Respect for Parliament has probably never been at a lower ebb in England than it is today. In this article in our series on work, Stan Newens gives a representative account of his experience as an MP. The author is 38. Born in Bethnal Green, he was educated at a grammar school and London University. As a conscientious objector, he did his national service as a coal-miner, and worked for eight years as a secondary-school teacher until he was elected as Labour member for Epping in 1964. He is married, and has two children.
When I was declared the Member of Parliament for Epping in October 1964, I had been engaged in active political work for over 15 years. As a convinced socialist, I believed profoundly—and still do—in the need for fundamental political and social change, and regarded my election as a step towards the achievement of this objective. This is not to say that I had any illusions about Parliament as a dynamic instrument of social revolution. Having been on friendly terms with a number of Members of Parliament who shared my outlook in broad terms, I was well aware of some of the difficulties which they had encountered.
My first impressions of the House of Commons as a Member were very ordinary. It reminded me of being a pupil at a new school. I needed to visit a number of officials—at the Lees Office about income tax and National Insurance contributions, at the Serjeant-at-Arms’ store to obtain House of Commons stationery—and I was continually asking for directions and losing my way. Everything seemed strange and unfamiliar, and there seemed to be little guidance for the new Member. The outward picturesque survivals, as I increasingly realized once business began in earnest, are manifestations of an attitude which permeates almost every part of the House and its procedures. Almost everything is liable to be hallowed by time-honoured usage and it is to the past that one tends to look for guidance and inspiration. The Chamber was not rebuilt after its destruction in the Second World War to provide seats for all Members, but virtually as a replica of the
It soon dawned upon me, however, that this situation reflects the general realization that the real power of making decisions has been almost entirely withdrawn from Parliament. In fact debates often bear more resemblance to a formalized display of opinions—even a charade—than to a genuine consideration of facts and arguments. On the very day that I took my seat, I found myself next to a Member of many years’ experience who said to me: ‘You don’t want to think that you can get anything in here,’ indicating the floor of the House. I did not fully appreciate the point of his remark at the time but I have since then had it demonstrated time and again. Any change of front, any alteration in the form of legislation, must be secured, if it is to be secured at all, by lobbying and consultation before it reaches the floor. Interested parties—whether groups of employers, trade unions, trade associations or others—do all the crucial work behind the scenes. Members of Parliament are not usually consulted on the most critical issues, but are expected to fall into line according to the guidance of the Whip. Although defeat on a minor issue would not be regarded as loss of confidence, the modern British system of government in effect involves Members in the acceptance of a package deal. One cannot take what one approves of and reject the rest. It is all or nothing. If I decide to vote against my Government on a wide range of issues and others do likewise, the Government can no longer rely on our support and its majority is accordingly reduced. If the majority disappears, according to the rules of the game, the Government must resign.
In its origins, this system owes much to the first Prime Minister of Britain, Sir Robert Walpole, probably the greatest exponent of the art of bribery and corruption who ever held high office in this country. By means of this system he kept himself in power from 1721 to 1742, a period not yet equalled by any other Prime Minister. It is apt that his picture—that of a benevolent and bewigged 18th-century gentleman—should still adorn the Cabinet Room to this day. The threat of Government resignation and the consequent need to defend one’s seat at a General Election—possibly with the withdrawal of official Party support, and perhaps with another official Party candidate—is a factor which every mp who considers voting against his Party Whip must take into account.
With such enormous pressures on Members, whatever the arguments deployed, it is unlikely in the extreme that a Member will be influenced by what is said during a debate to cast his vote in a way that he was not prepared for previously. Accordingly, debates are not occasions to win over Members’ votes, but to get publicity outside the House, This fact became clear to me early on, and like most mps therefore I now regard press reports of what is said as one of the foremost purposes of any contributions which are made in debate. At first, I expected much more than this but I have now come to terms with the fact that Parliament is