With a snap General Election just weeks away, the business of what MPs do is back in the spotlight, with citizens closely scrutinising their views on everything from Brexit to bins. This year students on our Parliamentary Studies course each followed online the activities of a chosen MP for six months to see how Members of Parliament do their job and use their time, to answer the question ‘what makes a good MP?’ Students analysing their MP’s pages on TheyWorkForYou, read their tweets, and followed their blogs and voting record. Here’s what three of them found out:

 Georgina Ryall

Chosen MP: Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) ‘Rebellion and Responsibility’

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Labour MP for Leeds Central, Hilary Benn once told an interviewer, ‘Ultimately, all politics is a compromise between the purity of the ideal and being able to help people. You can be completely happy with your beliefs – but if you don’t win, you can’t help anybody’. After researching Hilary Benn for several months as my case study for ‘what makes a good MP’, I would say it is this conviction which best encapsulates his approach to the role of parliamentarian.

The job description of an MP is highly open to interpretation. Once the MP is in Westminster, the parliamentary roles that MP may take on vary from being elected Speaker and never voting on anything again, to remaining a backbencher and rebelling against the government their constituents elected them to represent. In the case of Hilary Benn, he is a curious mixture of rebellion and responsibility.

Benn has more parliamentary muscle and influence than most due to his current role as Chair of the Brexit select committee, several years of cabinet and shadow cabinet experience, a revered family name and an arresting style of oratory. He has voted with the party on the vast majority of issues and yet, in recent years, he has also proved capable of some high profile dissent.

Perhaps, when he publicly declared no faith in his party’s elected leader, he deemed it unlikely that Labour could ‘help people’ while polling saw them so dizzyingly far away from any hope of an election victory. However, good intentions aside, further resignations and a spiral of negative press were what ensued. Whether this made him a good parliamentarian depends on who you ask.

He also makes a ‘compromise’ between his Westminster work and his work in Leeds. His majority of almost 17,000 gives him ample manoeuvre room to spend more time in the chamber and less battling to prove himself in the constituency. Nevertheless he holds above average levels of surgeries and is an avid user of social media and a prominent local blogger. He has proved popular enough to comfortably win four general elections. The two are not separate phenomena.

Leeds Central’s Harvey Nichols bestowed city-centre is a short bus journey away from hill after hill of lapsed industrial suburbs. These kinds of deprived constituencies require more surgeries, staff and time and they are also far more likely to vote Labour. Add to this the increase in constituency communications from ‘fewer than twenty letters per week’ in the 1950s to hundreds a week today and it is evident that our MPs are working harder than ever before. This development became apparent reading the diaries of the former MP for Benn’s area, Hugh Gaitskell. Mentions of any constituency work are few and a rather far cry from what I speculate Benn’s seven surgeries a month entail. Gaitskell once recounted a visit to Beeston Working Men’s Club where he was greeted by rounds of applause and constituents buying him so much beer that his colleague had to help him drink it all.

An example of the decline in public opinion towards parliamentarians since then can be exemplified by a conversation I had with one of Benn’s constituents outside that same Working Men’s Club last year. I won’t repeat verbatim their views on parliament, but suffice to say he would not be buying any MPs a pint. Why Benn might be categorised with that era of corruption is unclear, being that his expenses were so frugal the newspapers named him ‘Bargain Benn’.

This brings me to the crux of my research, which found that much of what makes a good MP, despite popular belief to the contrary, is already exhibited by a majority of today’s members. But if the electorate is no longer paying attention, what does it matter how good the parliamentarian is?

 Jack Byrne

 Chosen MP: Dan Jarvis (Barnsley Central): the loyal crusader?

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Dan Jarvis, continually touted for the Labour Party leadership, represents the constituency of Barnsley Central. He has held the seat since a 2007 by-election in which he held the seat for the Labour Party. Since then he increased his majority in the 2015 General Election to a substantial vote majority of 12,435. Jarvis does not serve in the Shadow Cabinet and devotes all of his time to back-bench activities, scrutinising the Executive, and seeking clarity on issues, through both written questions to ministerial departments and oral questions within the House of Commons.

