Observer's article on the House of Commons' reform

The Commons will be robbed of independence and authority
9 August 2009
A long-serving Labour MP warns that the quality of Member of Parliament will suffer

It was Trollope who wrote that to have the initials MP after one's name was the noblest ambition an Englishman could seek.
No longer. After centuries in which a small wood-lined room, not much bigger than a tennis court, allowed a few hundred fellow citizens to speak their minds freely, ferociously or fawningly, as they desired or the occasion required, it is time to say farewell to the MP as a unique British institution.
The roll call of those who are leaving reduces the independence and authority of the Commons in a way not seen for decades. Labour is losing Chris Mullin and Andrew MacKinlay – two of the most independent backbenchers the Commons has ever known. Who can forget MacKinlay shouting at Dr David Kelly: "You're chaff, aren't you? Chaff. You've been left hung out to dry by the MoD." Mullin used the cloak of privilege to uncover the mammoth scandal of the Birmingham Six – men imprisoned for years for a crime they did not commit.
MacKinlay says he is quitting because the seven-day weeks MPs put in, and the requirement from constituents that MPs now reply instantly by email to every inquiry 52 weeks a year, is exhausting.
The doctor chosen by Totnes voters as their Conservative candidate will find that not only has she reduced her salary by two thirds, but that she has to be much more available to constituents than any GP's appointments system is to patients.
There are doctors in the House, such as the energetic Evan Harris or Liam Fox. But both are full-time politicians. The clamour to deprofessionalise politics by rubbishing MPs, councillors, long-serving political activists and those who try to keep party politics alive suits the secret power-holders in Britain – the media proprietors, the City and the permanent state bureaucrats, who have always believed the country would be better run if politicians did not get in the way.
Farewell to Tory MPs such as Ann Widdecombe, Nicholas Winterton and Anthony Steen. Labour MPs will never forget the courage of Widdecombe as she stood tiny and alone on the Tory benches to denounce foxhunting.
Nicholas Winterton is a stout rightist wearing his £ lapel badge to tell the world he does not like Europe. Yet in the 1980s he was alone in denouncing Robert Mugabe's massacres in Matabeleland. The Thatcher government rubbished him and the Major government awarded Mugabe a knighthood. But Winterton was right and the establishment was wrong.
Anthony Steen will rue the day he tried to defend the allowance he claimed along with David Cameron, George Osborne, Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling, Nick Clegg, me and about 600 other MPs because we were told it was part of our total compensation package.
Now we know we were wrong and MPs, unless they are millionaires like David Cameron and his front bench, will no longer be able to see their families grow up by having homes in London and constituency.
So be it. But Steen is a lone voice in the Commons raising with a persistence bordering on the manic the plight of young children who disappear from local-authority care. He has single-handedly made into a Commons issue the hidden slavery of young girls trafficked as prostitutes to satiate the dirty old men in our community. When he goes, who will speak for these voiceless teenage victims of the sex trade?
The demand that all MPs should enter the Commons only after years of experience in other jobs has a pleasing populist air to it. Yet this principle would have meant farewell to Pitt, Churchill, Gladstone, or more recently Tony Benn or Charles Kennedy, or any number of MPs who were elected as young men and became effective precisely because they engaged in the profession of politics at an early age. Should William Hague, elected in his 20s, now go and do work experience? Does David Cameron's few years spinning for Carlton TV make him a better Tory leader?
The Commons now has to say farewell to QCs – no more John Smiths or Quintin Hoggs. Farewell to doctors or dentists who still want to practise – forcing Howard Stoate, MP and GP, to retire. The new rules make writing an article or a book all but impossible. When I told the Commons authorities that a book review I published recently was written on a Sunday in a snatched free hour, they said that MPs have no free time of their own and anything I write must be reported to them.
Tory wannabe candidates are now going through a five-hour interview as if they were applying to join the civil service. The odds and sods, the cranks and campaigners, the youthful Hagues and Blairs, will all be excluded.
Welcome to the new House of Commons, courtesy of the Barclay brothers and a British public going through one of its periodic fits of morality. In signing our allowance claim forms, did MPs realise we were signing the death warrant of the idea of independent professional political representative democracy? We have only ourselves to blame, but the consequences for democracy may be dire.