The idea that politicians and parties should seek consensus is popular. Many people say it would be good if parties learned to work together more for the sake of the country. They tell us they think behaviour at Prime Mininster’s Questions (PMQs) is poor, that the Commons should have more serious and well informed debates.
There is, however, another side to the popular view. When my constituents say they would like to come to the Commons to see it in action, they nearly always want to come for PMQs. PMQs is so different from most of the rest of the work in the Commons – noisy, partisan, point scoring debating at its best and worst. If I say, why not come to a good debate the following day on reform of welfare or our foreign policy, there is little interest. Some of the time in the Commons small groups of MPs specialising in an important topic debate and discuss amongst themselves in some detail, often without party rancour. There are , of course, plenty of seats available in the public gallery for most debates, but PMQs is an all ticket match with intense competition for the tickets.
Voters also often write in and demand that an MP or party puts over their points more strongly or insistently. People understandably want their MP to represent their view as stridently as possible. Rarely do people write in urging us to compromise a view they hold dear for the sake of consensus. Voters are more likely to criticise an MP for not standing up for his principles or for the promise he made at the election, than to complain the MP has failed to compromise such promises or principles for the wider good. Obviously if a constituent did not like an MP’s promise in the first place then they will be pleased if he compromises.
For the Commons to work at all, there needs to be considerable agreement between the main parties over what is to be debated and how debate is to be conducted. The Commons has long standing conventions that one MP does not make personal accusations about another without giving that MP warning so he can be present to defend himself, that reasonable courtesy is observed between MPs, and that extreme language is avoided. Debate can still be heated, passionate, lively when times demand it and when parties or individuals disagree strongly.
So often I have found that when all parties agree government usually makes its biggest mistakes. Seeking more consensus can result in very little happening, or in fudge. Worse still, it can result in disaster. The Exchange Rate Mechanism was an economic policy which did large damage to the UK economy. It was agreed by all three main party leaderships and most MPs. The anti global warming legislation went through with all three party leaderships supporting it. No party asked whether dearer energy was a good idea for the UK economy and consumers, or asked if it might just transfer the carbon dioxide emissions elsewhere as we lost the factories here. . The public are right to tell us that sometimes we should try harder to reach agreements, but they are also right to love the cut and thrust of true challenge and choice. There needs to be some passion in politics, and there need to be some real differences, to make elections worthwhile. There also needs to be strong criticisms, alternative views and challenges to the orthodoxy before Parliament commits us to major policies which could do damage to our prospects.