Stop tinkering. We need a complete rethink

Despite a full-blown democratic crisis, we MPs are about to waste the chance to redefine exactly what our job should be

This week Parliament has yet another opportunity to change. But as on every other occasion, it will squander that chance and vote for the status quo.

Yesterday we were debating the Wright Committee’s report on so-called parliamentary reform. The proposals in this report amount to no more than a slight shift of power from one elite (the Executive) to another (a small group of senior backbenchers).

Yet parliamentary and constitutional reformers inside and outside Parliament are squealing with delight. Much of the mainstream media and parliamentary observers have bought the line that this will start the process of rebuilding trust in Parliament. But they’re being sold a pup.

It’s not reform. It won’t rebuild trust. It will change nothing. It is irrelevant to most normal people in the normal world.

And it’s a depressing waste of a golden opportunity. I want Parliament to change: but the point is that Parliament can’t work out where it’s going, and politicians have lost the map.

This has been true for many years, but it’s been the expenses scandal that has finally brought it to a head. Because the great unanswered question that came out of the MPs’ expenses scandal was: “What does an MP actually do?” A frighteningly large number of people, for example, had no idea that most MPs travel to and from their constituencies on a weekly basis.

Even more worryingly, many MPs were alarmed that their constituents had no idea what it was that they do on their behalf. But instead of using this amazing, once-in-a-lifetime crisis to address the problem, we are choosing to tinker with parliamentary processes and slightly change our expenses regime.

The problem is so much bigger: this total breakdown of understanding and complete lack of real communication between electors and elected means that we have a full-blown crisis of democracy on our hands.

Apparently, in the olden days, it was all much simpler. MPs used to represent both constituency and political party in Parliament by making and changing laws, by scrutinising legislation and holding the Executive of the day to account.

In theory, that’s still what we do. In practice, the role of an MP has evolved into what many people disparagingly call the work of a “glorified social worker”. And that’s true. Constituents come and see us when they don’t know where else to turn or when they have tried every other avenue and found themselves at a dead-end. And we help them out.

Most government agencies, such as the CSA for child support and HMRC for tax credits, have dedicated MPs’ hotlines. For those who know the system, going to see your MP has become a way of fast-tracking your case. As a result, a whole bureaucracy has emerged to service MPs servicing constituents.

And MPs encourage this. They know that the more direct the contact with constituents, the higher the chances of electoral success. This is good — it makes MPs work hard all year round; but the downside is having a huge, negative impact on our parliamentary democracy.

While our focus remains so resolutely in the constituency, we are spending less and less time in Westminster doing the scrutiny and the holding to account. Even when we are in London, we tend to be organising constituency campaigns and finding ways to raise parochial concerns.

We are leaving ourselves no time for ideas and thoughts. We are hollowing out our politics. Where is the ideology in getting the CSA to chase a non-resident parent for payments? We need to show people how to use agencies that are there to serve them. Not do it all for them.

But we are moving in totally the wrong direction. I don’t know how many times I hear people demanding a more consensual style of politics, asking us to put aside political affiliations and work for the good of the people that elected them. This is only making it worse.

After the expenses scandal, this view has become even more dominant. Yet the vast majority of us were elected only because we stood for a political party. In fact, Parliament is predicated on the very existence of political parties. It’s how we organise ourselves.

But our system breaks down when our political parties are not ideologically distinct. Today, we define our differences by dividing lines. We ask a small group of people — a focus group — what they care about, and then ask them what they want us to do about it. That’s not politics. That’s marketing. It’s turning us into admen and PR agents.

The politics of focus groups makes politicians reactive. We should lead, persuade and inspire. We should argue for what we think is right, even if popular opinion is against us. Leadership is about taking risks, even if that means losing our positions as a result.

Politics and politicians need to encourage big ideas and promote different ways of organising our society. Parliament should be a forum for clashing ideas again. And politicians need to rediscover that being an MP is about more than doing a job. It’s about being in a privileged position to put into practice deeply held beliefs and ideas.

When we debate parliamentary reform this week, we need to talk about getting back to first principles. Papering over the cracks won’t do any more. We need to tear down the flock wallpaper and fix the plasterwork underneath.

Natascha Engel is Labour MP for North East Derbyshire and served on the Parliamentary Reform Select Committee whose report was debated in Parliament yesterday

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