24 November 2022

The ghosts of New Labour are back to wreck the constitution


One of the worst things to happen to Parliament was the series of reforms overseen by Robin Cook after New Labour took office in 1997. Under the rubric of modernisation, he oversaw sweeping changes to how the House of Commons conducted its business.

Some of these are perfectly defensible; even so staunch a reactionary as I can’t kick up too much of a fuss that the chamber no longer has a pair of collapsible top hats, required for making certain points of order.

But overall, the changes were bad. Most obviously, in the name of making the place ‘family friendly’, sitting hours were slashed.

This was always a specious argument. As a wise but forlorn band of critics pointed out at the time, most MPs’ families are not in London at all. Parliament can only ever be a workplace where you clock off in time to put your kids to sleep every night for a minority of MPs with seats in or around London.

As Chris Mullin noted in his diaries, most of his colleagues knew exactly what they were doing by supporting the reforms: cutting their own hours.

The second-order consequences of this have been dramatic, and woeful. Programme motions – which fix the time allotted to particular debates, in order to fit the reduced timetable – mean that MPs can no longer debate legislation freely and in detail. Instead, we have the grim spectacle of the Speaker cutting contributions to three minutes… two minutes… whilst MPs scramble to recite a truncated speech for the sake of Hansard and TheyWorkForYou.

All of this has almost certainly had an impact on the type and calibre of people entering political life. MPs are becoming more and more local as the ‘super-councillor’ way of working sets in; the rate of churn is increasing and robbing the Commons of its institutional memory. Senior figures in both parties worry about the emerging talent deficit in an age when many MPs can’t even ask a question at PMQs without reading it off a sheet of paper.

Now Gordon Brown, the unquiet ghost of New Labour past, is back to wreak even more havoc. The former prime minister, understandably dissatisfied with his current place in the history books, has long dreamed of filing a second draft of his obituary by becoming a great constitutional reformer. And Sir Keir Starmer, bereft of ideas and with government imminent, has decided to let him.

There is much to worry about in the proposals of the Brown Commission, but one idea which might slip under the radar (and prove more popular than it deserves to be) is the proposal to ban MPs from having second jobs.

At a stroke, this would make MPs more homogenous, more dependent on the Executive, and likely reduce the overall quality level even further.

For all that there is always a spiteful chorus spluttering about how much MPs earn, the blunt truth is that we already don’t really pay them enough to tempt many very able people into politics. The hours, whilst inadequate to the work, are still not those of your normal nine-to-five; the need to be in London wreaks havoc on family life; the scrutiny is relentless and often unpleasant.

The freedom to take on other work is one of the relatively few forces working to ameliorate this – especially so for lawyers, where an MPs salary doesn’t even come close to the sort of income an able barrister can command in private practice. Allowing them to continue to work is what continues, just, to bring top-flight lawyers into the House of Commons.

Given that this is the pool from which the Government draws its law officers, maintaining this pipeline is very important. Yet Brown would thoughtlessly sever it.

He would also increase the power of the Executive, because if second jobs were banned the Government would control the great majority of the avenues for personal advancement available to MPs.

Everyone wants to get promoted and earn more money, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But in Parliament, there are relatively few ways to do it. A few MPs can win the chairmanships of select committees and the stipend that attends that, but for most their best hope of a higher salary is climbing the ministerial ladder.

That means not just more MPs fighting to get onto the payroll vote (the share of Government MPs with government jobs), but ambitious new MPs being ostentatiously loyal in order to get noticed by the whips and earmarked for promotion.

Outside earnings give MPs the chance to increase their income in a way that is independent of the Prime Minister and the Whips’ Office. They need to be properly policed and regulated, that goes without saying, but removing the option all together will simply mean fewer independent MPs.

(Or at least, fewer independent MPs with any mind to take a national view of the issues. There will be the emerging band of unwhippable ‘local patriots’, but that will be no enhancement to national life.)

All of this would only be exacerbated if partnered with Brown’s proposals for abolishing the House of Lords, which Henry Oliver has written about on these pages

All at once, another reservoir of experience and talent (however imperfectly composed or poorly utilised in recent years) would be replaced by yet another tranche of much the same sort of people who would sit in Brown’s sterilised Commons. Without the ability to make appointments, future governments would no longer be able to recruit people from outside the normal political pipeline to serve as ministers.

And given how much slack the Lords has had to take up in making legislation fit for purpose since Cook slashed the Commons’ sitting hours, it would likely mean we ended up with not just poorer ministers but even poorer law.

Baroness Hale once said of the Law Lords, another fine institution gutted in Brown’s time, that ‘however well this arrangement had worked in practice, it could not be justified in principle’. There may never have been a better summation of New Labour’s approach towards the constitution.

As a result, we are increasingly lumbered with arrangements which, whilst conforming to the highest modernist principles, don’t work. The last thing we need from the next Labour government is more of the same.

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Henry Hill is Deputy Editor of ConservativeHome.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.