Farewell to the Commons: Reflections on parliamentary change over 40 years

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On 4 March Jack Straw and Sir George Young spoke at a Constitution Unit valedictory event where they considered how parliament has changed since the 1970s. Sam Sharp offers an overview of the discussion.

Jack Straw and Sir George Young have 77 years of parliamentary experience between them – Straw was first elected in 1979, and Young in 1974. With both set to retire in May, they reflected on how parliament has changed since they joined in the seventies. The event was chaired by Tony Wright, while Meg Russell provided a ‘myth busting’ role. Both speakers described a parliament that has changed for the better, in both its culture and efficiency.

For Jack Straw one of the biggest changes has been in the atmosphere of the House of Commons. He remembered previously having to ‘swim through thick clouds of smoke’, with the chamber itself being the only complete escape. Alcohol abuse was also prevalent and Tony Wright recalled actually once carrying a passed out member through the division lobby. In general, parliament was very white and male with a Gentleman’s Club culture and the few women present were very much made to feel like outsiders. Straw argued that the change in the gender balance, although ‘not far enough’, has ‘actually changed how the House feels’.

The House is now considerably more open, with both speakers agreeing that the broadcasting and televising of parliament has brought about a major change. Sir George Young noted: if you wanted to know what parliament was like before, you had to visit in person. Jack Straw argued that there is, however, a downside. He regrets the loss of systematic reporting of parliament – telling people what was happening in a summarised form – and that, while there is more information about parliament, there is less understanding. Both agreed that the media had become more aggressive and intrusive since the 1970s. Young recalls an attempt to orientate himself on a map being met with the headline: ‘Where is Derby? asks Transport Secretary’

The other major technological advance has been the move from letters to emails. Young explained how the rhythm of an MP’s day was based around the collection of letters in the morning. The constant availability of email has transformed that. This has contributed to the changing ‘terms of trade’ between MPs and constituents. To illustrate this, Straw described how his predecessor Barbara Castle (an MP with a ‘phenomenal reputation’) used to only visit Blackburn once a month to see eight constituents by appointment. He now holds five constituency advice surgeries a month, often seeing fifteen or more people at each.

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Another agreement was that parliament has become more effective in scrutinising government. For Straw, the principal reason was the introduction and strengthening of the select committee system. He described how previously the government could, in effect, block parliamentary questions: written questions could be responded to with ‘gobbledygook’ and in future questions referred back to. Without a rare judicial enquiry that was that. He contrasts this with the tough scrutiny of ministers and outsiders by select committees, specifically noting the clear discomfort of bankers in front of the Treasury Select Committee. He argued that this strengthening, inquisitorial function of government was further illustrated by the decline in the use of Royal Commissions. On the topic of scrutinising government, Young praised two procedural changes by the last Labour government. Firstly, the increased opportunities for holding government to account provided by the introduction of Westminster Hall debates (which he was one of only two Tories to vote for). Secondly, how the appearance of the Prime Minister in front of the Liaison Committee for two or more hours allows for more reflection than the ‘rather aggressive half hour’ at Prime Minister’s Questions.

Young also recalled, on becoming a whip in 1976, being the only person in the whips’ office who hadn’t done National Service. This nature of army discipline amongst whips was not limited to the Tory party, Straw affirmed, with public dressing downs not uncommon. Now the nature of whipping has changed: whips are asked ‘why should I vote?’ This has gone hand in hand with more rebellious parliaments and Straw noted that there are now groups of MPs who will ‘take a lot more notice of their constituents than they will of the whips on difficult issues’. On the other hand, Young highlighted that while pairing formally ended in 1997, whips can plan members’ absences in other ways. He remembered his first experience of pairing in 1974 when one MP attempted to register a pair for the whole parliament. In those days it was the more senior members who had a pair and could then frequently disappear from parliament. Now the whips are able to use pairing more strategically, granting it to those in more marginal seats who need the time in their constituencies.

Both speakers also depicted a more efficiently run parliament. In Jack Straw’s first full session, 46% of Commons’ sittings finished after midnight and 11% finished after 2am. They were in agreement that the abolition of these late night sittings was beneficial, with ‘completely bog-eyed’ MPs not being conducive to effective business. Young praised how, more recently, there has been increased focus on the issues, with less time wasted on process. As Straw described, until the timetabling of legislation in the late 1990s, it used to be common for controversial legislation to ‘go through a pantomime that the opposition would basically filibuster’. The government would then propose guillotining debate, to be met with outrage. Straw did express the opinion that the Labour government initially went too far with timetabling (partly as a result of their large majority) and would still suggest allowing ‘longer and better opportunities for scrutiny of legislation on the floor of the House.’

In her response to the speeches, Meg Russell commented on the contrast between the general impression of improvement from the two speakers and the degree of cynicism towards parliament from the general public. Both Young and Straw offered some tentative explanations for this: Young highlighted that many people have a good impression of their own MP, but do not generalise from their personal experience to MPs as a whole. Straw cited low attendance in the chamber (due to the growth of committees of all kinds) as a possible factor. He suggested perhaps following the example of multiple other parliaments by having separate days for committee work.

The noisy spectacle of Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs) is a particular source of public dissatisfaction, as brought out by the discussion following the event. Both agreed that neither side had a ‘monopoly of sin’, be it in evasive answers or the ‘long tradition [of] helpful suggestions’ for questions from the whips. Straw felt the best questions were often spontaneous and that scripted questions were harmful to democracy, although, as Meg Russell pointed out, in many countries the whips choose who ask the questions entirely. Regarding noise, Straw argued that it was to the Prime Minister’s advantage. Young interestingly raised the issue of behaviour; decades ago it was in fact not uncommon for MPs to be suspended for physical aggression in the chamber. He also claimed that the tone is often set by the Leader of the Opposition – a serious question on Syria will induce a serious response, whereas ‘having a pop’ will be met like for like.

Tony Wright concluded the event by saying that, despite dedicating his own long parliamentary career to reform, our parliamentary system is one with ‘a vast amount on the credit side.’ After long careers in parliament, it is clear this is a sentiment very much shared by Jack Straw and Sir George Young.

About the Author

Sam Sharp is a recent graduate in Philosophy, Politics and Economics from the University of Oxford. He is currently a Research Volunteer at the Constitution Unit, working on the Parliamentary Candidates UK project.

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