Democracy is breaking out in the Commons

There’s been a sudden outbreak of democracy in the House of Commons itself. It’s very disconcerting.

The idea that MPs could be allowed the freedom to choose which of their colleagues should get key positions to hold the Government to account had been viewed as taking things a bit far. Safer to leave such choices in the hands of those nice people, the military police of politics, the Whips.

So for the seven previous Parliaments in which I’ve sat as an MP the decision about who should be the Chairs of Select Committees, and who should hold the important roles as Deputy Speakers, has been “arranged” behind the scenes by the “usual channels”, aka the Whips. This did not mean that only toadies got these posts – far from it.

Their recommendations had in any event to be put to the Commons for endorsement, but the system undoubtedly raised questions about whether those holding these posts were wholly independent of the front benches.

However, a committee at the end of the last Parliament recommended major changes in the system to be brought into operation after the general election.

So for the last week it has been impossible to walk down any corridor in the Commons and not be accosted by an MP seeking one’s vote.

The first elections took place on Tuesday, for the Deputy Speaker posts, with the happy result that Lancashire won hands down.

Two of the three Deputy Speaker posts have been filled by local MPs – Ribble Valley’s Nigel Evans, and Chorley’s Lindsay Hoyle.

Nigel may be a member of a different party but I’ve worked collaboratively with him on local issues over many years.

He’s independent of spirit and will stand up for backbenchers, as most certainly will Lindsay. I offer them both my congratulations. Yesterday was polling day for the Chairs of Select Committees. The party which should hold the Chairs has been agreed between the Whips, according to a pro rata formula; but competition for the posts is intense – and all members can vote.

It’s been really interesting. Manifestoes have been produced. Conservatives seeking votes from Labour members have been going out of their way to emphasise what a hard time they intend to give their own Government, and I don’t doubt they will – though quite what they’ve been saying to Government loyalists to secure their votes I’m not sure!

The myth has been that the Commons in recent years has been “supine”, “spineless”. It’s been the reverse of the truth.

Parliament has become much more aggressive in seeking to control the government of the day, as I can testify from my long tenure as a Minister.

Rebellions after 1997 were common place, as were defeats in the Lords.

And the Select Committees, established in their current form in 1979, have become increasingly powerful, and quite right too.

Author: Jack Straw

Jack Straw was elected as the MP for Blackburn in 1979 and is currently the Secretary of State for Justice.

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