How to be an MP

April 28, 2019 0 Comments

The news of Paul Flynn’s death in February 2019 met with widespread dismay.  Surveys tells us regularly that MPs rank lower in public estimation than almost any other group in society, with the exception of bankers, but here was an exception: a man of integrity who was true to his principles and his constituents, and devoted to Wales and to democracy.  He held government office only briefly.  That gave him the freedom to probe and interrogate the holders of power, and he never sought to use his parliamentary status as a springboard to enrich or magnify himself. 

He was already 52 years old when he was first elected to Parliament for Newport West in 1987: unlike many MPs today he’d already worked for years in the ‘real world’, in industry and broadcasting, and it seemed that he should have stayed an MP for much longer.  His special causes were well-known and included the legalisation of cannabis, republicanism, and opposition to nuclear weapons and the Iraq war.  He spoke Welsh fluently, having learned the language as a young man, and he prided himself on his mastery of new technology (his early blog was always worth reading).  His energy was phenomenal, despite (or because of) the bad health he’d suffered since youth.

A couple of weeks after his death I found by chance a second-hand copy of Paul Flynn’s book How to be an MP (2012).  Originally published by Poetry Wales Press as Commons knowledge in 1997, it’s said to be required reading for newly elected MPs.  But it’s a good read for non-MPs too.  That’s because, as well as offering detailed advice on how to make a success of the job, it’s written in a lapidary and facetious style that makes it a pleasure to read – especially when you reflect that Flynn’s cynical, almost Tacitean tone is at odds with his distinctly uncynical political beliefs.

The advice begins right at the beginning, with taking the oath.  As soon as possible, is the recommendation.  ‘This is not the time to show good manners’ – because the rule is ‘no oath: no pay’, but also because if you have an eye on being ‘Father of the House’ in later life, time is critical:

Bernard Braine owes his spell as Father of the House in 1987 to his industry in 1950.  He organised his way to the pole position in the queue ahead of courteous, gentlemanly Ted Heath, who was of equal seniority.  Braine swore the oath at 5.45 p.m.; Ted at 6.50 p.m.  From 1987 to 1992 Heath smouldered as Father-in-waiting.  He would have used the weapon of prime seniority to add weight to the bludgeon he used to repeatedly thump Thatcher.

The oath is a problem for republicans like Flynn himself, but he suggests work-arounds, like Dennis Skinner’s formula, loyalty to ‘a tax-paying monarch’, and Tony Benn’s more laborious ‘as a convinced republican and under protest …’.  Flynn summarises oath-taking with these words:

This is the first taste of Parliament’s infantilisation before royalty.  Instead of standing tall as proud elected citizens, MPs abase themselves as humble subjects.  Worse is to come.

More preliminaries follow: how to find a London home, how to appoint staff (‘cautiously’) and how to vote: harder than it seems, since it’s often difficult, it seems, to make out what you’re voting for or against.  Then there’s the question of which role you’re going to play as a backbencher.  Flynn works through a long list of possibilities, including Sleaze Buster, International Statesperson, Select Committee Loyalist, Euro-Crusader (hmm), Single Issue Eccentric, Media Tart, Procedure Buff and Comedian.  He doesn’t succeed in making any of them particularly attractive.

The heart sinks when reading the first words of a long chapter on Questions:

Parliamentary questions only rarely seek information.  Oral Questions never do.  It is usually a mark of incompetence to ask an oral question except in the certain knowledge that the answer will be damaging to opponents and helpful to allies.

Flynn’s recommended formula, if you ever find yourself in the position of asking a question (the probability of asking an initial Prime Minister’s Question is once every six years), is this: (1) Seize the attention of the House, (2) Make a powerful new point, (3) Pose an unanswerable question.

Committees are where backbenchers can make a name for themselves.  A future, third edition of the book will probably want to expunge the section headed ‘How to sparkle on Euro-committees’, but select committees are always worth cultivating (‘blissful oases of intelligence and calm’).  There’s advice on how to cope with witnesses who’ve been coached on how to appear in a good light, or who have advance warning of questions, or who try to be obstructive.

Richard Branson thought the Transport Committee had been hard on him because he wore a jogging outfit to address the committee.  Wrong.  Their irritation was roused by his ignorance of railways.  When asked in a programme connected with the inquiry what he was going to do to improve the running of his privatised service, Branson said he would urge his drivers to drive faster.  ‘To overtake the train in front, presumably’, was the mocking, whispered response by a committee member.

The next chapters tackle office and constituency work.  Letters and emails are a particular burden.  Flynn offers some model replies: to a crazed enquirer, ‘Thank you for your communication, which I placed in my insane letters file’; to an ill-intentioned lobbyist, ‘I know of no good reason why I should co-operate with your enquiry.  Lobbying organisations such as yours are an ugly, anti-democratic and corrupting succubus that haunts the body politic.’  He’s enthusiastic about the Commons Library (‘a life-support system, an archive, an inspiration and a place to rest and snooze’), and cautious about eating and drinking in the House:

Members’ Smoking Room.  Mélange of gentleman’s club and geriatric residential home.   Refuge for alcohol addicts.  Whisky-stained air.  Someone could die in the plush chairs and not be noticed for days.  In spite of the name, smoking is not allowed.

There’s a section on Parliamentary toilets, and the unfortunate signs on their doors, ‘Male Members Only’ and ‘Peers only’, and others on blogging and tweeting, whips and the media.  Rules on dress are bizarrely formal, but the results can vary:

My spouse questions my qualifications for advising on how to dress.  She was once involved in a homeless charity that distributed clothes to rough sleepers.  Most of them were looted from my wardrobe.  She kindly informed me there was no danger of the rough sleepers being mistaken for an MP.  The reverse remains a real possibility.

The last chapter is ‘Final steps’, and tells the tyro MP how, in due course, to be ennobled (‘the House of Lords is the ideal rest home for the tired, disillusioned or clapped out’), how to resign, how not to revolve (into the arms of ‘Mega-greed plc’) and how to die (apparently you aren’t allowed to expire within the Palace of Westminster).  And that’s it, except for a wistful short section on ‘how to restore trust’.  Flynn doesn’t attempt a summary or conclusion, and it’s not hard to understand why.  He’s deeply split in his view of Parliament.  On the one hand, his commentary and advice, sceptical at best and cynical at worst, reveal the place as deeply dysfunctional: antiquated in its traditions, inefficient and ineffective in its procedures, and aggressively tribal in its culture.  On the other hand, he’s a glowing example of an MP who’s become skilled in overcoming those barriers in order to help his constituents, promote his causes and hold power to account.

Those of us who’ve never been MPs may see things in a different, less nuanced light.  Especially when compared with newer legislatures, like the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly of Wales, the House of Commons seems as if it’s barely emerged from the nineteenth, let alone the twentieth century.  From its absurd voting system to the puerile circus of Prime Minister’s Questions, it surely needs a comprehensive rethink.   At some time both Houses are due to move out of the Palace of Westminster so that the building can be restored and modernised.  An ideal opportunity, you would think, to carry out a complete reform of our creaking Parliament.   It won’t happen, of course.

Leave a Reply