WHAT would an alien think of British politics? Actually, what would a Swedish person think of British politics? Or a German? Indeed, what would anyone from a country where the process of government and leadership is a relatively civilised process make of the “Mother of all Parliaments” today?
I’ll tell you what they would think. That it’s a nasty business characterised by aggressive men shouting abuse and throwing things. They would wonder how anything was ever debated sensibly. They would ask how good laws ever got passed. And they might be amazed why any woman would want to enter a bear-pit so dominated by aggression, anger and outdated practices.
In what other supposedly civilised country would female MPs be barracked because of their voices? This is the 21st century. Women fought long and hard to be recognised on equal terms. Yet we hear from Pat Glass, Labour MP for Durham West, that female Opposition MPs are regularly taunted by Conservatives for the way they speak. Tormented for their regional accents. Harassed because they didn’t go to the right kind of school. Picked on by grown men, men who are paid lots of money to do a job which holds serious responsibility.
How can we stand back and watch it happening without speaking up ourselves? We are supposed to live in a democracy. To listen to Prime Minister’s Questions, however, you might be forgiven for thinking you had slipped through a warp-hole and landed in a 19th-century public school, such is the level of braying and guffawing.
The perpetrators of this abuse should be singled out and punished. Yet when the Speaker of the House, John Bercow, exercises his authority to issue a reprimand, they turn their abuse on to him.
He pulls them up for “yobbery” and “public school twittishness”. In return Tory MPs accuse him of “whining”. This just about summarises the sophistication of debate. Whatever your view of the Speaker personally, he does have a job to do. And, as the public response on Twitter and in personal letters to Bercow proves, we are all heartily sick of the spectacle. If he can’t get a grip, you can only ask, who could?
It comes down to one solution. Parliament and its Members must reform themselves to better represent the public they are paid to represent.
These are the people we are supposed to trust with passing the laws which protect us. They are elected on the basis that they support a tolerant society in which individuals accept each other. They urge our children to respect their teachers and come down hard on those who use intimidation and threatening behaviour in public. Yet they behave no better than the worst kind of bully.
This is bad enough. It is only what we see and hear. The debating chamber is just the showcase. What goes on beyond the cameras and microphones is worse. Is it any wonder that female MPs are not only disenchanted, but disgusted?
Years of promises and partial reforms of working hours appear to have done little to improve matters. In fact, all the evidence suggests that the clock is turning backwards, not moving forwards. The lack of women on the Tory front bench has become a political football. There has been an outcry over the number of female MPs standing down at the General Election. And increasingly, outspoken women in Parliament are voicing their frustration. In a recent interview, Esther McVey, Conservative MP for Wirral West, asked whether women in their forties are really suited to politics. “It needs to fit in with your lifestyle,” she said. “That’s hard when, Monday nights, you can be in Parliament until 11pm, and you have to be totally dedicated.”
And Ms McVey doesn’t even have children. If she is complaining, what hope is there for those who have to juggle family responsibilities as well?
Senior politicians such as Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper, who has three children with her husband, Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, are the exception rather than the norm.
What mother in her sane mind would consider taking on the working week of Westminster, shuttling back and forth from London to her constituency, leaving her children behind, never feeling that she could do justice to all the jobs in her remit? Yet politics would be much better off if it could attract mothers who know from first-hand experience the issues which affect families. Not just the obvious ones – schools, childcare and flexible working – but everything else which comes under our umbrella. Petrol prices, energy prices, consumer issues, law and order, alcohol and drug legislation, internet safety, care for the elderly, financial matters. Political leaders (and I’m talking about you here especially Mr Cameron) who neglect this invaluable input do so at their own peril.
Here’s what it comes down to. Ask any able and politically-motivated mother, what would she prefer? Dealing with her own squabbling children, or dealing with the squabbling children in the House of Commons? It’s a question which, sadly, PMQs answers for itself.