It is difficult to write when one is totally incandescent with rage. Indeed it's probably advisable not to. But the news (reported in the Times today) that Harriet Harman and a phalanx of Parliament and democracy hating MPs are to block vital Commons reform, by means of a truly pathetic procedural trick, deserves all the rage and bile I can muster.
To explain: Back in the summer of last year, at the height of the expenses scandal, Gordon Brown (correctly) acknowledged that the crisis had deep roots. To win back people's trust Parliament had to be reformed, had to be seen to become a genuine legislative chamber again, not a closed theatre for the Government's increasingly morbid psycho-drama.
In establishing a cross-parliamentary committee to explore Commons reform, the Prime Minister no doubt hoped to kick the issue into the long grass. But while in many respects he succeeded (the news cycle moved on, new scandals emerged) appetite for reform remained strong. People want to see change, and not just in the bodies filling the Government benches. Campaigns like Power2010 have sprung up, think tanks have produced reports, MPs have made speeches.
The proposals which eventually came out of the Committee were modest and decades overdue. Select Committees, the organs of Parliament in which the scrutiny of Government is actually done, would be strengthened. No longer would the Chairmen and members be decided over glasses of claret in smoky back rooms, between party whips whose interests are invariably party first, country second. Moreover, backbench MPs, the vast majority of whom do not sit with in Government, would at last get some genuine control over the legislative timetable and procedure. It shouldn't be possible for Government ministers to fiddle things in such a way that bad law gets passed without proper scrutiny, or good law get squeezed out through lack of time.
It's ironic then that the proposals for Commons reform are to be killed off by the Government's use of procedural trickery.
Harriet Harman, leader of the House of Commons, has never been a fan of reforms that would limit her ability to game the parliamentary system. By declaring that the proposals will be introduced as 'unamendable orders', she has effectively scuppered the hopes of reformers. As an 'unamendable order', a single objection from a single MP prevents the particular measure in question from being passed (the unanimity principle). That measure must be returned to the House at a later date to be debated by a full session of the House, which considering the constraints on parliamentary time (and the fact that the Government controls that time) means that it simply won't come into law. Indeed Harman today gave no assurance that time would be found for those measures that are objected to (see here).
The debate scheduled for February 23rd will therefore be nothing more than parliamentary theatre. All of the measures will be objected to - the Government will make sure of that - and the Committee's proposals (along with the hopes of anyone who wants better government) will be sunk.
Rare are the times when such a small bunch of MPs have so brazenly stuck their middle fingers up at the people of the UK. This move by the leader of the House of Commons (and in the background,
Labour's Chief Whip Nick Brown) should bring the people out onto the
streets. It is the most blatant abuse of the Parliamentary schedule and procedures I can remember, and there have been some crackers in recent years. And the reason? Internal party politics. Harriet Harman is not only the leader of the House, she's also the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party, and some in the party are having doubts. The need for these reforms has clearly never have been greater.
People do not have to take this lying down though. Harman and Nick Brown both have email addresses, and I encourage you to write. Let them know what you think about their decision to subvert the British parliamentary system for their own ends. Their addresses are below.
Nick Brown (Labour Chief Whip)