MPs being wheeled in from hospital to vote is only the tip of the iceberg. With long, demanding hours and little chance to work on pet projects, things are harder than ever for our politiciansby Marie Le Conte / June 26, 2018 / Leave a comment
Theatre-goers with only a mild taste for politics were probably shocked to see elderly and sickly MPs wheeled into Parliament to vote in This House—but not as shocked as some commentators were to see the practice repeated last week.
James Graham’s hit portrayed life in Westminster under the Callaghan government of the late 1970’s. But some of its bleakest quirks have recently become relevant again.
Last week, Labour MP Naz Shah had to leave hospital in a wheelchair, sick bag on her lap, to vote on the EU Withdrawall Bill.
The numbers were too tight to call, and the government’s whips office decided not to nod anyone through—an old convention that usually allows ill parliamentarians to simply be present on the estate to be counted as having voted.
An uproar followed in Westminster, and comparisons with This House—whose action is set in in the whips offices—were drawn, but the incident was only the tip of the iceberg.
Below the surface, Parliament isn’t doing well, and things are only going to get worse.
“The behaviour of the government’s whips office this week, and in recent weeks, completely goes against the actual ethos of what a good operation of a whips office consists of,” said Kevin Brennan, a shadow DCMS minister and former government whip.
“Respecting the integrity of your colleagues and being able to have a good relationship between the opposition whips and the government whips is a fundamental part of how parliamentary politics works.”
While the chief whip’s main job is to make sure votes get through Parliament, they must also ensure that MPs are being kept relatively happy, as they might otherwise develop a taste for trouble.
This usually involves a skilful balancing act of the stick and the carrot (and, as Gavin Williamson once quipped, the occasional use of the sharpened carrot)—but chief whip Julian Smith has so far been known for relying more heavily on the former.
“The big problems are inflexibility and overwork”
He is only partly to blame; after all, he cannot change the nature of parliamentary arithmetic.
“The big problems are inflexibility and overwork”, explained Rob Ford, a professor of political science at the University of Manchester.
“Inflexibility not only in terms of MPs less driven to pursue their own agendas, but the simple grim structural fact that every single vote has a potential for problems.”
“It creates a really difficult situation because if you’re the whips you have to be very, very careful about who you let off for anything; for families, holidays, or constituency work.”
What is tough for whips is usually even tougher for the people they’re in charge of. Between the endless slog of Brexit and the pressure of a hung Parliament, during the week MPs are expected to either stay on the estate or get back there at short notice, are rarely sure of what may happen next, and are given little to no bandwidth to work on their pet policies.
“The Brexit existential undercurrent is running through politics at the moment which does mean it’s quite difficult to get any bandwidth for other subjects; I’m doing the DCMS brief on the frontbench for Labour but sometimes you do feel like you’re shouting into a vacuum”, said Brennan.
What has also changed since the 1970’s is constituents’ expectations: while MPs have always had to do their work in SW1, they now face more pressure to show their face in their seat, holding frequent surgeries, helping vulnerable people, attending local campaigning events, and so on.
This is a heavy workload for all parliamentarians, but especially the ones in the (many) marginal seats up and down the country, who need to be particularly effective local MPs as well as good Westminster operators.
“People are suffering physically and emotionally.”
One might argue that it simply is part of the job, but it is worth pointing out that MPs are still human, and need at least some downtime and time with their families like everyone else—and they are simply not getting enough of it at the moment, which cannot be healthy.
Hannah Bardell, the SNP MP for Livingston, said: “There’s a feeling of anxiety. I’ve no doubt that collectively across the board, people are suffering physically and emotionally.”
“[They’re] probably not making good decisions—and probably not able to focus on things in the way they should,” she said.
“I’ve personally felt that. I get a lot of social media anxiety—I want to go on social media but what do you say? I want to give people some comfort and try to explain what’s happening but there’s just so much stuff.”
“And the most infuriating thing is that half the time no one has any idea what the government is doing; nobody knows what’s going to happen next.”
This sense of insecurity does mostly come from Brexit, which is an issue unlike any other; it is not only all-consuming—as shown by the lack of unrelated legislation getting through the Commons at the moment—but also forces MPs to go along with twists and turns they often disagree with.
This is a problem, and worrying for several reasons. As parliamentary academic and Conservative peer Lord Norton explains, the “prospective pressure” on MPs—“the knowledge that this will go on and on”—will only continue to grind MPs down.
“It’s not just that these bills have to get through before next March and Brexit, it’s what happens afterwards—because then you have all these measures, and EU law that we’re now keeping in place thanks to the EU Withdrawal Bill. We’ve got all the pressure of what to do with them”.
In short, things are currently bleak for MPs, and about to get bleaker. What’s more, Brexit isn’t the only problem looming on the horizon. By attempting to make their parties vote for a version of Brexit they often disagree with, both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn are testing the nerves of their front and backbenches.
This might well mean that those MPs will find themselves out of goodwill in a few years, and contemplate joining the ranks of parliamentary rebels—which, according to academic research, is often a one-way trip: once MPs start rebelling, they rarely stop.
“The tail end of this parliament, assuming it runs its course, is going to get very interesting,” said Ford. “We know that rebellions have been rising steadily in parliaments for the past forty years or so; they normally start on a relatively low base, with lots of fresh faces and the government gets a honeymoon period, then they steadily rise.”
The logical conclusion of all this is that the current situation will probably have worrying consequences beyond this Parliament.
To put it bluntly: if something is miserable on the inside, it rarely looks appealing from the outside.
While wannabe politicians often have a degree of realism about what the job of an MP entails, including its highs and lows, it would only be human for them to look at what is happening with suspicion.
Some parliamentarians are trying to shake things up—Harriet Harman and Jo Swinson, among others, are fighting for proxy voting to be introduced for heavily pregnant MPs and recent parents—but things are moving at a worryingly slow pace.
As Ford concluded: “I can well imagine a situation where, come 2020, Parliament is just a weekly slog of misery and chaos for everybody involved.”
“On top of that, both parties have leaders that they’re not particularly inclined to sacrifice themselves for because they don’t like them. Who would be a politician in that situation, frankly?”