Making a good Parliament: Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow visits Birkbeck

Dr Ben Worthy from the Department of Politics discusses a recent lecture at the Centre for the Study of British Politics and Public Life, which welcomed the Rt Hon John Bercow MP, Speaker of the House of Commons. His lecture was titled, “Parliament as Pathfinder: Changing the culture of an ancient institution”.

How can Parliament be reformed? The Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, took time out from imposing order on MPs to tell a packed audience of Birkbeck students how he intends to do it.

Since his election in 2009, the Speaker has made his name as someone who wants to make Parliament a different place and the Commons is undoubtedly different as a result. When Bercow became Speaker, Parliament famously had a shooting gallery but no creche. In his speech he pointed to some of his successes, including allowing children through the voting lobby. However, as he said, more needs to be done.

Drawing on, (or in his words, ‘shamelessly plagiarising’), the Good Parliament report by Birkbeck’s own Professor Sarah Childs, the Speaker addressed the principles around which any future change needs to be built.

Change is not just about tinkering with the rules of an institution but about transforming the culture inside to make sure reforms really happen. Any reforms need to be made along several dimensions at once, a mixture of ensuring equal participation, altering the infrastructure and changing the culture.

Although passion and even anger can be normal parts of political discourse, he emphasised the need for MPs to be treated with respect. He also pointed out the importance of making Parliament a more diverse place, a vital democratic principle in itself when, for example, women make up 32% of the MPs in the Commons but 52% of the population – it’s good, but not good enough considering the average voter is likely to be a woman.

Opening up Parliament, he pointed out, is also a way of broadening the views, ideas and experience coming into the House of Commons, and he highlighted the work of Tan Dhesi, the first turbaned Sikh in the House of Commons.

The Speaker ended by making the point that change was also about the culture around politics and how it was reported. Prime Minister’s Questions, while a vital public event, sometimes gives the public the wrong impression of the work of the House and the atmosphere inside. He highlighted his commitment to make the lobby who report on Parliament at least 40% female by 2020.

So, as one audience member asked, will it work? The Speaker argued that without cultural change, no other reforms will really ‘stick’, as ‘culture eats strategy’. But he felt that at a time of unhappiness with elites, and a desire for making things different, the House of Commons was readier for change than it had ever been.

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John McDonnell in conversation

This post was contributed by Dr Ben Worthy of Birkbeck’s Department of Politics. It was first posted on the 10 Gower Street blog on Friday, November 6. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell spoke at an event at Birkbeck on Thursday, November 5.

John McDonnell MP

John McDonnell MP

John McDonnell, Shadow Chancellor and former Birkbeck student spoke to staff and students at an event organised by the politics department. He was questioned by Joni Lovenduski over gender representation and came out in support of legislative quotas for women and job shares, though he challenged the ‘19th century’ idea that the top Shadow Cabinet jobs such as Foreign secretary were still the most important. He acknowledged that the Parliamentary Labour party was not wholly in favour of its new leadership but promised that the party would remain a broad church and democratic, with space for dissent and different views. The new activists who had joined since September, he hoped, would radicalise the party.

In answering to Dermot Hodson’s questioning on political economy issues, he discusses the U-turn over George Osborne’s Fiscal Charter in terms of the time pressures of taking office and the urgency of repositioning Labour as the party of anti-austerity in spite of short-term costs to economic credibility. In answer to Hodson’s question about the EU referendum, McDonnell said that Labour would be entering the Brexit debate on its own terms, including through cooperation with other parties on the European left. When asked by Ben Worthy inspirational figures he name checked, unsurprisingly, the great 1940s Labour reformer Clement Attlee but, less expectedly, the artful balancer of the 1960s and 1970s Harold Wilson. He was less convinced when Alex Colas asked him for his most admired Conservative leader. He argued that, amid the political ‘insurgencies’ of Left and Right the rules of political leadership had now changed.

There were then searching crowd-sourced audience questions on a whole range of topics, from whether Labour could build a winning electoral coalition to dealing with rebels, press regulation and sacrificing principles for power. He argued that a winning coalition did exist among the majority of anti-conservative voters if the message was right, but felt the first round of elections in Scotland, London and local government in May 2016 may be tough. Party rebels [which McDonnell and Corbyn used to be] would face a barrage of ‘tea and sympathy’ and the public would be reached not through the mainstream press but on the stump and through social media. He suggested more change was coming, supporting a PR elected House of Lords of the regions and initiatives around national savings bank and a series of gender based policy reviews.

John McDonnell was an MSc student at Birkbeck between 1978 and 1981 under the great Bernard Crick, before entering politics and becoming Deputy Leader of the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone and standing for Parliament in 1997. Studying politics at Birkbeck had given him a rounded, deeper understanding of politics and, he said, a fear of essay deadlines.

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