The party leaders had proclaimed it as a wake-up call. They were united in their calls for urgent and far-reaching reforms. Yet, until yesterday, the only reforms achieved in the wake of the MPs expenses crisis were those establishing new rules and regulations concerning MPs expenses.
So, the votes in the House of Commons on Thursday afternoon which pave the way for reforms to the Commons itself are a highly significant development. They arise from the work of the House of Commons Reform Select Committee, established by Gordon Brown at the height of the expenses crisis, and chaired by Dr Tony Wright, the long-standing MP for Cannock Chase.
The Wright Committee’s report was duly published in November. It proposed what were widely interpreted as pragmatic and essential reforms which would reduce the power of the whips, help re-balance the relationship between Parliament and government, and enable the Commons to reassert its relevance. The report recommended that chairs of Select Committees be elected by a secret ballot of the whole House, that Select Committee members be elected within party groups, and that MPs be given greater control over the parliamentary timetable via the creation of a House business committee.
Ever since its publication, there has been profound suspicion that the government was seeking to delay any vote on the proposals, and that the two front benches would conspire to block specific reforms. Those suspicions were heightened by the eventual timetabling of debates at times when many MPs were likely to be absent, raising the prospect of a small band of reformers facing defeat at the hands of members of the executive and the shadow cabinet. In the end, more than half of MPs attended the divisions yesterday, and the reformers won handsomely.
The passions aroused by what might seem to concern technical issues about how the Commons operates would have bewildered most voters, should they had been aware of what their representatives were debating on their behalf. Yet, with a few exceptions, the whole saga, including the five and a half hour debate on the proposals on 22 February, received minimal media coverage, and is likely to have passed unnoticed by 99 per cent of the population.
Not everyone outside Parliament ignored the tussle within it. Democratic Audit joined forces with the Hansard Society, the Constitution Unit and four other democracy organisations in urging MPs to vote for the reforms. Like most members of the select committee, this coalition of organisation sees the reforms as only a first step, albeit a significant and hugely symbolic one.
Much will now depend on how a new House of Commons, in which a third or more of MPs will be newly elected, asserts itself using the mechanisms which the reforms will provide them. Many of the strongest advocates of reform, including Dr Wright himself, will no longer grace the chamber.
Just as importantly, if the reforms are to succeed in helping Parliament to re-engage with the public, then the media, one of the key conduits between Parliament and the people, will also need to reform its practices. Media indifference to the reform debate did not change once the Wright recommendation had been passed. Twenty four hours on from the reformers’ victory, Google news recorded just eight news items on these historic votes, compared to 148 news items about the announcement that MPs would receive a 1.5% pay rise.