Professor Sarah Childs discusses the implications of the parliamentary politics of Brexit, and prospects for future reforms at Westminster.
So, we have a new date: Halloween 2019. That most commercial and crass of American imports will this year be anticipated for very different reasons (and perhaps by different people too). On Twitter Brexit-related costumes are already being planned – the ‘backstop’, the ‘sexy, exhausted journalist’, and the ‘single tariff zone’. I suspect there will be more than few ‘roast gammons’ trick or treating along-side bespectacled children in three-piece tweed suits. One of my friends will no doubt enthusiastically revive her ‘Andrea Leadsom’ persona; I could be tempted by a Soubry hat (as long as the fur was fake). Put like this, the ‘flextension’ is a welcome and light-hearted intervention in to what is a seemingly unresolvable parliamentary and constitutional moment (or, at least with these MPs at this time, a parliamentary impasse).
The parliamentary politics of Brexit evidently has serious implications. What is happening at Westminster – its institutional politics, within which the executive and the legislature are competing to resolve the issue of UK’s membership of the EU – is particularly telling about how our politics and Parliament interact. Later there will be analysis of how Brexit has changed constitutional norms, with established rules and conventions having been regularly challenged, not least by Mr Speaker. But it is from the perspective of The Good Parliament Report that I reflect on what is happening in SW1A. And it is not a pretty picture.
Again, one could take a humorous approach: the House is having to order in more chocolate as current supplies are unable to satisfy demand. But it is much more serious than this. In the last couple of weeks accounts are coming to light: of MPs drinking more alcohol; Members having to choose between going home to see their dying partners or staying put just in case some business arises; MPs in tears, unable to spend Easter with their children; and as tempers fray, parliamentary friends are falling out with each other. There is less time to exercise, and to do all the other everyday work – the washing of clothes, the food shopping, seeing your GP – that MPs like other human beings need to do.
The House has sat later than its latest official finish time – 10.30pm – every week (14 times in total) since the last recess in early January. This is as tough for staff as it is for MPs. MPs’ staffers have been seen crying; they are often the ones, note, who have to read the public’s vitriol in emails and tweets that they keep away from their MPs. And it is critical too not to forget the voiceless and often faceless officials, clerks and other parliamentary staff that keep the Houses of Parliament running – procedurally and in a whole host of other ways. Someone has to offer constitutional advice, prepare the parliamentary motions and amendments, and tick off MPs as they go through the division lobbies – and to do so at breakneck speed, and when any errors might have enormous substantive consequences; others have to cook the beloved late-night bacon sandwiches; and someone else has to clean the building and keep it secure when most others have gone home. Long hours affect everyone in Westminster; they have had their recesses cancelled – frantically trying to find family members willing to care for the kids or find the extra cash to pay for school holiday clubs. It is almost too obvious to symbolise Parliament’s exhausted state through its failing buildings, but it is admittedly irresistible.
That MPs are speaking out about the ‘cost’ of Brexit politics on their mental and physical health and the quality of their decisions is a good thing. But there is a risk that the current parliamentary crisis will be analysed at the individual and not the institutional level. This would be a missed opportunity. As the introduction of proxy voting for MPs on maternity and paternity earlier this year has shown, the Commons can and should be reformed to make it a more effective institution. This is not and never was just about any one individual who might benefit from using a proxy – and they proved decisive in the division to allow indicate votes earlier this month when the government was defeated by a single vote when three MPs used proxies. Making parliaments diversity sensitive is, as the IPU make clear in their definition of Gender Sensitive Parliaments, about institutions that are: ‘truly representative, transparent, accessible, accountable and effective in all its functions’.
