Ed needs to build on his PMQs idea and create a more deferential parliament

28th July, 2014 11:33 am

Ed Miliband’s comments about public dissatisfaction with politics and politicians on the Andrew Marr show cannot be refuted. His idea about getting the public in to Westminster for their own Prime Minister Questions (PMQs) session is an interesting one, and an important foray in to an area Labour should now exploit to the full.

Ed Miliband 2014-05-26 03-26-13

If this idea is left in isolation it will be referred to in the coming months as just another gimmick – a throwaway line without substance. But if Ed develops a theme here, I predict he will get some real public traction, and deservedly so.

My attempt to become Speaker of the House of Commons in 2009 may have been ill-fated, but it is still one of my favourite personal political memories. There’s a reason for that. John Bercow was triumphant but in the radio call-ins, the TV hustings and the political write-ups, I had more traction with the public than the other candidates; although my message also made me less popular amongst the ‘old guard’ in the House of Commons. You can judge my pitch for yourself here.

During that process I learnt that the public appetite for a more ‘deferential’ House of Commons was immense. Not in terms of castigating politicians (leave that to the media) but in terms of connection with the public desire to shift the pendulum of power away from Westminster towards local communities through a more direct form of democracy.

Ed has now entered in to a debate that he must follow up and take ownership of. And he’ll reap the benefits if he does. To develop this theme his team need to look at the technology gap between real lives outside of Westminster and the antiquated system of decision making in the House that people find so off-putting. That’s not just about PMQs.

‘Issues for Topical Debate’ in Parliament are now structured by a back bench committee, which considers online petitions before issues are selected for debate in Parliament. Although that’s an advance from the year 2009, this is just not good enough for the 2015 Parliament.

Labour needs to grasp that the television/mobile age has changed the public’s attitude to interaction with the pillars of power in their democracy. The topical issues for debate in Parliament should be selected each week by the public directly via internet polling. Parliament could select the menu, for example in the past few days it would have included the conflict in Gaza, the downing of an aircraft in the Ukraine, or the right to die. But the public should make the final choice.

Only through high profile and direct public involvement will the electorate be convinced that the hands of the whips and the front benches are being loosened from the political agenda. It would be easy, yet radical to hold a public vote each Wednesday to set the agenda for a Thursday debate. And it’ll be a brave MP who decides not to attend if they know that hundreds or more of his/her constituents have participated to define their agenda. For years we’ve seen the thinning out of attendances for debates on Thursdays in Parliament. This would reverse that decline and give the public real influence.

Beyond the agenda of what goes on inside the Palace of Westminster, Ed’s team could build on his steps in this fertile area, to change the political settlement out in the regions and localities. In my Speakership hustings Speech in 2009 I got some taciturn looks from old-school MPs when I talked about moving some of the apparatus of Parliament out of the capital. Many ministers are far too comfortable on the green or red benches, and don’t face the heat of public opinion often enough when it comes to making major decisions. That makes for bad government because the public don’t feel involved and our leaders don’t get the chance to explain what they’re doing before a local audience, reinforcing that feeling of disengagement.

Local and regional issues taken up by MPs in half hour or 90 minute ‘adjournment debates’ do not attract much interest in regional media and amongst constituents, because they are sleepy events tucked away in Westminster. Ed is right to try to close that gap.

The way to reinvigorate interest in these Parliamentary debates on local issues is to take these debates to town halls around the country. A collection of ministers having to respond to backbench MPs in a full day of debates in Bristol, Newcastle, Birmingham and Liverpool (for instance) will attract far more interest than these debates currently do in Westminster Hall. At the moment you’re likely to find one man, his dog and a lobby correspondent in attendance. And you’ll find ministers rushed out at short notice to read out scripted responses on sheets of A4. I remember it all too well.

Ministers need to get out to respond to debates in areas that will attract public audiences. Only then will they feel the heat of their decisions to close shipyards, reconfigure health services and the like. It also gives government an opportunity to get its argument out directly to local communities.

I hope Ed’s announcement on the Andrew Marr programme will be the prelude to more policy in the area of direct democracy. If his comments about opening up PMQs become part of a narrative about a more deferential Parliament, I believe he and the Labour Party stand to be the winners.

Parmjit Dhanda was the Member of Parliament for Gloucester from 2001 to 2010

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  • gunnerbear

    “through a more direct form of democracy.”
    What does that mean? Referendums? Recalls?

    • RegisteredHere

      Yes. If nothing else (and I’m sure it will stay nothing else for as long as May can manage it), the CSA inquiry shows that these people can’t be trusted.

  • gunnerbear

    “Parliament could select the menu, for example in the past few days it would have included the conflict in Gaza, the downing of an aircraft in the Ukraine, or the right to die. But the public should make the final choice.”That’ll be the restoration of the death penalty and the exit from the EU then with closurses of NHS hospitals thrown in – nothing the PM is going to even think about answering other than in some h*****t platitude.

