When in that House MPs divide,
If they’ve a brain and cerebellum, too,
They’ve got to leave that brain outside,
And vote just as their leaders tell ’em to.
Gilbert & Sullivan, Iolanthe
The last couple of months have seen the revival of two calls to change the rules of the House of Commons, on the predictable basis of inclusivity. One is a call for MPs to be given paid maternity (and paternity) leave, largely emanating from Harriet Harman and a number of other high-profile feminist activists. The other is a demand that MPs should be allowed to be elected on a job-sharing basis, this time from the Fawcett Society and from Clare Phipps, a would-be Green candidate who sued in 2015 to be allowed to do just this – on human rights grounds, no less – but failed. We have seen both these ideas put forward before, notably in a lengthy and earnest, but ultimately silly and oh-so-right-on, report from Professor Sarah Childs. Both still need to be firmly resisted.
The first, on paid maternity leave, is a misnomer in any event. It is not a question of pay, or for that matter of leave. An MP is paid simply to be an MP, not to work as one. She can, as a matter of law, absent herself whenever she wants without anyone’s say-so, and if she does so to have a baby – or for that matter to go on a world cruise – she continues to be paid her full salary, and remains eligible to claim expenses. So the real proposal is actually rather different: it is to allow an MP to employ, and have paid from the public purse, a deputy to deal with constituency affairs, and to appoint a proxy to vote on her behalf in Parliament (or possibly make arrangements to allow her to vote from home).
Neither of these suggestions is satisfactory. The proposal for appointing a deputy treats an MP rather like a solicitor, who agrees professionally to advise and act on behalf of a client, and (this being a job that any attorney can do having looked at the file) not infrequently delegates the task to another partner. But an MP is not simply an adviser or spokesperson. Her function is to represent her constituents in her capacity as the person they elected. A dogsbody (or close friend or relative) employed at public expense as a surrogate to deal on constituents’ behalf with government and others is not the same thing: however well-meaning, that person is not the person the MP’s constituents voted for, has no authority worth the name, and would as likely as not be pretty ineffective.
As for the idea that taking part in divisions is just a kind of tiresome necessity, which one might as well depute to a proxy, or even do electronically from a distance, it also misses the point. The function of an MP is (we hope) not just to act as lobby-fodder and vote as dictated by the whips, but to take part in debate and act on the basis of what has been said, and of her own judgment. Any change aimed at encouraging voting by deputy, or treating it as a merely mechanical or formal exercise, is simply inconsistent with this function.
The other call, to enable Parliamentary job-sharing, is frankly batty. Indeed, it’s rather surprising that anyone outside the wilder reaches of the Greens ever took it seriously. For one thing, there is a point of principle here: an MP is elected to exercise his good judgment on how to run the country, something well-nigh impossible with two people whose collective judgment can only take the form of a committee-style opinion reached after discussion, which is something rather different. But there are also formidable practical problems. What happens if the job-sharers fall out and disagree? Or if one changes party affiliation and crosses the floor of the House? In an ordinary employment situation, steps can be taken to deal with the case where job-sharing arrangements break down. In Parliament we would be stuck with both ends of a pantomime horse perpetually pulling in contrary directions until the next election.
More generally, however, both of these earnest proposals reflect a much more pernicious sentiment. This is that being a Member of Parliament is really just a specialised kind of public-sector employment, and that, just as happens with other such employment, what matters is fairness in making sure that that job discourages as few people as possible. Tellingly, on the issue of maternity leave, Ms Harman drew the parallel with the Civil Service; and the Fawcett Society with the labour market generally.
But being in Parliament is not just like any other job. To say it is, indeed, demeans both the institution and its members. In the nature of things the Mother of Parliaments is an inconvenient and demanding institution that requires and expects long and unpredictable hours, stressful argument and extended periods away from home. Many people are not cut out for this. Yet the unsocial hours and labour it demands are vital for the proper administration of the country; and the proper response to those who cannot put up with its demands is not to change the institution, but to suggest they find another job.