The Commons ‘broke up’ this week. It really did feel like the ‘end of term’, coming just as I was beginning to feel that I was getting my head around the way the place works. I still have the feeling that, as in Hogwarts, the statues probably move around when we are not there, and that it is quite possible that the entrances to rooms shift from time to time.
One of the ‘traditions’ is that on the ‘last day of term’ there is a debate during which MPs can speak on anything they like. I decided to give this is go, and did manage to speak (although more than 50 MPs had put in a request.). It still involved a lot of sitting in the Chamber (the debate started about 2pm and I spoke after 5pm) and standing up and sitting down as each previous speaker finished.
One of the issues I took up was the way in which many parts of the media and the Coalition Government are creating a narrative in which civil servants are being presented as ‘fat cats’ with ‘gold plated’ pensions. This narrative builds on the first image which probably springs to mind for many when the words ‘civil servant’ – a ‘Sir Humphry’ type figuring sitting in his London club.
The cast of Yes Minister
But the reality of course is that most ‘civil servants’ are doing important but fairly ordinary clerical jobs – making sure for instance that others get their benefit payments on time. It is very important that we counter the image the Coalition is peddling because not only are many job cuts pending but in September the government is bringing forward legislation to cut redundancy payments for civil servants – hence the ‘softening up’ of public opinion to make it easier to get these changes through. You can view my speech here.
The long silence has not been deliberate. The last two months have just flown by . One of the questions people ask all the time is ‘are you enjoying it’? My usual reply is that I’m not quite sure that ‘enjoy’ is the right word. Just finding your way around the buildings is daunting enough, but even more challenging is finding one’s way around the system.
There is a great deal more effort made to provide briefings and induction for new members than apparently there used to be, and people have been unfailingly kind and helpful. I’m very impressed by the range of new members on our side (and I’m sure much the same will be true on the other side also), both in terms of age and experience. There are some very young new members but I was pleased to note that I was far from alone in being somewhat more mature in my first entrance to Westminster. In recent years there has been much criticism that ‘all politicians are career politicians’ progressing seamlessly from parliamentary researcher to ‘special adviser’ to MP. Certainly there are some of those (in all parties) but listening to the many maiden speeches it was clear that there are very many more who are bringing with them a range of different life and work experiences.
In the midst of all the practical tasks of getting an office, setting up constituency offices, getting staff, working out the tube journeys that involve the least walking and finding out how to table questions, there has been a great deal of politics going on. As well as the usual Queen’s Speech we’ve had an emergency budget, and every week seems to bring a new policy announcement – some of which didn’t feature at all in the recent Queen’s speech.
During the campaign I commented a lot on how often I heard the phrase ‘they’re all the same’; ‘it won’t make any difference who wins’. Just a few weeks on and the political dividing lines could hardly be clearer. On the one side we have a view of the economy which says that government needs to stimulate the economy during recession, that cutting back government spending too quickly will stifle economic growth and actually make it harder to reduce the ‘deficit’ because with more unemployment less tax comes in and more benefits go out. There is less ‘disposable income’ around also which affects demand for private sector goods and services. On the other side we have a Government which truly believes that the public sector is a ‘drag’ on the economy, and that if it is pruned hard the private sector will spring into life.
Prior to the election (think back to the ‘Chancellor’ TV debate with Darling, Clegg & Osborne) we had two of the big UK parties taking the first view, with only the Tories taking the second view. The Lib Dems have switched ground completely in a few short weeks. The reason they give is an assertion (exaggerated) that ‘things were worse than we thought’ – but that doesn’t really explain changing one’s whole view of economic theory!
And what we are seeing also explodes ones of the ‘myths’ about ‘hung parliaments’. In the run up to the election there was much discussion about how this might mean more consensual politics, and I know many people saw this as meaning that they could get the ‘best’ of all parties – a sort of ‘pick & mix’. Nick Clegg was still peddling this line in a speech last week – and criticising Labour in particular for being ‘oppositionalist’. But in fact the Coalition is operating in exactly the same way as if it were a majority government of a single party. This isn’t an opportunity for everyone to sit around a table and ‘work together’, possibly in different combinations on different issues. Coalition politicians are clearly ‘singing from the same hymnsheets’ and using their combined voting majority just as a single party government does. And where there is such a clear political divide over the best way forward there is nothing wrong with expressing our views .