Green Party MP Caroline Lucas’s short book gives an outsider’s perspective on what it is like going into the House of Commons as a new MP. Some of the conventions such as the practice of referring to members of one’s own party as “honourable friend” or having a place where MPs can hang their sword are archaic but basically harmless.
However, Lucas argues that some rules such as a ban on breastfeeding can send a negative signal to women who want to run for parliament and are much more damaging. She also describes how members are often disengaged with the subjects they are supposed to be voting on. Often they will skip a debate and only turn up at the end, voting the way their party whips have instructed them to.
According to Lucas, MPs sometimes even go into the wrong lobby to vote by mistake. Since they are not allowed to reverse out of the lobby a common strategy is to hide in the toilets until voting is over.
Lucas is right that parliament doesn’t represent most people. Although three quarters of the UK population accept that climate change is real and caused by humans, shockingly this only applies to half of MPs. There are 148 female MPs out of a total of 650 and only 27 from minority ethnic groups (if this was proportionate to the non-white population there would be 84). Of course, the kind of people who don’t consider £67,000 plus expenses to be a liveable salary are fairly well represented in the House of Commons.
The surge in support for the Green Party demonstrates that lots of people agree with her ideas on the environment, welfare, women’s liberation, the NHS, war and her opposition to UKIP. Being in parliament has also given Lucas an opportunity to raise important issues, whether by getting arrested at an anti-fracking protest, wearing a “No more page three” T-shirt in the House of Commons or getting a company selling illegal weapons escorted out of an arms fair.
However, the Green Party’s record shows that it is not always possible to reform the institutions of the state from within. For example, Lucas’s colleague Jenny Jones was a member of the Metropolitan Police Authority. She called for reforms and consistently defended the right to peaceful protest. But she also found herself defending Met chief Ian Blair, and even described him as “progressive”. Lucas describes the August 2011 riots in her book as “purely negative” and an “outflowing of greed and violence”, although in the past she has condemned the harsh sentencing of the rioters.
In contrast socialists should be clear that the fundamental role of the police is to protect profit. Instead of condemning the riots we should condemn the police officers who provoked them by shooting Mark Duggan dead in the street.
Of course, all of this is a lot easier to say from outside parliament. But this just shows that as well as voting in progressive MPs we also need to build a radical alternative.