The unfinished revolution

The steady decline in the status of parliament must be reversed.

The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions raise questions, not only about the tide of democracy surging through the Middle East, but also about evolutionary change and the quality of democracy elsewhere, not least in Britain. In the past few years we have had the expenses scandal and the collapse of trust in the political class in the wake of frequently broken electoral promises. Bad though those are, they are not the root of the problem.

Far less sensational, but more insidious, has been the steady and continuing decline in the raison d'être of parliament, the fundamental purpose for which it exists in the first place. Over the past 30 years parliament – partly because first Margaret Thatcher and then Tony Blair deliberately overrode it – has become ever more subservient, more sycophantic, more tribalistically loyalist, more careerist. It failed utterly to hold the Thatcher-Major governments to account over arms to Iraq, the Blair government over the Iraq war, and the Brown government over capitulation to the City.

Then at the nadir over expenses it was agreed by all three parties that the rock-bottom reputation of parliament could be salvaged only by regenerating a new, forceful, democratic role for it to become a properly effective scrutinising and decision-making chamber for the nation's business. The Wright committee was appointed to put flesh on this aspiration, though only after the government delayed for five weeks before setting it up, then gave it just two months to complete its report, and then dithered again about how to handle its modest recommendations. The "forces of darkness" (as the whips of both parties are genially known) rallied to block any change that undermined their own power, but were defeated by a vote of the whole House just before the May election.

That vote ushered in two important changes. One was an elected backbench business committee, which wrested back some limited control of the parliamentary agenda from the executive (the government, largely No 10 alone), which had monopolised it for decades. The other was to secure that the chair and members of select committees, by far the most effective mechanism for holding ministers to account, should in future be elected by the House to ensure their independence. Previously they were chosen by the whips – the agents of the Prime Minister, which was anomalous when the whole purpose of select committees is to hold the government and the Prime Minister to account.

But valuable as these reforms are, they scarcely begin to redress the balance of power that has subordinated parliament over the last several decades. Its power has been drained away by the assertiveness of No 10, by the dominatrix model in the case of Thatcher and by the Napoleonic regime that Blair favoured. Its power is continually seeping away to Brussels as the EU mandate spreads ever wider. And the judiciary increasingly encroach on the parliamentary prerogative, no doubt prompted by judges' view that if parliament can't hold the executive to account, they will.

A parliamentary revival needs to be tackled at several levels. At the lowest level it must drastically overhaul its existing procedures. At present, bills at committee stage, after dozens and even hundreds of hours of scrutiny, can often end up with no or minimalist changes because a whip-chosen majority of the governing party can block any amendments. At report stage, when significant changes can be made by votes of the whole House, the government can prevent later amendments it opposes being reached by "talking out" earlier ones, and members who have not followed the bill on committee often vote in accordance with their whips without realising what the vote is about. There is also little or no involvement of the public in the passage of bills that will control their lives. There should be a pre-legislative stage for bills where outside experts can give detailed evidence and where members of the public can make their views known.

Then there is a further range of reforms where parliament can assert its authority as the elected voice of the people. On matters of overriding national importance (eg, the Iraq war), parliament should have the right to set up its own commissions of inquiry, not depend on the executive or No 10 to do so, since it is usually the latter's actions that are being investigated. The House should also be empowered to scrutinise and approve the appointment of the chair, members and terms of reference of committees of inquiry set up by the Prime Minister. Select committees should routinely carry out confirmation hearings (as in the US Congress) of leading quango appointments and perhaps also some ministerial appointments, with a vote on the question of approval at the end. Parliament should also be served by its own legal counsel if it is to be an effective check on executive power.

Since annual government expenditure of £650bn is such a key exercise of power, parliament should establish a framework for contemporaneous monitoring and cross-examination of major expenditure programmes (not just after the event via the public accounts committee), aided by a cadre of expert external advisers, whether through the existing select committees or a new specialised estimates committee.