    • RegisteredHere

      That’s fine. Let the PM stall and backpeddle, but make the PM or any other MP subject to recall by their constituents.

      Our Parliamentarians are acting well beyond their mandate.

      • gunnerbear

        I agree about recall for a serious misbehaviour but would you demand recall over a hospital closure if the hospital a little bit further away became a ‘super unit’?

        • RegisteredHere

          I think recall would be justified whenever an MP ceased to represent the majority interests of his constituency, and while some reasonably robust mechanism would be necessary to prevent the local pigeon-fanciers ousting an MP single-handed, I doubt that recall would be used often. I really don’t think that people are quite as fickle or shallow as the Westminsterati seem to think, but then the Parties and their Whips have a lot to lose.

          However, providing sensible limits are in place, I think it would be entirely reasonable for constituents to recall their MP for voting with the government on an issue with strong local opposition (eg Royal Mail privatisation, NHS reorganisation, DRIP, Syria etc), but I’d imagine that the threat alone would be enough to curtail either the MP’s or the government’s intentions. Five year dictatorships are just wrong.

          • gunnerbear

            In that case then, the re-organisation of the NHS to create some super units to avoid more ‘Bristol and Oxford’ scandals would never happen – it’s taken long enough already*. You’d never get any new railways built, you’d never get any new motorways built if an MP had to start thinking about local issues all the time.* – Dr Phil Hammond writing on this always interesting and much better and clearer than the bumf put out by the DoH.

          • RegisteredHere

            I understand the concerns about recall and referendums, and in a perfect world neither would be necessary.

            However, I don’t think there are many issues that would trigger a successful recall bid, because the majority of people are reasonable and understand that compromises need to be made. In the case of super-hospitals or new roads and railways, the number of MPs affected would be unlikely to change the course of legislation anyway, regardless of whether they voted according to the wishes of their constituency or party masters. And that before considering the terms of a recall, which could be set at a level (say, >50% of the previous turnout for that constituency) to prevent unnecessary disruption.

            The problem at the moment is that there’s very little accountability for MPs between general elections, and once elected, MPs are whipped to vote with their Party, which creates an effective five-year dictatorship in which a Party can not only legislate with impunity, but can implement measures to put their policies beyond practical repeal.

            I mentioned the issues above because they were all carried out without a public mandate and in spite of public protests, and had these issues triggered recalls then I think the recalls would have been justified. If we had a proper recall system in place, then I don’t think the government would have pressed ahead, but as it stands, their policies are enacted and even if the Bills were repealed there’s nothing that anyone can do.

          • gunnerbear

            I think 50% is too high but I do take your points on board. I’d suggest a quarter of the turnout (or even 10% of the electorate. In the town were I live that is about 6,500 people).

  • gunnerbear

    “And it’ll be a brave MP who decides not to attend if they know that hundreds or more of his/her constituents have participated to define their agenda. For years we’ve seen the thinning out of attendances for debates on Thursdays in Parliament. This would reverse that decline and give the public real influence.”What, there’s going to be a binding vote on something then is there? This is just more b****ks – the public doesn’t want the PM to talk about the EU – we want a vote. Having more chance to talk about maybe having a vote isn’t going to f**k all for bringing the public on board.

  • gunnerbear

    “Ministers need to get out to respond to debates in areas that will attract public audiences. Only then will they feel the heat of their decisions to close shipyards, reconfigure health services and the like. It also gives government an opportunity to get its argument out directly to local communities.”Yeah right. It doesn’t matter to the minister because it probably won’t even be their area of responsibility – it’s a bit like the need for super units. The NHS needs high-tech, high-spec super units to deal with some incredibly tricky cases. That means shutting down some smaller units – no one surely wants another Bristol or Oxford scandal – thus local units get the chop.Yet, should a Minister dare say that he or she knows she’s out of a job locally thus they don’t do or say f**k all – a classic case of democracy actually hindering what needs to be done because politicians hate the short term for long term gain equation.

  • gunnerbear

    “Parliament could select the menu, for example in the past few days it would have included the conflict in Gaza, the downing of an aircraft in the Ukraine, or the right to die.” And of those topics, our MPs can really only do anything serious about one of them.
    Gaza is a US / UN issue – nothing we do will make any difference.
    Ukraine – sorry UK foreign policy is via the EU now – the HoC merely rubber stamps it.So we’re left with the right to die – hellfire not exactly going to get many people going is it? Why not the lack of housing, high energy costs or a vote on EU membership?

    • RegisteredHere

      I think the problem with Gaza is that our government (and hence ‘Britain’) stands square behind Israel, while the majority of the electorate is branded as being antisemitic for questioning Israel’s defence policy.

      A democracy we’re not.

      • JoeDM

        It is quite right that we should support the only normal liberal democracy in the middle east and defend its right to defend itself against almost continuous terrorist aggression.