Although Jarvis is comparatively quiet in asking oral questions, asking only six questions between 16.10.16 and 29.01.17, he is rather more prolific with his written questions receiving responses to 131 questions from government departments in the same time period. He has covered a wide range of issues, from Brexit to care for veterans, but most prominently he has focused his attentions on the issue of child poverty for which he is the sponsor of a private members bill. The bill, which is due its second reading in the House of Commons in May 2017 (though the election may interfere), entitled the Child Poverty in the UK (Target for Reduction) Bill, tabled by the Back-Bench Business Committee, has received cross-bench admiration and achieved media attention, raising awareness for the cause in both parliamentary and public spheres.

Jarvis voted according along party lines in the recent EU Notification of withdrawal Act, voting with his Party and in line with his constituency, even though he campaigned for the UK to remain within the European Union. According to Public Whip Jarvis is a fairly well-disciplined member of his party, hardly rebelling, voting with his parliamentary affiliation all but 3 times since becoming an MP. He devotes much of his time away from Westminster taking part in constituency surgeries, and visiting local schools and hospitals.

William Donald

Chosen MP: Jacob Rees-Mogg MP: Member for the 19th Century?

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Jacob Rees-Mogg (47) is the Conservative member for North East Somerset. He is 47 years old and the son of William Rees Mogg (former Times editor) and Gillian Shakespeare-Morris. He was educated at Eton College and Trinity College, Oxford – where he read History. Following Oxford he became an investment banker in the City of London. His own children are famously looked after by the same Nanny that looked after Jacob, who also campaigns with him.

He has made 3 attempts to become an MP. His first attempt in the 1997 General Election was contesting a safe Labour seat in Central Fife where he came third, gaining 9% of the vote (3,669). The next attempt was in the 2001 General Election where he stood as prospective Conservative candidate for The Wreckin (Shropshire). Again Labour retained the seat but on this occasion he came second. His third and successful attempt came in the 2010 General Election as Conservative candidate for North East Somerset when he won the seat with a comfortable 4,914 majority. He increased the conservative vote by 2.2%. Since then he has stood for re-election in the 2015 General Election. He retained the seat but this time with a 12,749 majority and increased the Conservative vote by 8.5%.

Although the member for North East Somerset, some MPs also consider him to be the Member for the 19th Century on account of his style. Jacob is a Conservative, but definitely on the Eurosceptic wing of the party. Within Parliament, he is busy. Jacob sits on the Treasury Select Committee and the European Scrutiny Committee. He is also a member of the Palace of Westminster (joint committee), which is looking at the modernisation of Parliament. He clearly has a strong interest in Public Finance, according to ‘They work for you’ he has attended every meeting of the Finance Bill committee and the Financial Services reform committee (being the owner of Somerset Capital Management, he has a strong motivation for attending). In the last year he has submitted 57 written questions (above average). Since 2010 he has participated in 326 debates- again above average for an MP. Jacob frequently writes in the local newspapers. In one article he says that he finds ‘helping an aggrieved person obtain redress far more satisfying than all the debate in the chamber’. He tends to keep his constituency work low-key for reasons of confidentiality.

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We should always be careful when an adjective like ‘great’ is attached to a piece of law in Britain. The Great Reform Act of 1832 wasn’t that great and the Glorious Revolution of 1688 wasn’t very glorious and wasn’t a revolution.

Theresa May’s proposed Great Repeal Act of 2017 could join these misnamed changes. Its essential purpose is to take, in one heave, all EU law and turn it into UK law the instant we finally Brexit. One commentator described it as a huge legal cut and paste job. However, even this underwhelming cut and paste could cause all sorts of political and constitutional problems as this blog explains. So here’s six questions that might determine how the ‘Great Repeal’ goes:

