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What's wrong with a Parliament made of Tweedledees and Tweedledums?

David Nuttall may have ridiculed the idea of job-sharing MPs, but a new system could restore faith in British politics.

New Statesman
People walk past the Houses of Parliament in the wake of the expenses scandal. Image: Getty

I don’t think it would be the most controversial statement to suggest that MPs are not popular creatures. They weren't before news came out their expenses were at a record high, and they certainly aren't after. Whisper the word “MP” in a crowd and you will soon get the impression most of the public would like their representatives dropped to minimum wage, and the spare money spent on a giant stick for voters to take turns to poke them with.

That’s one reason why job-sharing – the idea of two MPs literally sharing the job – has always seemed against the grain. Voters aren’t keen on the MPs they’ve got, so a move that means there’d be more of them might not go down that well. In a way, it's a bit like the political equivalent of telling someone you’ve got a rat in your kitchen and them responding, “Oh that’s terrible… Would you like another?”

It’s refreshing, then, that new research shows, actually, voters aren’t that fussed about having job-sharing MPs (feelings on rats in kitchens to come later.) Philip Cowley, Professor of Parliamentary Government at the University of Nottingham, and Dr Rosie Campbell, Senior Lecturer in Politics at Birkbeck, University of London, found that only a minority actively opposed the idea. Moreover, once the reasons were explained – for instance, it could help more disabled people or women into power – the number of people saying they’d vote for a job-sharing candidate outnumbered those who wouldn’t. And when hypothetical descriptions were given (such as being approachable or their background before politics), what a candidate was like proved more significant to voters than whether they were by themselves or came as a pair. Which seems quite logical if you consider how you’d feel choosing between one Iain Duncan Smith and two people with a sense of reality (or indeed, terrifyingly, two Iain Duncan Smiths).

Done well, job-sharing could be like two-for-the-price-of-one. Of course, if you believe that politicians are inept, corrupt wasters then you’d be getting double the lot of inept, corrupt wasters. Which is the opposite of good maths. But if you believe that, actually, most MPs are fairly hardworking, decent humans doing a moderately tough job for (at least in part) some sort of civic purpose, then getting twice as much of that sounds a good deal. More to the point, you’d have embraced a mechanism that means odds are on, those two MPs would, for once, be outside the usual clique of advantage – may well be “normals",  as they are so affectionately called.

Whichever way you look at it, we’ve got a disgustingly unrepresentative Parliament. Rich white men are consistently the ones in power and, unless you believe that sort of arbitrarily chosen type of person happens to be the most capable, there are obviously mechanisms that are keeping everyone else out. One of those is the demanding hours: hours that are impossible for many people who are disabled, have children, or have other work or voluntary commitments to meet. The type of people who, funnily enough, voters might be more drawn to in the first place.

Other, bigger changes are needed to help fix this; for instance, more all-women short-lists (and while we’re at it, addressing why women are still the ones whose careers are much more commonly affected by becoming a parent.) But job-sharing, once you get past the practicalities, seems like a good option.

The Greens have already come out as supporting it, the Liberal Democrats have produced a policy paper for debate at Spring conference, Labour backbencher John McDonnell has even put forward a bill on it. Perhaps now voters have been shown to be open to the idea, Parties might start to really do something about it. After all, a by-product of improved representation may be getting more of the electorate onside – by letting in the sort of people voters have been asking for all along. People who have “real jobs” in the local area, as opposed to career politicians with a knowledge of PR. Disabled people, not shut out of work, who can represent millions like them. Women who are juggling work and childcare. Or as David Nuttal MP put it, “a Parliament made of Tweedledees and Tweedledums.”

There’s an ever-growing perception of MPs as an alien species, one that should be punished with uncompetitive income and general misery. As Party conference season starts and innocent cities and beaches are infested, perhaps it’s time the political elite, like voters, start thinking about fresh ideas. Why not job-sharing? Tweedledees and Tweedledums might make an improved face for British politics.

 

@frances__ryan 
http://differentprinciples.co.uk/about/