I am not, and never was, foolish enough to imagine that a reformed House of Commons should follow the structure and form of non-political institutions. There will be times when parliaments should be treated as the unique democratic institutions that they are. At moments of unforeseen political crisis there may well have to be emergency ways of working; recalling parliament at short notice in such contexts will be necessary and appropriate. But most of the time, Parliament does not have to conduct its business the way it does. It is a moot point whether Brexit constitutes such an unexpected crisis. In The Good Parliament I offered a reformist blueprint. A good number of its recommendations have been adopted but there are others that had they been adopted might have ensured that in this last six months – and might have put Westminster in the next six months – better positioned institutionally to address Brexit. To be clear, I am not speaking about any effects on substantive outcomes – bar the aforementioned ability of MPs to now take formal maternity and paternity leave, and the provision of additional childcare provision beyond the nursery – but about how the institutional work is undertaken.
It is time to talk about the parliamentary timetable. Three recommendations speak directly to questions of when Parliament undertakes its work:
- 26: Set the recess dates for each parliamentary session, at least one session in advance
- 27: Abolish party conference recess and sitting Fridays
- 31: Introduce greater predictability in the scheduling of House Business
There has been no appetite for, and indeed resistance against the first and third recommendations. Recommendations 26 and 31 fall in the face of the Executive’s preference and privilege to (mostly) control parliamentary time – a preference that the Opposition, imagining themselves as a future government, similarly wants to maintain. Recommendation 27 falls on the pragmatic grounds that conference venues have been booked in advance. There is little substantive consideration of whether it makes sense that our party conferences disrupt parliament’s year – although this ‘tail wagging the dog’ may now get the attention it deserves.
If we turn to the management of the parliamentary day, there has been support amongst members of the Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion to consider the possibility of more efficient parliamentary votes but the issue urgently needs taking forward:
- 32: Review the establishment of a ‘Division Time’, whereby multiple votes could be taken together at a particular point of the parliamentary sitting
Three other Recommendations – which were strategically placed within the context of ‘restoration and renewal’ – also speak to how the Commons’ conducts its business. The very fact of my kicking these into the R&R long grass signalled the parliamentary antipathy that they generate.
- 33: Trial sittings of the House based around ‘normal business hours’
- Trial opportunities for remote voting by MPs physically present on the Parliamentary Estate
All of these recommendations have become more urgent in these troubled Brexit times. We simply have to reform when Parliament sits – not just for its effects on MPs but on the health of all of those who work on the estate and – for those lacking sympathy for MPs – for the quality of our legislative outputs. The UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 16 aims for strong and effective parliaments. Is this really achieved by late nights and presenteeism?
Let’s take the recesses – already elided in the public’s mind with long ‘holidays’. The Easter recess was drastically shortened following a cancellation of the February recess, what of the May recess? And of the summer, Mr Tusk made it clear that the UK should not ‘waste time’. And will staff and Members have any warning, and be able to make plans ahead of time? On late nights I am not unaware of geographic criticism of any move towards business hours. But MPs’ preferences may not be the best basis upon which the parliamentary day should be modelled. Some MPs relish and venerate the return to late nights. A tweet from Greg Hands MP on 15 January stated “Real old-style House of Commons here, as the Chancellor himself gets to his feet at 01:17 to address the House, having sat through about 10 hours of Brexit questions and debate. #endurance #BrexitDeal.’ This is machismo pure and simple. Lobby hacks tweet morbid humour about English breakfasts being served from 11.30pm. But the reality is less endearing, and takes its toll: two of the most necessarily prolific speakers of the moment, the Prime Minister, and the Chair of the Brexit Committee, Hilary Benn MP, have recently lost their voices over a period of days. Others speak anecdotally of feeling unwell and lingering viruses.
Some MPs when talking about the extreme hours and pressure they are currently working under qualify their comments by saying that they seek no public sympathy. Other workers – and I would argue MPs too – should not find themselves working in a structurally unsound buildings which lack the facilities of even very average workplaces, and do so in seemingly poor conditions (the complaints of mice running over feet, broken heating and water leaks are very real) where they might find themselves ‘hanging around’ for hours and hours on end, just in case there is a late vote. And of course, if Parliament resorts to ‘quick and dirty’ legislation, motions, amendments, are we confident that the very best decisions and outcomes – sufficient scrutiny – is taking place?
