself. The great butter-coloured palace on the mudbank has lost its mystique, while the job of an MP has declined from being an honourable calling to one widely regarded as seedy.

It has been a dramatic decline. To track how dramatic, a little theory is called for. There have been two main theories about parliamentary or representative government. The first and older theory might be called the elitist one: MPs are, or should be, chosen from among the best and brightest people in the country and their collective debate helps to make law which is cool, unprejudiced, even wise. This was the spirit of Burke's famous rebuke to the Bristol electors in 1774: 'Your representative owes you . . . his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.'

Burke's formula, shared by the authors of the American constitution, may be less commonly heard today but it is still alive in the hearts of many MPs - when they vote in ways that their electors don't like (on tax, say, or hanging) and when they rebel against their parties on issues of conscience.

The rival theory is that the Commons, or House of Representatives, or whatever, ought to be a mirror of the people as a whole - the same faults and virtues, the same prejudices, the same mix of interests. This crops up throughout the history of English-speaking radicalism, from the Civil War onwards. In the debates on the US constitution you can find the American democrat Melancton Smith, for instance, arguing that representatives should 'resemble those they represent. They should be a true picture of the people . . .'

This causes obvious problems when you have single-member geographical constituencies, not class, racial or sexual ones. But old Melancton won the popular argument over Burke. A Labour backbencher once half-jokingly confessed to me: 'A lot of folk think I'm thick. But why shouldn't the thick people have a voice here, too?' More seriously, controversy about the under-representation of women and minorities depends on the mirror theory of representation.

These two models can be held simultaneously, or mixed. But now we seem to be moving beyond either, to a new world in which members of the Commons (and Congress) are no longer considered better, or equal to, the national norm, but are actually worse - more venal, lazier, nastier. The Age of Burke was eclipsed by the Age of Melancton Smith. Now both serious old gentlemen have been overshadowed by the Age of Contempt.

If I exaggerate, it is only to sound an alarm. The popular image of the Commons, reinforced by the antics of its sillier members, is of a drink-sodden, sex-obsessed, ineffective and mildy corrupt gathering. This picture is partly composed of newspaper commentary, television news, satire and drama, and, most recently, bonkbuster novels. But the little scandals and latex satires would not matter if there was not a serious basis for public distrust. Sadly, the public perception of the low quality and relevance of much Commons debate, the shoddy nature of much legislation, and the irrelevance of much of the backbencher's working day, is all too accurate. The Commons is looked down on partly because it just doesn't work very well.

The good news is that these are wrongs that can be righted. MPs cannot legislate for their own virtue, or to ban the writing of novels, but they could make their place of work a bit more effective. In a world where every institution has to earn its place, week in, week out, the rebuilding of Parliament's authority is not only important, but possible.

Last week Graham Allen, a Labour frontbencher, outlined his proposals for such a reform programme. Though not Labour policy, they provide a good summary of the state of thinking among the more extreme reformers. Some of his suggestions would be easy to implement and would make the Commons much more effective. He suggested that MPs' committees should take public evidence on Bills for six weeks before they are formally processed by Parliament. He wants less silly hours.

More controversially, he would like all Bills to be timetabled, allowing the Government a certain assurance about getting its business through but ensuring that every important aspect of legislation is properly discussed (as doesn't happen today). He suggests ways of strengthening the position of select committees. These would be elected and would have the power of scrutiny over all major public appointments. Other proposals, including making Parliament work for more of the year and banning outside employment, would be loathed by most MPs. Others still, such as building a semi-circular chamber, are too extreme for this stodgy nation.

Mr Allen's list has its faults, and it connects to an Opposition constitutional reform programme that even leftish Conservatives will oppose - including abolition of the Lords, a Bill of Rights, and perhaps voting reform. In the Labour Party itself, Mr Allen is regarded as rather solemn and relentless - though this may reflect more on those who resent his quirky enthusiasm for politics.

But he is on to something that matters and deserves to be thought about seriously by parliamentarians of all persuasions. They must now realise that Parliament has an opportunity to claw back some respect and authority, partly from a weakened executive, but mainly from the void of public criticism. There is a gap which an ambitious, self-critical and reformist Commons could exploit and then use as the basis of renewed popular authority - look how much serious coverage the Public Accounts Committee received for its warning of a decline in public standards.

MPs don't need to endorse all Mr Allen's list, but they can hardly deny that the Commons is not working well, and that its failures matter. We have a much-reformed economy and are a hard-working people who deserve a Parliament at least as good. Backbenchers are forever whingeing about how little power they have, how little they can really do. Well, here is something. Nobody's stopping them.