  1. Will the House of Commons oppose it? It’s unlikely the Great Repeal Bill will be rejected outright (though it could be). More likely is that MPs could disrupt its progress and use procedure and process to slow it, question it and possibly amend it. There are around 500 MPs who are pro-EU and 100-150 or so confirmed Brexiters. May can whip it through (see 2) but those numbers, to me, spell trouble.
  1. Will Conservative MPs rebel? May has a majority of just 16 and many of her backbenches are unhappy and could use the bill to let the Prime Minister know. The ghost of John Major and Maastricht still stalks the backbenches. Remember, it wasn’t that Major lost votes but the constant media speculation that eroded his authority.
  1. Will the House of Lords oppose it? Again, it’s unlikely they’ll oppose it outright. But the House of Lords is estimated to be around 5-1 in favour of EU membership, is packed full of lawyers and sees itself as the guardian of constitutional and civil rights. And, of course, no one controls the timetable. It’s also not clear where the Salisbury convention stands here-the referendum was in a manifesto but was the result?
  1. Who will scrutinise it? There’s all sorts of time stealing options available. The law will have to be published in draft, lengthening the whole process. There is also a convention that constitutional issues can be debated by the whole chamber of one or both Houses and are normally given plenty of time (Scottish and Welsh devolution in the 1990s both had entire days dedicated to them).
  1. Will the devolved assemblies agree? Legally there’s little they can do but protest despite the (largely formal) need for legislative consent. Politically there could be far more trouble. May’s apparent overriding of Scotland will play well to her core (English) support already the SNP are making it look like London bullying Edinburgh again. And the apparent shift to hard Brexit again raises the question of the Northern Ireland border.
  1. What will the Bill come to symbolise? If the Bill is just admin then it may pass relatively simply. But some laws come to be symbols of failure or incompetence and represent far greater issues: think of the Dangerous Dogs Act, the Hunting Act or Human Rights Act. As the main chance for Parliament to be involved in Brexit, the passage of the law could become, by default, the battleground for a three way fight between hard Brexiters, soft Brexiters and Remainers.

The danger for May is that this ‘Great Repeal’ will steal her government’s time, energy and focus. The last three Conservative Prime Ministers were all destroyed by a potent combination of EU membership and an unhappy party. Could May’s Bill help make it four?

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Last Monday we found out what it’s really like to work for an MP courtesy of Rob Dale (@robandale),  when he spoke about his new book How to Be A Parliamentary Researcher.

  • Is it exciting?
  • Is it hard work?
  • Do you get to hear all sorts of information you shouldn’t?
  • Can you make a difference?
  • Is it more like the West Wing, House of Cards or In The Thick of It?

As Rob explains here researchers are the unsung heroes of Westminster ‘parliamentary researchers are required to support and guide their boss through these new pressures, whilst also helping them with the more traditional aspects of the role: speaking in the House of Commons, tabling questions, establishing campaigns, appearing in the media and attending many, many meetings. It is their responsibility to do much of the legwork so that their boss can focus on his or her main job; performing.’

In his talk he offered a whole range of advice from how to write the perfect CV (tailor it), how to get ahead (get campaigning) and how to do the best you can (make friends, get contacts, pay attention!).

To hear it all and our later discussion about Parliament with Rob, the Parly app creator Tony Grew and our own Susan McClaren listen in here http://backdoorbroadcasting.net/2015/11/fighting-for-a-place-in-parliament-an-evening-with-robert-dale/

One of the key tasks of any Parliament is scrutiny. But what is scrutiny? What makes it effective and how does it work?

Jessica Crowe from the Centre for Public Scrutiny gave us an insight as part of our Parliamentary Studies course. Parliament has recently altered its scrutiny powers but what effect has it had? Many things can hold back Parliament from scrutiny from party loyalty to lack of resources or lack of tools. Jessica measured Parliament’s performance against the CFPS’s own key principles of good scrutiny: that it serve as a constructive ‘critical friend’, amplifies the voices and concerns of the public, is led by independent people who take responsibility for their role and that it drives improvement in public services.

In Parliament, scrutiny comes in different forms, from formal arenas to informal pressure. We often see the high profile, attention grabbing scrutiny, such as the recent questioning of the heads of MI5 and GCHQ. This grabs the headlines and can initiate change. Yet it can also be counter-productive. In a highly political and adversarial place like Parliament, such scrutiny may look like, and may be, an attack. The danger is that ‘political theatre’ and point-scoring can replace proper scrutiny that ‘voices concerns’. Moreover, such behaviour can provoke resistance rather than change.

