RISE LIKE LIONSCategory: Politics
Now let us have a look at the House of Commons itself to see if we can find anything of passing interest there, or maybe something that should seriously concern the working class.
There is a chair at the top end of the House, a canopied chair, in which sits Mr Speaker or his deputy when the House is in session; Every Member entering or leaving the House is supposed to bow to the chair — not to the occupant, for the chair may be empty; yet still they must bow. In front of the chair is a long table loaded with books at which sit the three clerks of the House. At the opposite end of the table from the clerks there is on top of the table a couple of brackets, beneath these, on the legs of the table, duplicate brackets. When the House is sitting the chair is occupied by the Speaker or his deputy, and the mace is on-the upper brackets. When the House goes into committee, the chair is vacated one of the clerks gives up his seat at the table, which is occupied by the Chairman of Ways and Means or one of his deputies, and the mace is taken down from the top bracket and placed on the lower set.
Quite a performance. But there we are, in committee with the chair vacant, but the bowing still goes on. Some Members make quite a ceremony of it. Quite slowly they plod along the floor of the House from the bottom end, where the bar is, get to their place, turn towards the empty chair, straighten up, then from the waist ostentatiously bend themselves over. When they’re going out they reverse the process, they walk slowly from their place to the bar of the House, a strip of yellow linoleum that stretches across the floor, turn there and repeat the performance. When other Members, or as sometimes happened, visitors asked me why I never bowed on entering the Chamber, I always answered “I’ve got a sore back”.
The books on the table are a series of volumes, I don’t know how many there are, containing findings, decisions and precedents. In short, an answer to every question relating to conduct of debates, procedure and behaviour in the House of Commons. Erskine May is the name of the compiler, and when any difficulty arises, any tricky point of procedure or behaviour, Erskine May is brought in and what he has written is the final word. If Erskine May is quoted against you — you may as well surrender. I had never heard of the gentleman until I became a Member of Parliament, and my acquaintance with him never got any further than hearing just a quotation from the Speaker once in a while, or from a particularly studious Member who would come in with a volume from the library and try to startle the House by claiming to have discovered a precedent for something or other. I saw these volumes at a distance and never made any attempt to “close the gap” that divided us.
Frankly, I think most of the procedure and precedents should be scrapped. It was eminently suited to “gentlemen” who had differences to settle but who were agreed in keeping the masses under, but it’s far from suitable for these same masses who want to get from under to the top.
Dickens in Little Dorritt makes great play with the circumlocution office where the practice of “how not to do it” had become a fine art. He was for a considerable time a Gallery reporter in the House of Commons, and it was there he must have got the idea. It is the ideal institution for “not getting things done”. Six hundred chosen men and women, wasting away their lives, most of the time doing little or nothing, now and again making a speech if they happen to “catch the Speaker’s eye”, or for the most part waiting about in the smoke room or the tea room for the Division Bell, when they run in and register a vote.
This is often quite a job. It can wear the nerve and the sap out of the unfortunate Members. Just consider. There is an important debate, say, on Foreign Affairs or some other equally important subject. Two days may be given for it. The House opens at 2.30 p. m., there’s an hour for questions, after which the debate is opened by a front-bench speaker. He is never less than an hour and he is followed by a front-bench speaker from the other side, who also likes to take an hour. It has become such a common practice during the few years for Ministers to read their speeches, every word of them, that a general feeling has been created that these speeches should be circulated to Members and thus save the time taken to deliver them. As things are, two hours are taken up by frontbenchers, which carries the House forward to 5.30 p. m. Then backbenchers have from then till 8.30 or 8.45, when the frontbenchers come on again for what is called the “winding up”.
The second day of the debate it is the same process — which leaves, in the two days, about seven or eight hours for the backbenchers. At an average of twenty minutes for speakers, that would allow twenty-one to twenty-four members an opportunity of speaking, and there are probably 100 or more actually trying to get into the debate. From the first announcement of the debate Members approach the Speaker and inform him that they are anxious to participate and offer for his consideration what they consider good reasons why they should be “called”. Their names go down on a list: so many go down, “so few are chosen”. The whips are also approached and occasionally throw in a little weight on behalf of particular Members. The more fortunate ones can rely on “catching the Speaker’s eye” at a particular time, but in general they have just got to keep on getting up hoping, often against hope, that they will be among the chosen.
Just try to imagine what it means. The frontbenchers have finished. The second of them resumes his seat. Up jump a whole horde of anxious orators. One is called, the others all sit down and wait with what patience they may till he finishes. Then — all up again. One is called, down they go. This one finishes, up again, down again, and so it goes on for two das, sometimes for three days,, without the slightest chance of getting called.
Exasperation, anger, frustration, every kind of emotion is called into play as you think of all the weary, wasted hours, never listening to the other speakers, only waiting for their finish so that you may have another try.
On one occasion I. had a raw deal. I broke into the debate while a front-bench speaker was winding up in order to express a candid opinion of certain people, who must here be nameless, and before the “Chair” got the chance of ordering me to withdraw I walked out. But even after I was out of the House the “Chair” decided to order me to leave the House. I didn’t know of this until the officer in charge came to me and told me he would have to see me off the premises.
It wasn’t the first time I had been shown off, but I thought I had actually dodged it by going out of the House 011 my own.
That was shortly before the Summer Recess in 1947, and from that night I never exchanged a word, good, bad or indifferent with Mr Speaker. That by the way.
