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.

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/

 

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

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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The clever ideological trick that could save the Labour party

The Co-operative party could suddenly get a lot more popular. 

It’s do or die for the party’s moderate MPs, who have lost the fight for the soul of Labour and must quickly move on. 

The 172 Labour MPs who backed a no-confidence vote in Jeremy Corbyn earlier this year may not like their newly elected party leader much, but they loathe John McDonnell. 

So it is little surprise that one of them, John Woodcock, reportedly looked “sick to the stomach” when the Shadow Chancellor tenderly invited him for a cuppa in his office following the leadership election result at conference. Reading the tea leaves tells me those talks aren’t going to go well.  

Yet moderate MPs would do well to revisit McDonnell’s off-the-cuff comments from a few years back: “I’m not in the Labour party because I’m a believer of the Labour party as some supreme body or something God-given or anything like that,” he told a small audience in 2012. “It’s a tactic. It’s as simple as that. If it’s no longer a useful vehicle, move on.” 

Two feather-spitting former frontbenchers called for McDonnell’s resignation when these comments emerged in March, saying they revealed his Trotskyist tendencies. "The context (a hard-left gathering) and the company (which included Gerry Downing, expelled from Labour for his comments on 9/11) didn’t make for great publicity, no," a Leader’s Office staffer privately confesses. 

But McDonnell is right: There is nothing necessary, natural or divinely ordained about Labour’s existence lest it can get things done. Which is why the parliamentary Labour party cannot botch its next attempt at power. 

In the wake of Corbyn’s re-election, Labour MPs face a fork-in-the-road: fight this civil war until its bitter end - play the long game, wait until Labour loses the next general election and challenge Corbyn again - or start afresh. 

It is a bleak, binary choice, akin to a doctor delivering test results and declaring the illness is terminal as feared: the patient can go down fighting and die a slow death, notwithstanding a medical miracle, or instead take part in a pioneering new drug trial. This carries the risk of dying immediately but promises the possibility of life as well. Both options are fraught with danger.

The problem with the first option is that moderates have all but lost the party already. A poll reveals Corbyn won 85 per cent - 15 per cent among members who joined after he became party leader and lost 37 per cent - 63 per cent among those who were members of the party before the last general election. The result: victory by 119,000 votes. 

Corbyn has already announced he wants to give these foot soldiers far greater firepower and told Andrew Marr he had asked the NEC to draft plans for increasing the membership and including it in “all aspects of party decision making”. Labour is transitioning apace into a social movement: free of formal hierarchy and ambivalent about parliamentary power. 

So why wait until 2020? There is every chance that MPs won’t any longer have the power to challenge to Corbyn within four years’ time. If Momentum has its way with reselection and shadow cabinet elections, leading rebels may not be around to begin with. 

Even if MPs mount another leadership challenge, few believe organisations like Saving Labour or Labour First could put together a sizeable enough electorate to outgun Corbyn at the ballot box. He would be voted back in by a landslide. 

The alternative is for MPs to create a new centre-left force. The main plan under consideration is to join the Cooperative party, Labour’s sister party, and sit as a bloc of “double hatted” MPs, with their own policy agenda on Brexit and the economy. This new bloc would apply to the Speaker to become the official opposition. 

Plenty of MPs and members recoil at the idea of a semi-split like this because of the mixed message it would send to voters on the doorstep. "So you don’t have faith in Corbyn, but you’re a Co-op MP campaigning on behalf of his Labour?" Many believe a full-split would be worse. They fear being pitted against Corbyn-backed Labour candidates in local constituencies and splitting the left vote, opening the door to Ukip or the Conservatives in marginal seats. 

But if moderate MPs mean what they say when they warn of total electoral wipeout in 2020, risking a new centre-left grouping is intuitively worth it.  What do they have to lose? And how many more times can Labour’s moderates cry wolf - Labour "risks extinction", Sadiq Khan said yesterday - until voters call their bluff and tell them to quit complaining and fall in line behind their leader? 

While Corbyn’s polling remains disastrous, a Co-op/Labour party would boast a mandate of 9.3m people, a policy agenda in line with Britain’s political centre of gravity and a chance of becoming the official opposition: a risk worth taking in the face of electoral oblivion. 

A handful of battle-bruised MPs are talking about coming together. "Time to unite," a deflated Hilary Benn tweeted this weekend. There is a precedent for this: first past the post means the party has always been composed of uneasy coalitions of different groups - take the trade unionists, liberal cosmopolites and ethnic minorities of the New Labour years - and it is arguably no different now.  

Yet this is not about a coalition of diverse interests. It is about two parties within a party, each of which believes Labour is their rightful inheritance. Of the two, moderates are least likely to gain anything by engaging in an all out war. It is time they took a leaf out of McDonnell’s book and accepted it is time, regrettably, "to move on". 

Gabriel Pogrund is a journalist at The Sunday Times and a Google News Fellow 2016.