I’m enjoying my new life on the back-benches

I’m free! It’s only taken me 30 years, but I’m out now. Off the front bench.

Today is my fourth day of freedom, and so far I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I thoroughly enjoyed my 30 years on the front bench too – indeed it was, as I’ve often said, a huge privilege to have had the chance to have the Opposition posts I held, and still more the four senior posts I held in Cabinet when Labour was in power.

But my first love (professionally speaking!) has always been the House of Commons itself.

I’ve never understood the psychology of those MPs on both sides who spend years trying to get into the House, only to back away from embracing its virtues and its role once they are elected. Despite our 24-hour media the Chamber of the Commons remains the cockpit of British politics.

This is not to be sentimental about the place. It’s just true. Happily, many more of the record new intake to this Parliament do understand the importance of the Chamber, and its debates have been a lot better attended and more vibrant than for years.

My first outing from the back-benches was on Monday – my very first day – in the sombre statement by Foreign Secretary William Hague about the murder of the British aid worker Linda Norgrove.

Something evidently did go wrong in the course of the rescue attempt.

But I felt it important, as one of Mr Hague’s predecessors who had faced similar situations, to offer him my full support, and understanding for the brave US special forces who carried out the rescue effort, who have to make split-second decisions in the most dreadful of circumstances.

My second outing was Tuesday, on the very important report by former BP Chairman Lord Browne about the future of university funding.

His group proposed an increase in tuition fees to £7,000 – with the possibility of higher fees.

They tempered this by recommending that repayments of loans should not take place until a graduate’s income reaches £21,000 a year, rather than £15,000 as now.

When Labour first raised the tuition fee from £1,000 up front (set in the late nineties) to £3,000, we faced a storm of opposition – from the Conservatives and Lib Dems combined, and some Labour rebels.

We only won the key vote by five.

Later the Conservatives came to accept our approach, but the Lib Dems carried on opposing right through the last election – with Nick Clegg describing the prospect of a £7,000 fee as a ‘disaster.’ Since his erstwhile deputy Vince Cable was making the statement, I thought I’d tweak his toe by asking why his leader had so suddenly changed his mind.

Lord Browne’s report is thorough and impressively argued, despite the controversial nature of some of its recommendations.

Our principal concern is whether the additional income from the higher fees will be used simply to offset cuts in the public funding of higher education, or whether a good proportion of it will to help resource the sector.

We won’t find that out until next Wednesday, when George Osborne, the Chancellor makes his long expected statement on spending cuts – when I hope to get in again.

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.