Thursday, 9 September 2010

Pushing the Green alternatives | Caroline Lucas - Reflects on her first 100 days as an MP

Parliament's arcane rules stifle debate. As the lone Green MP I can make the cases other parties won't

Despite all the recent, and justified, criticism of MPs, the experience of being elected to parliament for the first time is still unique. All new members must feel the responsibility as well as the elation. For me, as the first Green MP, there was an additional question to face: can a single MP really make a difference?

After my own "first 100 days", I have one kind of answer: dozens of meetings with constituents and campaigning groups; over 100 questions to ministers; speaking or voting in a dozen or more debates; and tabling and supporting amendments on everything from academies to electoral reform.

But a greater test is the impact, and this is in part about the institution itself, and how well it allows MPs to represent their constituents and legislate wisely. And only from within parliament can you appreciate the full horror of its arcane and self-interested processes.

Mechanisms that allow something as important as the academies bill to be pushed through in a matter of days, for example; and hours spent on trooping through the aye and no lobbies to vote, instead of on actively scrutinising legislation (votes which would have taken a matter of minutes in the European parliament take well over an hour at Westminster). And you cannot abstain; only vote yes or no, or not turn up at all. It prevents MPs from registering that there are alternatives to full support or outright opposition, and is symptomatic of a parliament based on two-party conflict.

This adversarial system impacts on everything from the membership of select committees to the selection of amendments for debate. Everything is decided in a mysterious, opaque fashion. At first sight, it seems so laborious for any outsider, or novice, to understand – or influence – because parliament is so steeped in tradition and pomp. But the reality is that parliament is this way for a reason: it keeps power in the hands of the few. The main parties don't want smaller parties to make use of the powers of the institution, whether to legislate or scrutinise the government.

This isn't a new situation for me. I was the first Green on Oxfordshire county council more than 15 years ago. I know the feeling of being outside the solidarity of a party block; of having very different views and perhaps also representing people who had never had an advocate of their own. This wasn't just about policies or about rules such as those preventing a single councillor from tabling motions. It was also the prejudices of the place itself: in my case, being expelled from the chamber for breastfeeding.

Parliament today in many ways resembles Oxford in the 90s. They still won't allow breastfeeding in the chamber; and the big parties still do everything they can to prevent different points of view being heard. But the formation of the coalition makes it even more important to have independent voices in parliament. On so many issues – from bringing in the private sector to run the NHS, to new academies – the three main parties all line up on one side. So it falls to the Greens to make the alternative case. That is what we are doing on climate change, steady state economics, Afghanistan, electoral reform and public sector pensions.

Of course, with more Green MPs we could do more. Winning our first Westminster seat makes our challenge in other places more credible. We have built up strong local council groups in a number of parts of the country, such asNorwich. So we have proved we can win seats even without electoral reform.

Many Lib Dem supporters are appalled by the actions of their leadership, and by the enthusiasm with which the party has embraced the idea that the country needs savage cuts to core services. Breaking up the state education system or expanding Britain's nuclear forces are hardly minor policy points: they are fundamental to the party's values. But few of those leaving the Lib Dems will feel comfortable with Labour who, with privatisation and PFI, have spent the last 13 years paving the way for the coalition's assault on public services.

The Green party, so long in the shadows, now has had a huge responsibility thrust on it. I want to show that, even with our deeply flawed political system, you can stick to your principles and still get things done. One hundred days aren't enough to be sure. But I can at least pledge myself and my party to the fight.

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