        • Danny

          Should we also defend its right to the ILLEGAL occupation of Palestinian territories? Or the construction of ILLEGAL settlements?

          And do Palestinians have the right to defend themselves against Israel’s ILLEGAL activities?

          Whilst it’s a touch trivial to deconstruct the conflict down to a somewhat flippant analogy, I’ll give it a go anyway. If a bloke walked into your garden and claimed part of it as his own and you threw stones at him from your house in response, would that bloke then have the right to start chucking f*cking great grenades back at you and your house?

        • RegisteredHere

          Is it? Our government’s stance (and therefore the international ‘British’ stance) appears to be well out of line with the views of the British electorate, which raises questions about how representative our representative Parliament really is; especially post-Iraq.

          I doubt that many Brits are pro-Hamas or antisemitic, and most of the criticism of Israel has been based solely on humanitarian concerns.

          • gunnerbear

            If Hamas fire rockets at Israel, then Hamas is going to bring down a s**t-storm of return fire.If Israel fires into Gaza it’s going to kill civilians whether it aims to or not.Neither side appears to give a f**k about those basic facts and realities so leave ’em to it.

          • RegisteredHere

            True enough. I can’t see this going away though, and the politicians here and in the States are out on a limb already.

      • gunnerbear

        It’s an irrelevant issue for our MPs to debate in any case because we’re not going to influence the situation in any way.

        Our MPs would do better to argue about housing, keeping the NHS going, how to stop companies off-shoring, how to help small businesses and how to ensure every child (with medical exceptions) can read, write and is competent in basic arithmetic.

  • jaime taurosangastre candelas

    Ed never follows through on his ideas, so it would be a bit odd for this to be any different.

    Does anyone remember “pre-distribution”? It was difficult to understand at least as it was published, so sank like a stone. In reality, it was poorly explained and not actually a mathematically sound concept, so it was good that it died.

    • Steve Stubbs

      I repeat it isn’t his idea, it was first mooted on the Conservative Home blogsite is March last year. It didn’t get any traction there then either.

      And yes, I read that site amongst the 20 or so I follow daily, nice to know what the opposition is thinking.

      • JoeDM

        ConHome has taken a particularly downward turn in recent months.

        • RegisteredHere

          Yes, since the election campaign kicked in.

        • gunnerbear

          ConHome is more loyalist than ever – can’t blame it really, just as LL can be.

  • treborc1

    We dislike PMQs because they were and have always been a waste of time, and the public , what public who will these be party members, members who aim to go somewhere, we all know how politics work, and sadly I do not think we need it an election is the best PMQs.

    You can have these PMQs now go on news night, or go onto any TV show and the public will ask you the questions, I suspect the questions will be much as they are now bluff.

  • 000a000

    Fiddling with who can or can’t ask questions and when isn’t a replacement for real policy.

    Ed is disliked by the public and isn’t seen as a leader. This kind of nonsense is exactly why – it stinks of easy focus group sessions rather than difficult policy decisions that need to be explained at length.

    How on earth does a few people asking questions (that will be spun away) in parliament make any difference to someone who is working all hours and struggling to pay their bills? Or someone with an ill relative that they are looking after? Or someone who can’t find a job.

    Seriously whoever is advising Miliband to present this rubbish needs sacking.

    • RegisteredHere

      If public PMQs is the whole deal than I’d agree; but if this is part of a wider set of reforms to move Parliament out of the grip of the Establishment, then all well and good.

      • gunnerbear

        Parliament is the Establishment.

  • markmyword49

    The “I” ran a series of questions to the party leaders earlier this year the answers printed meant nothing. They were full of phrases cobbled together by their backroom staff.

    All this talk of “town hall” meetings is hogwash. The only people and institutions they take note of when making policy are focus groups,donors and their favoured think tanks.

    Local issues should be dealt with by local politicians. Give them the economic and political clout to make meaningful decisions and the voters might believe politicians do have something worthwhile to contribute.

    It will not happen. National politicians fear the building of other centres of power in regions and cities.

    • RegisteredHere

      I don’t think it’s just about local councils and communities so much as individuals.

  • compagnero

    You have got it back to front.
    We need a more deferential government.
    And a less deferential Parliament,

  • IAS2011

    Yes, ED is right. But, I have been suggesting that this – and a fundamental change to a parliamentary system that remains undemocratic – also desperately needed. So, why did Ed stop there?

    Again, I do feel Ed has a lot to explain to the public – many of whom would had wanted his – or any other bold opposition – to present a much more broader case for CHANGE that does more to make MPs more accountable, constituents able to complain about their MPs via the Parliamentary Ombudsman and Achievements measured for their success in the work that MPs do for constituents.

    After all, how much do MPs achieve for their constituents? Is this ever measured?

  • david hunter

    The ONLY reason that debates have been thinning out on Thursdays is because that is the day, for MPs, that the weekend starts.

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