Whenever he comes to speak at the University – and as one of our local MPs he’s a frequent visitor – Ken Clarke always packs the room out. Students always turn up in droves to hear him speak, despite the fact that it’s now over a decade since he was in government, when most of them were still at junior school.
In this podcast, recorded just after a recent visit to the University, he talks about the state of Parliament and his hopes for reform. The current parliament, he says, has ‘disgraced itself’; in fact he claims it hasn’t really returned properly since the Christmas break, shell-shocked MPs just staying away and waiting for the election to end their collective suffering.
He’s hopeful about the prospects for reform under an incoming Conservative government, as you’d expect. But he notes two things that might make reform less likely.
The first is all those new MPs. As also previously argued on this blog, Clarke argues that the large influx of new MPs could be ‘somewhat compliant’, more easily controlled by the whips, and those who are keen on reform can ‘get the wrong end of the stick’. He worries they could ‘take us a step backwards’.
He also fears that David Cameron will face ‘all the usual pressures’ to retain executive power. Clarke says that he will stress that a Cameron government will make fewer mistakes if it is properly accountable, and he is hopeful that Cameron will heed his warning.
At this point, those of us who study Parliament experience a bout of déjà vu. For when Labour came to power in 1997, Ann Taylor had made similar pledges about what an incoming government would do to reform the Commons. ‘Awkward though it may appear to a few on our side’, she argued, ‘a more accountable government is a better government’. Yet whilst Labour certainly carried out significant reform of the Commons, it was much harder to identify reforms that had actually strengthened the power of the institution. Too many of the ‘modernisation’ reforms were cosmetic, or for the convenience of government or Members, and significant forces in the government resisted attempts to beef up the Commons. It was only when Robin Cook became leader of the House in 2001 that attention shifted to trying to strengthen the Commons, and even a politician as skilful as Cook often failed to get his way.
Professor Philip Cowley