Caroline Lucas MP has an interesting piece in the Independent about what it is like becoming an MP for the first time, and the things you learn.
Of particular interest:
One of the most shocking things to me was the discovery that most MPs have no idea what they’re voting on, when the division bell rings. And it suits the whips to keep it that way. The fact that my modest proposal – that Members should be required to include brief explanatory statements alongside their amendments – was met with such hostility by the Party hierarchies is indicative of the threat posed to Party discipline by MPs actually thinking for themselves.
Another shock was to see how the powers of parliamentary scrutiny are so poorly exercised. Membership of the ad hoc ‘bill committees’ set up to go through draft legislation line by line is one of the best opportunities to have direct influence over future laws. That’s why the whips generally try to keep people with too much expertise or independence of mind off these committees. Sarah Wollaston, the Conservative MP for Totnes and a former GP, tells of her enthusiasm to sit on the Health and Social Care bill committee. Instead, the whips told her to sit on a committee examining double taxation in the Cayman Islands. When she protested that she knew nothing of the subject, the whips replied that was all to the good: all they wanted her to do was to vote the right way at the right time.
I’ll note that this was already known by anyone who has watched a few Parliamentary debates, but seeing an MP write it all down is profoundly angering. It leaves me thinking of the last three lines from Dover Beach:
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
The main thing that the quotes from Lucas demonstrate is precisely how far the House of Commons is from the ideal of deliberative democracy. Parliamentary debates are far from what any thinking person should think of as a good or useful debate: it does not adequately allow for rebuttal of factual points made, simply a queue of people lodging their grievances. The time limits imposed on debates prevent Parliament from properly scrutinising proposed amendments.
The problem that I currently have is that the bodies that best represent the deliberative model of democracy in Britain are precisely those that aren’t democratically elected: specifically, the House of Lords and the Supreme Court. And that’s depressing too: the House of Lords is an extremely flawed institution—the political appointment process (which can be helped along with money), for a start—and the Supreme Court can’t exactly decide matters of public importance beyond those where interpretation of the law is concerned.
I have no great solutions to offer, just a feeling of disappointment and melancholy: I can’t see any way of fixing the process. Our voting system is fucked. Our Parliament is both unrepresentative and fails to be a suitable deliberative body. (And don’t get me started on how crap the media is at the same job.) I can only offer an ice-cold bath of cynicism: this system sucks, and there’s no real way to reform it. Our political system shall remain mired in mediocrity and stupidity for the foreseeable future. And it probably won’t change: even the most mild attempts at reforming, say, the voting system (the AV referendum) or the House of Lords have fallen flat on their arse, even though the failure to create a properly deliberative political system is precisely why we can’t solve the big problems.