Given that professional lobbyists have now now hugely increased their influence over the political process, parliament should require that a public register be kept, including the scope of their activities, the source of their funding and their meetings with ministers. And to bring parliament closer to the people it represents, petitions signed by a high threshold number of electors should be able to be debated and voted on in the House. A new constitutional settlement along these lines will be debated in parliament this Thursday.

Beyond this revival of parliamentary power, there is a further relevant agenda. For three decades, the world has been ruled by the neoliberal capitalist model, the Washington consensus, and the US hegemony. It requires great political courage to defy these forces, and Blair and Brown made the Mephistophelean deal with them not even to attempt defiance, but rather to go to endless subservient lengths to placate them. It led to a decade studded with Brown's annual lyrical paeans to the high priests of finance at the Mansion House, Blair's sycophantic efforts to win the approval of a right-wing press and especially Murdoch, and a general glorification of bankers and FTSE-100 CEOs as the measure of all things.

When this political-financial nexus was fissured irreversibly in 2008, the way was finally open for a new political and economic order. The measure for a resuscitated parliament will be how far and how effectively it rises to the challenge of that fundamental debate.

Michael Meacher is MP (Labour) for Oldham West and Royton.

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Inside a shaken city: "I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester”

The morning after the bombing of the Manchester Arena has left the city's residents jumpy.

On Tuesday morning, the streets in Manchester city centre were eerily silent.

The commuter hub of Victoria Station - which backs onto the arena - was closed as police combed the area for clues, and despite Mayor Andy Burnham’s line of "business as usual", it looked like people were staying away.

Manchester Arena is the second largest indoor concert venue in Europe. With a capacity crowd of 18,000, on Monday night the venue was packed with young people from around the country - at least 22 of whom will never come home. At around 10.33pm, a suicide bomber detonated his device near the exit. Among the dead was an eight-year-old girl. Many more victims remain in hospital. 

Those Mancunians who were not alerted by the sirens woke to the news of their city's worst terrorist attack. Still, as the day went on, the city’s hubbub soon returned and, by lunchtime, there were shoppers and workers milling around Exchange Square and the town hall.

Tourists snapped images of the Albert Square building in the sunshine, and some even asked police for photographs like any other day.

But throughout the morning there were rumours and speculation about further incidents - the Arndale Centre was closed for a period after 11.40am while swathes of police descended, shutting off the main city centre thoroughfare of Market Street.

Corporation Street - closed off at Exchange Square - was at the centre of the city’s IRA blast. A postbox which survived the 1996 bombing stood in the foreground while officers stood guard, police tape fluttering around cordoned-off spaces.

It’s true that the streets of Manchester have known horror before, but not like this.

I spoke to students Beth and Melissa who were in the bustling centre when they saw people running from two different directions.

They vanished and ducked into River Island, when an alert came over the tannoy, and a staff member herded them through the back door onto the street.

“There were so many police stood outside the Arndale, it was so frightening,” Melissa told me.

“We thought it will be fine, it’ll be safe after last night. There were police everywhere walking in, and we felt like it would be fine.”

Beth said that they had planned a day of shopping, and weren’t put off by the attack.

“We heard about the arena this morning but we decided to come into the city, we were watching it all these morning, but you can’t let this stop you.”

They remembered the 1996 Arndale bombing, but added: “we were too young to really understand”.

And even now they’re older, they still did not really understand what had happened to the city.

“Theres nowhere to go, where’s safe? I just want to go home,” Melissa said. “I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester.”

Manchester has seen this sort of thing before - but so long ago that the stunned city dwellers are at a loss. In a city which feels under siege, no one is quite sure how anyone can keep us safe from an unknown threat

“We saw armed police on the streets - there were loads just then," Melissa said. "I trust them to keep us safe.”

But other observers were less comforted by the sign of firearms.

Ben, who I encountered standing outside an office block on Corporation Street watching the police, was not too forthcoming, except to say “They don’t know what they’re looking for, do they?” as I passed.

The spirit of the city is often invoked, and ahead of a vigil tonight in Albert Square, there will be solidarity and strength from the capital of the North.

But the community values which Mancunians hold dear are shaken to the core by what has happened here.

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