Yet there is more informal, more subtle sorts of scrutiny. This may be picking up on gaps or pointing out mistakes. It is what the Centre calls the ‘critical friend’ approach-questioning but constructive. The legislative change around mobile homes in 2013, calmly pressured for by the Communities Select Committee, was a nice example of a more soft but successful approach. This is also an area where the House of Lords performs well, though it usually gets little attention, as Lord Norton points out here.

The Wright reforms of 2010 have strengthened Parliament’s scrutiny powers in numerous ways, giving backbenchers and Select Committees more power and control. However, problems remain, particularly in the involvement of the public where the new e-petitions site appears to have evoked sound and fury without too much to show. Other Parliaments such as the German Bundestag may offer a model.

Jessica pointed out that, closer to home, one place Parliament could learn from is local government. Since 2000 a series of reforms have sought to make local government scrutiny better (see this report). Local government is typically less partisan, managing to successfully balance voicing concern while remaining a critical friend. As with many areas, local government is also a site of experiments and public involvement. Jessica pointed to the success of Boston, where the controversial local issue of immigration was confronted through a wide ranging local government discussion with residents (see here and other examples here). Perhaps the future of scrutiny is local.

The department would like to thank Jessica for an interesting and thoughtful talk. Thanks also to Dr. Meg Russell for her help and input.  You can see Jessica’s blog and slides here and visit the Centre for Public Scrutiny here.

 

 

Here’s a first puzzle from our Parliamentary Studies Course.

On one level the answer to this question is obvious. Parliament, of course, makes the law. It is a ‘legislature’. It is where all those making the law gather. It’s the place where laws or Acts are passed. Technically speaking the House of Commons, House of Lords and Monarch together make law. So why would we ask?

As Philip Norton points out, legislatures may be slightly misnamed. If you ask a slightly different question, such as ‘who is responsible for most laws that get passed?’, the problem becomes a bit clearer. The government is responsible for most of the legislation that goes through Parliament, probably 95% per cent.

The government generally has a majority in the House of Commons that can (generally) get legislation through. Not always, as MPs can rebel as we saw over Syria. But generally government gets its way. It also controls most of the timetable, making it doubly powerful. The House of Lords can only delay and the Monarch hasn’t refused since the Eighteenth century.

This means that Parliament doesn’t make legislation. It gives assent. So it legitimises or authorises the law that the government wants.  The question is whether this matters?

It matters if you think about what Parliament can do. The UK Parliament cannot, except in very unusual situations, ‘stop’ a government. The Lords can only delay legislation and the Commons has a majority of pro-government MPs subject to party discipline and loyalty (though they are getting much less loyal). We could not see a US shutdown or gridlock.

It matters if we are researching Parliament. It means Parliament cannot normally make law but it can have an influence on the legislation pushed through by government. Occasionally the House of Commons or Lords can temporarily block or cause obstacles  but it is very rare that you ‘see’ influence like this-only when something goes wrong, like over reform of the House of Lords. More subtly, it can and does exert influence on a daily level in other ways-the informal quiet route, through amendments, questions and debates.

It may also matter a great deal for public expectations. If the public expect Parliament to be making laws and just see the government pushing through what it wants they may feel a little bit disappointed. The confusion among the public around what Parliament does or does not do may stem from this.

So Parliament has many roles and much influence, some subtle, some not so subtle. But it doesn’t really make the law.

Parliamentary Studies is a new course for 2013 that is jointly run by the Department of Politics at Birkbeck and the Parliamentary Outreach team. The course includes talks by officials from Parliament as well as guest lectures by a journalist, an MP and a Peer.  As part of the course we are holding a seminar open to all:

‘Holding to Account: How Effective is Parliamentary Scrutiny?’

Jessica Crowe, Executive Director of the Centre for Public Scrutiny

6.30 pm Thursday 7th November

Room 633, Birkbeck main building

Free and open to all.