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Peter Lilley: Standing down after 34 years

Parliament has changed enormously over the third of a century I have served there — but three main criticisms of it have not changed. First: it is just a talking shop and a waste of time. Second: MPs are voting fodder doing what the whips tell them. And third: it is too adversarial and we should unite to do what is best for the country.

Looking back, I am convinced that the first of those criticisms is only half-true; the second, no longer true; and the third, the opposite of the truth.

It is true that Parliament is a talking shop, but wrong that that is a waste of time. There are only two ways to govern a country. Either the government imposes the laws and taxes and we have no say in the matter. Or, the way we have evolved in this country over a thousand years, where no law can be imposed, no tax levied unless it has been discussed in principle and detail until it wins the assent of a majority of elected representatives of the people. The two red lines down the centre of the Chamber keep us two sword lengths apart so that we use words, not weapons, to persuade our opponents.

MPs may once have been docile lobby fodder. Back in the 1950s whole years passed without a single Member voting against the whip. But that has been less true in each successive Parliament.

During Mrs Thatcher’s 12 years as PM her MPs cast some 4,259 votes against the government whip. Although we initially compared New Labour MPs unfavourably with shopping trolleys — “which have a mind of their own” — during Tony Blair’s 10 years they cast some 6,520 votes against him. And in each subsequent Parliament the whips have been less successful in herding their flocks into their lobby. Why? Declining deference by voters coupled with increased communication, thanks to the internet, between them and MPs forces MPs to justify their party’s position to voters. If they find that difficult they rebel.
So governments increasingly have to persuade rather than bully their MPs, or modify their policies, or win over other parties. Overall, this is desirable and makes Parliament a more vibrant and interesting place — though it is odd that few of our commentators have noticed it.

Of course, it could go too far. If MPs abandoned all party loyalty and voted on each issue according to their own preference, stable government would become impossible and electors would have no proper choice between alternative governing parties. A balance between party loyalty and independent judgment is necessary.

The criticism of our adversarial system and desire for us all to work together for a common objective, though well meaning, is the most dangerous criticism. It is virtually a call for a one-party state. Good government needs a vigorous opposition to keep it on its toes. Sadly, because of Labour’s disarray we currently lack that. My greatest concern for democracy in this country is the potential extinction of Labour outside London — unless it can reconnect with its patriotic working-class roots.

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