The word on the street is that a new Parliament will purge the old and give the country a new start with its democracy. Parliament can put behind it the mistakes, errors and frustrations of the past five years and suddenly become the Parliament people need and may even want. It will not be that simple.
If the new Parliament is to be better than the old, and if the new people are to make a difference, we need collectively to will and require a change in the way we do politics. Parliament should be there to test, to probe, to challenge the government as well as there to pass government legislation. The present Parliament talks about the need to scrutinise the executive – hardly language to send the pulses racing or to get Parliament back in touch with the people it is meant to represent. What we need is a Parliament which keeps Ministers up to the mark, which asks the right questions and refuses to take “No” for an answer, and a Parliament which is reluctant to legislate, forcing Ministers to work hard and to perfect their plans before they see the legislative light of day.
The Opposition is talking of reforms that could help. Stronger streamlined Select Committees where a few MPs learn their briefs and ask expert points would help. Giving Parliament more of a say in what is debated and what is questioned is important. If the government always controls the timetable and decides the subjects – apart from the odd Opposition day – it gives them power to conceal and power to spin the nation’s story as they wish.
We need more time to question and debate. If Parliament wants to carry on with half term holidays as if we were a primary school, maybe we could have those weeks for cross examining and discussing matters with Ministers without new laws or votes for those of us who would like to do the job better. We need to have enough time for each new bill. Prior to 1997 the Opposition was allowed as much time as it wanted to debate a bill in committee. Only if the Opposition started to abuse that trust by spending say 50 hours on Clause 1 did a government impose a timetable motion to limit the debate. Automatic timetable motions have crushed sensible resistance to badly thought through legislation, and have flattered uncontentious legislation with more time than it needed.
There is also the unhealthy relationship between spin doctors, leaderships and the media. Power is thought to be the power to control the message. In practice the controlled messages usually frustrate or infuriate as well as inform and make easy the lives of the journalists. The media say they want MPs to be more independently minded. Yet when one is, he is often pilloried for daring to disagree with his leadership, so the press can have great fun with a party row story. If we want more grown up politics, leaderships have to be relaxed enough to accept that not everyone all the time in their party has the same view. The media have to allow parties to have internal disagreements to shape the line or change the approach, without pretending that such a phenomenon is unusual or a crisis
A healthy democracy needs debate between and within parties. It needs a media that allows well intentioned and sensible people to disagree without it always being a challenge to the leadership or a demand for a different job. There are ideas as well as personalities in politics. If Parliament is to rebuild itself it not only has to find a way to claim the bus fare without a problem, but it needs to do its main job better. Its main job is to lead the national debate, to influence and guide government, to frame and develop wise but limited laws and to ensure that if government is spending too much, abusing power, or taking us in the wrong direction we at least know there is an alternative.