Inside the Commons: Episode 1

The BBC have launched a series showing the inner workings of the House of Commons, with an accompanying website full of links and clips.

I’m incredibly impressed by the level of access: there are interviews and comments from a wide range of MPs, including Prime Minister David Cameron, leader of the opposition Ed Miliband and ex-Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy, as well as members of staff. Cameras were allowed access to the floor of the chamber during Prime Minister’s Questions, and roving shots in the corridors gave an impression of what it would be like travelling around the building as an MP.

The first episode has focused on tradition versus modernity, with multiple old-fashioned aspects highlighted. I found some of the aspects to be quirky and quite good fun, such as the pink ribbons dangling in the Members’ Cloakroom should they wish to hang their swords up alongside their coats. Others, though, look like they negatively impact upon Parliamentary proceedings, such as physically not having enough seats for everyone to attend in the chamber at the same time, and the very slow method of voting by physically moving into the correct lobby. I was struck by the level of contrast with the Danish Parliament, where each MP has their own seat in a circular formation, and votes are cast instantaneously by selecting a button on a keypad.

One telling quote came from David Cameron, who described the Parliamentary buildings as being “half like a museum, half like a church and half like a school”. This instantly shows both sides of the coin: on the one hand, a sense of pride and reverence; on the other hand, a sense of the out-of-touch (he instantly thinks of the sandstone museum; the high Anglican church; the public school) and a sweep of rhetoric that ignores the mathematics.

Other notable topics covered were the varied jobs taken on by the Clerk of the Commons, the procedure for Prime Minister’s Questions, and what it feels like to be a new MP, as shown from the points of view of Sarah Champion (Labour) and Charlotte Leslie (Conservative). It was interesting to see that many MPs across the parties dislike some of the conventions at PMQs, including embarrassment at the jeering and wanting to see an end to pre-prepared questions that allow the PM to provide an easy, pat-on-the-back answer.

Overall, I watched with a mixture of extreme frustration at some of the time-wasting conventions and admiration for some of the politicians’ tireless pursuits of changes to legislation. Sharah Champion, Charlotte Leslie, Charles Kennedy and Sir Robert Rogers (the Clerk of the Commons at time of filming) all came out of it pretty well. Our system, perhaps, less so.

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