MPs need to learn to think for themselves again…

I was so busy at Picamp London yesterday I had no time to blog anything. It was pretty much bumper to bumper all day. There was lot’s of good stuff, but one of my favourite moments was an impassioned presentation from Jenni Russell from the Guardian. She highlighted an invidious dumbing down of the parliament by party whips. In particular she picked out a moment, largely uncommented upon at the time, when Labour’s chief whip, NIck Brown announced that no Labour MP who ever voted against the party line could expect to make a select committee. It’s something she wrote about last week:

Select committees were set up 30 years ago with the explicit task of scrutinising and reporting on the work of each government department. The fact that, even now, most voters don’t understand what they do or why they matter demonstrates that they haven’t got sufficient clout. It would be inconceivable for an American not to understand what congressional committees do. They see them interrogating politicians and bankers, and rejecting presidential nominees for public posts. Ours are pale shadows by comparison, and until the political earth started shaking, the government wanted to enfeeble them even more.

This is partly a problem associated with all parliamentary systems where the executive remains a constituent part of the parliament. But the select committee system is one that still trades off the good offices of spikey individuals like the late Gwyneth Dunwoody MPs who regularly put the frighteners on Ministers and even Prime Ministers. As Russell pointed out yesterday, what chance have MPs in dealing with an even more spikey and irregular public online, if they cannot face critical inquiry from party colleagues, never mind the opposition.

Russell again:

One experienced Commons civil servant is blisteringly critical of the way in which most MPs have accepted the culture in which they now operate. While some committees and chairs are excellent, many MPs can’t be bothered. “They’re just not interested in the core tasks of parliament, scrutinising legislation or working in committee. It’s too much hard work – they’d rather be social workers for constituents. They don’t see select committees as a way to get noticed; in fact, if they’re ambitious and want to be ministers, it’s dangerous to be seen as a critical friend as opposed to an uncritical toady. They don’t spend three hours in the House of Commons library reading bills or papers themselves; they wait for Greenpeace or Liberty or a lobby group to tell them what to think. That whole culture of thinking, challenging, debating – that’s what’s been discouraged. Because, for them personally, what’s the point?”

This is an a priori difficulty for MPs (and other legislators) in dealing with an intelligent and articulate commons. That that the traditionally closed policy making systems of both the British and Irish civil services. Speaking to Naoise yesterday he talked about the frustration voiced by Noel Dempsey at a recent Leviathan at the virtual autonomy of Irish senior civil servants, who often appear to be utterly impervious to demands of democratically elected representatives.

Enter Tim Davis and his 50 obstacles … In summation, that leaves two prime obstacles for MPs, MLAs and even councillors: bureaucratic obstruction and over zealous whipping… If they cannot get past those two things at least, how can they hope to set up meaningful relations with an engaged public which is bigger, faster and way smarter than they are?

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty