3rd June 2013
The progress of the latest parliamentary ‘scandal’ is following a depressingly familiar script. After media revelations come the cries of “something must be done!” Then enter ministers with their brilliant ‘back-of-the-envelope’ solutions – remember Gordon Brown’s hilarious video on how to solve the expenses crisis? – and their promises of swift, firm government legislation. All accompanied by … virtual silence from those actually responsible for Parliament and its two Houses.
So the stage is set for a government bill which will do as much to solve the perceived problems as the 2009 bill setting up IPSA (and its subsequent amending legislation) did for parliamentary pay and allowances regulation.
Putting to one side the horrendous complexity of regulating ‘lobbying’ (in all its manifestations, including what may properly be regarded as ‘representative democracy’) and related issues of parliamentary conduct, ethics and standards, this latest ‘scandal’ demonstrates some genuine, wider challenges for Westminster to confront. I suggest that underlying these episodes is a more fundamental malaise that Westminster fails even to recognise.
Ten years ago I wrote an article on applying ‘political marketing’ theory to the unique institutions of parliaments [“Political but not partisan: Marketing parliaments and their members”, (2003) 9 Journal of Legislative Studies 1-13]. Using such terminology, I suggest that Westminster has a world-class and priceless ‘brand’, but, in practice, it is a ‘product’ which has not lived up to this AAA rating, and has thereby inevitably devalued the brand.
Over recent years Westminster has made great strides – albeit from an abysmally low base – in raising awareness among the public, but has this resulted in a meaningful increase in public support and trust? The answer must be a resounding ‘No’. Why is that? The obvious conclusion must be that letting the public learn more about Parliament and how it works has simply revealed a failing institution. There is little point, and actually counterproductive, in active public marketing until you are satisfied you have a product of which you can be proud.
True parliamentary reform can only happen if Westminster has genuine institutional autonomy, underpinned by robust and coherent principles and operated by a partnership of members and staff dedicated primarily to the idea of Parliament as the servant of the public it represents, not the plaything of the Executive or special interests. Such a body can be robust enough to do its vital constitutional functions effectively and to deal properly with any external or internal ‘crises’ – especially those dealing with standards and conduct issues – in a proactive and rational way.
If Westminster already had such attributes, the corrosive culture that allowed the expenses scandal to grow and then explode would not have existed. Parliament and its members would have been open, transparent, responsible and fully accountable to its public. Instances of alleged misconduct could have been dealt with without media frenzies, moral panics, and knee-jerk government legislating.
So the public’s cry to its democratic representatives should not be ‘something must be done!” but “Parliament, heal thyself”.