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 tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired Battersea power station in 2012. Initially, it promised to build 636 affordable units. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers already having failed to develop the site, it was still enough for Wandsworth council to give planning consent. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls.

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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