MPs need more love, better whips

Right, Prime Minister, the time has come to turn your attention to the most important institution of all - one you do not love, but which lends you every ounce of your authority, the scene of some of your personal triumphs and failures, too, a place of boredom and grandeur, the palace at the bottom of the street . . . yes, it is time to start taking the House of Commons seriously.

Tony Blair has never been what they call "a good Commons man", and many of us have liked him the better for it. He doesn't enjoy the time-wasting sprawling on green leather benches, nor the public schoolboy jokes, nor the arcane rituals. But, perhaps more to the point, he doesn't much enjoy the company of most Labour MPs, or being bested by William Hague, or losing legislative time to the intricate debates of the Lords. He is impatient. But that doesn't mean he should just turn his back on the place.

Here are three good reasons why. First, Labour MPs have noticed their leader's disdain for them, and they are in mutinous mood. Long gone are the days of grinning Blair babes and smug, on-message new MPs. They are not going to rebel in large numbers just before an election, at least not on any issue that would attract press attention. But a vicious, passionate, largely subterranean campaign to ditch Clive Soley as chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party is a sign of the way things are going. They are on the warpath. Some Labour backbenchers feel that Soley has failed to be a loud enough "voice of the party" on policy issues and on causes closer to home, such as their office cost allowance. But plenty more have nothing at all against Soley - they simply want to give Blair a bloody nose over the way he ignores them, cosies up to Lib Dem and even Tory grandees and shrugs off "core vote" issues.

Given that Blair is not within swinging range, poor Soley will get socked instead. MPs vote on 21 November, and Soley's supporters are far from certain that he'll get the backing he needs to win on the first ballot - or, indeed, if he'll cling on at all. What Labour MPs want is to be listened to: they claim to have sound advice to offer on pensions, the Dome, winter problems in the health service - but feel the leadership belittles their contributions.

Then there is the whole issue of constitutional reform - a major plank of Labour's 1997 election manifesto. The government set off down this path in grand style and achieved, to its great and lasting credit, the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly and a new mayor for London. Perhaps it was because so many unforeseen problems were thrown up by these advances that, from then on, Labour seemed quickly to lose its way. House of Lords reform was frozen halfway; no one understands Labour's final model for the reformed second chamber. Meanwhile, it is both vulnerable to the "house of cronies" jibe and a legislative traffic jam.

The status of the Commons has been hugely diminished since 1997. Debates are poorly attended, press coverage remains sparse and government legislation is inadequately scrutinised. Ask most ministers which they think is the more important, the chamber or the Today programme studio, and nine out of ten will choose the studio.

The standard new Labour response is to "blame" all this on its huge majority, and then point out that the condition of the Commons is hardly a popular issue. This may change. Hague has made the defence and restoration of parliament - against Scottish over-representation, European directives and executive arrogance - a main theme of his electoral appeal. For the first time in ages, the Tories are presenting themselves as the party of constitutional reform.

The third and most self-interested reason for Blair taking the Commons seriously is electoral arithmetic. Next time round, few people expect Labour to have anything like the majority it now enjoys: the chances are that there will be a Labour government, but with a bigger fight on its hands when it comes to winning votes in the Commons. Simple self-preservation may well mean that Blair will have to start reading the small print of Commons procedures, to understand its groupings and alliances, to learn how to play the parliamentary game.

Labour cannot and must not allow the Conservatives to be the sole party committed to defending and protecting parliament. It should draw up a pre- manifesto programme for enhancing the rights of backbenchers, with, perhaps, higher salaries for committee chairmen, stronger investigatory powers for the committees and a proper democratic plan of reform for the Lords.

Nor should Blair allow the whips' office to go unchallenged. He needs far better people in. It ought to be a place where careers are started and reputations made, the main political voice of new Labour in the PLP and a fully political, engaged operation. Instead, the whips stand accused of pettiness and bullying, in equal measure. They have not used Labour's huge majority well, fostering fury among the disillusioned and providing no encouragement for new talent.

Finally, and perhaps hardest of all, Blair should show the place a little attention. His great attraction at the 1997 election was that he seemed "just like us", a normal sort of bloke. Yes, he now has a country to run; but for many Labour MPs, he's just as remote as Margaret Thatcher was. The odd half-hour spent in the tearoom, a few visits to the chamber when he's not speaking in a debate, or a note to an MP who has made a decent speech to show that someone at No 10 occasionally reads the previous day's Hansard would yield enormous dividends for him.

Is this too much to ask? Probably, but Blair ignores the Commons at his peril. It may be diminished, but it isn't going away.

This article first appeared in the 20 November 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Interview - Lord Falconer