We need to think about the symbolism of the Brexit Parliament. The image of Mr Speaker taking advice from his Clerks as Members look on has the feel of a religious painting – I suspect if will become iconic. Yet it is worth settling a moment on institutional resilience in the face of late night after late night on the officials’ side. One wonders if the apparent male dominance among clerks at the Table reflects women’s lesser ability to be present because of their domestic responsibilities as well as their lesser seniority? (Note: as this was going to press the House announced the appointment of Sarah Davies as the first Clerk Assistant). And does it also assume a certain kind of male endurance, which itself reinforces traditional gender norms in these men’s homes as well as in the House even as it is deleterious (at least in some cases) to the individual men? Parliament should act as a role model rather than a reinforcer of gender norms.
This is a highly masculinized politics: not just in terms of the presence of men – whether Members or officials – but also in its ‘yah boo’ form of interaction. Language is angry—at times brutally so—in the Chamber. Sometimes its gendered form is expicit; viz March 13, in which Ken Clarke (‘Father of the House’, no less) claimed the debate was “no better than a Women’s Institute” and Peter Bone berated the “moaning minnies” on Labour’s benches. The perpetuation of the male public-school culture was given a helping hand via Jacob Rees-Mogg’s comparison of Etonians vs Wykehamists on March27. Gendered language seems to go right to the top: on 25 March, the PM, in response to Chris Leslie’s accusation that she was on her phone in the Chamber, replied that it was “just a bit of female multi-tasking”. The language used matters; it entrenches gender divides and is inimical to inclusive debate. To this should be added the far worse language in the Commons’ ‘alternative chamber’—Twitter and other online platforms. MPs face an almost impossible level of abuse, something that Harriet Harman MP, among others, is calling out amid proposals for a Speaker’s Conference.
The importance of institutionalisation
Westminster is not an unchanging institution. Parliament’s – both Lords and Commons’ – diversity sensitive reforms are in many instances recent, in the Commons ushered in by the Reference Group chaired by Mr Speaker. Whilst there are some indications of these bedding in, others are fragile in these earlier stages. Proxy voting—which, incidentally (and possibly not coincidentally) has not experienced any particular pressure from recent events—are written into the Standing Orders, but other conventions require time to become institutionalised. Of course, current practices may only be ‘momentary’ albeit a rather long Brexit moment, with only temporary individual and institutional implications but we should not be complacent. For Brexit politics has undoubtedly brought out behaviour and practices that one might have hoped were out-moded and marginal. It is remiss not to call them out and to re-state a reform agenda. Indeed, it is all the more important that Parliament gets it right, because post-Brexit (whenever that might be) will usher in a new order: a new Speaker, perhaps new Members if there is a general election or wholesale resignations. Will the latter be more skewed to men once again, as some gender activists fear in light of the violence against women in politics reinforcing the historic male dominance? And what of any new Speaker? Will they champion diversity, representation and inclusion or be tempted by a return to the seemingly ‘comfortable’ politics of tradition? Of course, the House is still wrestling with recent allegations of harassment and bullying; the concerns of staff have not gone away. The recommendations of Dame Laura Cox QC in her October 2018 report are more important than ever. Whatever else is in focus when Parliament, Think Tanks, the media and academics undertake their inquiries into Brexit, the concerns of The Good Parliament must be kept central. A strong, inclusive and ‘good’ institution must weather this Brexit storm.
Sarah Childs is Professor of Politics and Gender, Birkbeck College University of London. Follow her on Twitter: @profsarahchilds
Read Prof Childs’ August 2016 blog on the publication of The Good Parliament Report:The Good Parliament: it is about more than breastfeeding and trans-toilets and her August 2018 update blog: A Better, But Not as Yet, Good Parliament: The UK House of Commons 2016-2018