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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Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle