Backbench drivers

Reforms to Parliament have given real power to backbenchers. It’s now time to take the power outside Westminster argues Natascha Engel.

Shortly before the General Election, everyone in Parliament who wanted to be re-elected called themselves a parliamentary reformer. After the expenses scandal, it was in our collective interest to show a weary and suspicious nation that we had ‘got it’.

But now, seven months into the new Parliament, can we really say that much has changed? Have we genuinely listened to people and shifted our focus, or have we simply reformed Parliament to suit ourselves? Are people more engaged with what we do? Are they any less cynical about what motivates us?

And most importantly, if there has been a transfer of power, has it allowed the voice of the people we represent to be heard?

In the last Parliament I was a member of the Parliamentary Reform Select Committee (now known as the Wright Committee). It was set up in response to the expenses scandal. This was our opportunity to start with a blank sheet of paper on which we could begin sketching out what we wanted from our parliamentary democracy, and how we could conduct our business better.

The Wright Committee’s flagship proposals, now implemented, were the election of chairs and members of select committees as well as the establishment of a Backbench Business Committee – which I now chair.

At the time I worried that we were letting a good crisis go to waste.  I was concerned that we were falling into the trap of merely shifting power from one elite to another: from the whips to senior backbenchers. But I was wrong.

The election of chairs and members of select committees has been a great success, bringing to the committees a mixture of experience and age. And the Backbench Business Committee is breathing new life into Parliament too. The shift in power has resulted in a fresh culture, a different and better way of doing things. It has set in train a virtuous cycle of better scrutiny of the Government which will, we hope, force government to raise its game. When we do our jobs better as backbenchers, governments make better laws.

Our Backbench Business Committee has the power to schedule debates and votes in the Chamber. That is a real power. And like all real power, it is seductive.

That means that some of my concerns remain. To guard against the Backbench Business Committee merely being absorbed into the management of House business – simply widening out the membership of the people who make deals in the backrooms – we decided to meet in public to hear representations from our backbench colleagues and their bids for time for debates.

And whilst this innovation is important, and whilst it has strengthened backbenchers and allowed us to hold the government to account better, select committee elections and the Backbench Business Committee are, possibly, not what they are talking about in the Shipley Pride on a Saturday night.

Parliament has certainly shifted some power from the frontbench to the backbench. But has this improved our engagement with normal people? Can a voter better influence the parliamentary agenda? Is their voice louder and do they have a bigger say? Well, the answer to that is no.

And the reason for this, I think, is simply because we lack the imagination for real reform.

When we look at what John Bercow has done with the role of Speaker, we begin to see the possibilities. He has shifted the focus of the Speakership from being exclusively within Parliament to recognising the importance of being an ambassador for Parliament.

Now, our select committees are our great success story. They can and do engage with the expert world, those people who are interested in a subject. Select Committee inquiries call for evidence and views. They are open to the public to attend. But only a handful of MPs sit on them and they tend, apart from a few visits, to sit in Westminster.

If we are serious about engagement, if we want to be more constructive in the way we work with people between elections, we should look to widen out the role of select committees. We should encourage every Member of Parliament to specialise in a subject area and go out and meet with campaign groups and individuals across the country to hear their ideas, explain to them how best to influence the parliamentary agenda. Backbenchers, like the Speaker, should become ambassadors for parliament, and not just in their own constituencies.

That way, what we do and how we do it will be better understood and, by extension, better scrutinised. It will force us, as backbenchers, to raise our game.

And perhaps then we will win the greatest prize of all: what happens in Parliament will be discussed in the Shipley Pride on a Saturday night.

Originally published in the Fabian Review.

Natascha Engel is MP for North East Derbyshire and Chair of the Backbench Business Committee


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