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30 June 2017updated 02 Sep 2021 10:18am

The obsession with wearing ties in parliament shows our skewed priorities

There are more important things for our press and politicans to worry about.

By James millar

In the future, if any sci-fi film worth its salt is to be believed, we’ll all knock around in the same uniform – the silver jumpsuit with a lightning flash down the front.

So John Bercow’s directive that ties are no longer necessary to House of Commons business seems a bit tame, really. Why not go the whole hog and alter the parliamentary rule book to insist the space suit fashion starts now?

You might be forgiven for thinking Bercow had announced something that radical if you listen to the Colonel Bufton-Tufton types that stuff the Tory backbenches, and the newsrooms of the Burma Road – the corridor of Parliament’s press gallery where most of the right-wing titles home their politics operations.

He’s not. He’s just moved parliament with the times.

And anyone who does disagree with the move ought to look at the company they are keeping. Backbench bore Peter Bone, Geoffrey Cox – a man censured by the standards committee for forgetting to declare £400,000 of outside income, surely a more serious obstacle to being a good parliamentarian than not wearing a tie – and Nigel Farage who is barred from sitting in the Commons, not due to his attire but because the British public, despite numerous opportunities, keep declining to elect him. Because he’s appalling.

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Outside the door to the press gallery above the Commons chamber there is a hat stand festooned with ties from down the ages as a handy resource for those who have forgotten to don appropriate neckwear. Doorkeepers will actually refuse entry to anyone tie-less. I’ve even seen particularly sniffy staff insist the tie is done up properly to the neck rather than what might be known these days as ‘Jeremy Corbyn style’.

And every Wednesday, a few minutes before Prime Minister’s Questions starts, you’ll find a queue of men hastily donning the appropriate neckwear before entering the chamber. For most of them do not wear a tie the rest of the day. Consequently, it is patently ridiculous to insist men do wear a tie in the chamber as some sort of magic adornment only needed for that one room. (It’s even more daft to apply the rules to reporters who are never seen on camera during parliamentary coverage.)

This week Laura Pidcock, the new Labour MP for North West Durham, was praised for her maiden speech in which she drew attention to parliamentary dress codes among the many things she claims are “intimidating” about the Palace of Westminster. Did her words help sway Bercow’s decision as much as Lib Dem Tom Brake’s challenge to the norm by asking a question while tie-less?

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If so, that puts her in the same category as Stella Creasy, who’s chalked up a victory in the first days of the new parliament. Now, clearly there is a magnitude of difference between what stellar Stella Creasy achieved – a government climbdown that means Northern Irish women can now get abortions in England for free – and the definition of business attire. But if dropping ties shows something good about parliament, the way it will be reported does not.

The Queen’s Speech votes mattered. Whether MPs wear ties does not.

But sit back and watch the right-wing press draw an equivalence in terms of column inches. One story is about a female MP winning for women in Northern Ireland. The other is about middle-class men and what they wear. Which one will the sketch-writers alight upon for their material?

The lobby, still overwhelmingly male and pale, will focus on Labour’s splits over Europe (failing to learn from recent criticism that it’s obsessed with personality over policy) and dress code flim flam at the expense of what Stella Creasy’s success really means for people and policy.

If ties don’t matter, why write about them? Their removal from parliament is likely to be the end of an item of clothing that will soon be as esoteric as a ruff or a top hat, and that’s of interest to students of fashion.

But for those interested in politics and parliament, the reaction to Speaker Bercow’s ruling shows that Westminster and the people that report on it have some way to go in getting their priorities straight and giving us the democracy we deserve.