The question that arises is, what can be done to make the House of Commons a more workable institution, where Members go to get things done, instead of as at present, in all too many cases, to waste away the years in a woeful condition of pernicious political anaemia.
The first thing is to end the monopoly of the two big Parties. This calls for a change in the electoral system.
When the Speaker’s Conference was set up to consider electoral reform, I submitted a statement which demonstrated through a whole series of election results the fantastic misrepresentation that could arise as a consequence of the present method of election. It is possible for one or other of the two main Parties to have a minority of the votes cast throughout the country at a general election, yet to find itself with a substantial and even, overwhelming majority in the House of Commons. Apart from this, the present system gives all the advantages to the big, established Parties, and all the disadvantages to those who are fighting for what at the moment may be unpopular opinion.
Here it should be noted that this applied for long enough to the Liberals and Tories, the former Party only sinking into obscurity when its foundation, the independent free-trade industrialists, were swallowed up by the big monopolists. With this decline, a new Party came forward pledged in the early days to the emancipation of the working class from the exploitation of the capitalists, but under petty-bourgeois leadership became more and more a reincarnation of nineteenth-century Liberalism. Thus although the coming of a presumably working-class Party was scheduled to produce an entire change in what had hitherto been the relations between the Parties, we see exactly the same sort of thing going on today as in the old days of Liberal and Tory.
As I have already pointed out, the two-Party system can only be carried on if there is agreement between the Parties on all basic, fundamental issues. Given that agreement, they can go on indefinitely playing at “ins and outs” with an occasional splash of fireworks on this, that or the other issue which they will oppose with the utmost fervour it they’re “out” and’ support with equal tenacity if they’re “in”.
In the early days of the Labour Movement, our speakers always drew attention to this game as it was played between Liberals and Tories. “See”, they would say, “how they fight; the language they use, you would think they were irreconcilable enemies. But let a question come up that affects profits and privileges and see how solidly they unite against the working class. Then you get the real fight and real enemies — the rest is only sham.”
So take the situation in these later days. Tories and Labour may rage at one another, “tear a passion to tatters” over this or the other particular form of tax or subsidy. But let the dockers go on strike — threaten the stability of the capitalist system — and see how they come together. Tory leaders, Labour leaders, Tory backbenchers, Labour backbenchers, where is the enmity?—not these against each other, but these united against the workers — the dockers were the enemy.
Two Communists and a small group of Independents — tried hard to battle against the combined forces. But now, as I write, they are no longer there, so not a voice is raised against the united forces of the Labour and Tory Parties.
In the-statement I sent to the Speaker’s Conference I put forward the proposal for the Single Transferable Vote:
“That the system of the Single Transferable Vote form of proportional representation be used in all future Parliamentary elections.
“This proposal is the keystone to any future development of the basic machinery of British democracy.
“The principle on which representation in the House of Commons is based is twofold: that each Member of the House should have an ‘equal representative status’ — i. e. he should represent more or less an equal number of the population and/or electorate; and that ‘each vote recorded shall,_ as far as possible, command an equal shaie of representation in the House of Commons’.”
That meant doing away with the present single Member constituency and the grouping of several constituencies with the right of the elector to give a vote for one candidate and a transferable vote for another. This would produce a much fairer type of representation and would almost certainly ensure representation for those who were outside of the two main Parties. For instance, while certain Labour supporters might give their transferable vote to the Tory, a large body of workers, no longer obsessed with the fear of “letting the Tory in” would give their transferable vote to the Communists or to left-wing Independents.
But, as it is, the 1950 election resulted in a House of Commons with not a representative of the Communist Party or of the left- wing Independents, in spite of the fact that the standpoint they represented is gaining increasing support among the people. In fact a House of Commons that is more and more reflecting the coalition tendencies of the Labour leaders and the Tory leaders and more and more taking on the character of a Reichstag.
Whatever the Yankees do — that is right, it must not be questioned. So long as this is understood — no criticism, no opposition on things that matter — then Members will be allowed an occasional fling in order to keep up the illusion that their Parties represent something different.
Yes, there is need fof a change in the electoral system and a change in the character of debates that take place in the Commons. (The Housa of Lords should be abolished.) Instead of Attlee or Bevin getting up and making a speech to be followed by Churchill or Eden flaking the same speech, one should be called who is really going to oppose, and each Party or group should put forward one or more names, but in each case state whether they are supporting or opposing the particular motion that is being discussed. What a wearisome business it is when one after another, Labour, Tory and Liberal, a procession of them gets up, all supporting, all saying the same thing, with only the slightest variation, representing not a difference in opinion but only a difference of emphasis or temperament.
I was one of the Members who spent a lot of time in the House and had my share of suffering from this. It’s time it was ended. A new kind of Commons is essential, where sham fighting will be known no more and Members will go to get things done for those who produce the wealth of the’country and the all-too-long tolerated parasites with all their pomp and privilege will vanish like an evil dream.
But in spite of the “discipline” exercised by the right-wing Labour leaders over the Labour Members, and the threats of expulsions for any attempt to fight for a working-class policy, the anti- working-class character of the policy that is being pursued at home and abroad has grown so obvious that even in this House of Commons there are a few Labour Members who are attempting to make a fight.
They can do nothing without the active help of the organizations of the Labour Movement wThich alone in the long run can determine whether the Government itself is to serve the capitalists or the working class.
(From Rise Like Lions by W. Gallacher)