Only a third of the public think Parliament is effective in holding government to account: two thirds want improvement of our democratic institutions. We struggle to get more than two in three adults to cast a vote at a general election. It is widely held that anti-politics is the prevailing mood of our times. With depressing regularity though, discussions involving politicians and the media focus not on how to improve our democracy, but rather on how we can better communicate the brilliance of our achievements to those too cynical or ill-informed to see them.
My eighteen years in the Commons have led me to a different conclusion: I think Parliament is weak, ineffective and in need of radical change. It isn’t the way we elect our MPs – as the 2011 referendum showed, people are quite happy to choose a single local MP using First Past the Post. What they can’t stand is what happens to us when we arrive at Westminster. The domination of the legislature by the executive and the pervasive corruption of patronage are in effect a collective lobotomy. Intelligent and independent-minded people are transformed into lobby-fodder living in hope of even the most ridiculous sign of favour or preferment.
This report by Reform is a serious attempt to identify worthwhile, incremental reforms that might restore some real value and dignity to the Commons. Giving MPs a greater role in agreeing Parliament’s timetable and programme; enhancing the powers (and responsibility) of specialist select committees; giving greater parity of esteem to the task of scrutinising government effectively, so all parliamentary life isn’t seen as a scramble for government office; and crucially reducing the size of the ‘payroll’ alongside the reduction of the number of MPs. Each step alone is tiny but taken together, these changes would amount to an important rebalancing between the executive and the legislature.
It seems obvious that Parliament needs this change; the voluntary exodus of able former ministers at the 2015 election is hardly testament to a healthy institution. It should be just as obvious that government too would be strengthened by being more robustly challenged and scrutinised. I hope this paper will be welcomed by all who understand that Westminster needs to change – and not just to improve its image.
Graham Brady is Chairman of the 1922 Committee. His post appears as a foreword to the new Reform think tank report Parliament of lawmakers