INTRODUCTION: CONNECTING PARLIAMENT WITH
1. The House of Commons is the heart of British democracy.
Whether that democracy is healthy depends in part on whether the
public we serve has respect for our proceedings as relevant to
their lives and has confidence that our scrutiny of both the executive
and its legislation is effective.
2. The most compelling reason for modernisation of
the Commons is its decline in public esteem. Participation levels
in parliamentary elections have fallen from nearly 80% to less
than 60%. Successive surveys of social attitudes have charted
the ebb tide of public respect for Parliament.
3. We were impressed by the evidence of disengagement
from the parliamentary process presented to us by the BBC
and the Hansard Society from their opinion research among electors
who did not vote in the last General Election. Both bodies focussed
particularly on young people among whom participation levels are
even lower than among the public as a whole. Whereas among the
total electorate 60% voted and 40% did not at the last General
Election, among younger voters the proportions are reversed.
4. Much of the evidence presented to us on public
perception of politicians makes disturbing reading for those of
us who are committed to making a success of representative democracy.
The Hansard Society reported that Parliament was perceived as
too confrontational with 'fighting', 'squabbling' and 'arguing'
employed to describe the conduct of parliamentary debate. Yet
at the same time MPs of all parties are perceived as similar in
style and tone. The BBC research found among young people a repeated
perception that Members of Parliament had become 'insular, blocked
into their own world.' There is a worrying trend to see politics
as something that is the property of politicians and not connected
to the lives of the electors or the culture of modern society.
5. In many ways these perceptions reflect not the
way Parliament actually behaves but the way the media report it.
The media must take some of the responsibility for this perception.
News reports of proceedings in Parliament tend to be fixated with
moments of confrontation and conflict. The comparative neglect
of the humdrum, serious business of Parliament, both in the Chamber
and in committee, leaves the public with an unbalanced perception
of the work of MPs.
6. Unless we draw into participation in the democratic
process more of the under 35s, most of whom do not vote at present,
Parliament faces a long-term decline in legitimacy, authority
7. This will have practical consequences for the
quality of government. The extent to which Government can arrive
at policies that will work in a complex modern world will in part
be determined by the extent to which they can be scrutinised,
challenged and tested by debate in an effective Parliament. Our
proposals are based on the sound principle that good scrutiny
makes good government.
8. These are not just issues for MPs. The rights
of every citizen would be diminished if Parliament lost its authority
as the legitimate expression of our representative democracy,
or if the decisions of Government are not effectively scrutinised
9. Nor are all the factors that have contributed
to the decline in political participation capable of being reversed
by MPs or anybody else. They include developments that are deeply
embedded in modern society, such as the growth in individualism
and with it the reduced attraction of such mass collectivism as
a national ballot; the tendency of decision-making to recede to
more remote European and global forums; the reduced importance
of the state in the everyday life of the citizen; and the decline
in long-term party loyalty in a post-ideological era.
10. However the opinion research we have received
did produce a number of reasons for not voting which reflected
specific discontent with Parliament or political parties.
11. Some complained that the electoral competition
for the centre ground has left politicians bland and left electors
without a real choice. Conversely others complained that MPs spend
too much time arguing and pursuing party point scoring.
12. A strongly expressed reason for not voting was
that the public rarely saw Parliament reported in terms of successful
outcomes. The BBC, without any apparent self-irony, reported the
observation from their focus groups: "There's never any good
13. A repeated complaint was that MPs do not come
across as individuals giving their own spontaneous response rather
than the party line. As a result it is a rare Member of Parliament
with whom a member of the public feels emotional and psychological
empathy. Yet the knowledge that the press are likely to pounce
on any original thought as evidence of a "split" discourages
MPs from straying off the party line. The challenge for MPs to
speak in the same language as the public is made more difficult
by the pressure of the broadcasting media for soundbites. Ordinary
people do not discuss difficult questions in soundbites.
14. A number of these issues can only be addressed
if the media also has the capacity to change in parallel with
Parliament. We are concerned at the growing tendency of political
reporting to ignore proceedings in Parliament, and to convey to
the public a message that Parliament does not matter any more.
15. MPs are masters in our own House. We are responsible
for procedures and practices that are often seen by our electors
as archaic, formulaic, and abstruse. The society we are supposed
to represent prizes brevity and informality, but we ourselves
do not demonstrate those virtues in our working methods. As the
BBC research concluded, "for younger groups, time-honoured
procedures communicate not revered tradition, but a refusal to
accept that times change". In the following sections we set
out a programme for modernisation to make the Commons more topical,
more effective, more accessible and better able to set the media
16. Yet changes to the Standing Orders of the Commons
will not restore public respect for Parliament unless they are
accompanied by a change in the culture of the Commons. British
Social Attitudes has charted how the proportion of the public
who trust government to put the interests of the nation before
party has halved within a generation, irrespective of which party
is in power. We will not restore trust and respect in our parliamentary
democracy unless our parliamentary proceedings demonstrate its
Members serving the national interest rather than party advantage.
1 Beyond the Soundbite, BBC research into public
disillusion with politics, February 2002. Back