By Michael Hammer.
The Futures of Parliaments was the topic of a recent speech by John Bercow, Speaker of the UK House of Commons, in New Zealand. While emphasising his confidence that the roles of parliaments would continue to be representation, scrutiny, and legislation, he was very clear that he expected the necessity for change in how parliaments work, and how they engage with the electorate, to grow massively, and the process of change to speed up significantly: with citizens developing different expectations of politics, changing the way they express their views, and forming different types of politically relevant constituencies not only around locations but also “issues and causes”. In the future Bercow believes “the representing will surely find themselves in an almost continuous dialogue with the represented”, leading inevitably to much “more fluid and less formal” features of parliaments. All this was understood to be a process “inevitably induc[ing] change among the representing as well as the represented”, in which “societies lead Parliaments as well as follow them”.
Bercow’s speech is a cogent analysis of the trends and direction of change in a key part of the formal western democratic political system that by various indicators is shown to leak legitimacy and societal buy-in. Interesting is the omission of explicit discussion of civil society groups, networks, organisations and movements: exactly those means that citizens already and increasingly choose as their ways of expressing themselves and building politically relevant communities, often defined beyond and on totally different grounds than geographical constituencies. It is through these that people today increasingly channel and exercise political influence. Parliamentarians, both as individuals and as a body corporate, need to engage with these communities in creative ways.
The recent (and understandable) restrictions John Bercow imposed on the access to parliament for externally paid support staff for the work of All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPG) after renewed concerns about the hidden influence of lobby groups in Parliament show that finding the right solutions for the future is intensely difficult. Suspending access passes to parliament does not only restrict the (easy) access of an industry lobbyist to parliamentarians, it also limits the access of civil society groups to them. A quick look at the register of APPGs shows that it is not only corporate businesses that support APPGs, but also a range of civil society groups. While some may want to reduce the access of civil society groups to parliamentarians, I would argue that it is essential for a fair and globally equitable society.
Principles of political transparency about interaction of executive government and legislators with others demand disclosure, and arguably even some regulation. What they do not require or make desirable is isolation: parliamentarians should and must be able to interact with the societies for which they make the rules, and on whose behalf they control governments. They need to be able to do this creatively, and without fear of repercussions for their ability to exercise their, as Bercow says, enduring representation, scrutiny and legislative role within parliament. This will require innovation in the tools and mechanisms through which such interaction can take place. In its current form the APPG system is clearly hitting its boundaries, so a creative discussion is due about how citizens and civic interests can engage with parliament not just through the electoral process, but importantly through substantive interaction with their representatives.
Politics is undeniably about power and interests. At present the system is, not only in the UK but globally, skewed towards power. Arguably parliamentarians should feel strong affinity with the causes and forms of organising communities to be found in civil society and see them as a key factor in the formation of their political judgment. It is citizens who elect them and give their task, not businesses. Engagement of parliamentarians with the trends John Bercow speaks about therefore has to be much more explicitly about proactively engaging with civil society rather than solely about improvement of electoral processes, the fluidity of parliamentary work itself, or regulating access, despite recognising the importance of the latter. It is about a new citizen-oriented culture and understanding of their role that Parliamentarians may need to develop, and the building of meaningful relationships to civil society that comes with it.