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.
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