Parliament: Communication with the Public — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:25 pm on 18th December 2008.

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Photo of Lord Grocott Lord Grocott Labour 3:25 pm, 18th December 2008

My Lords, I warmly welcome the debate on Parliament and the public. I offer to the House three points of reference that I always find useful in discussions of this sort to help me to view the subject in some perspective and, I hope, in a constructive way.

I begin with a text for the first point of perspective on Parliament and the public. It comes from a Fabian pamphlet for speakers in the 1945 election, as will become immediately apparent. It states:

"There is a considerable amount of political cynicism. The men and women in the forces quite properly posed the question—'What Government has ever kept its election pledges?' A quite similar saying from the doorstep is—'Well, it's all the same whoever gets in!'—and—'They are all out for themselves anyway.'".

I offer that quotation from 60-plus years ago simply to remind the House of two things. First, there was no golden age of a love affair between Parliament and the public, or, if there was, I have not yet detected it. In addition, and perhaps more relevant to this debate, improvements in relations and communications between Parliament and the public are likely to come in small stages and not necessarily in dramatic advances. They are a matter of—if I may misquote—eternal vigilance. It is something that needs to be worked on. I certainly do not have any golden solutions, but I shall make one or two suggestions.

The second context in which I view these subjects—I hope that I am not sounding complacent when I say this—is that we must all believe, and I hope that we do all believe, that in communicating Parliament to the public we have what is fundamentally a very good product. If you say that, there is always a danger of people thinking, "It is just complacent; it is parliamentarians talking among themselves all the time. They all think they are wonderful", and so on. I certainly do not come from that school. Over the years, I have tried in many ways to improve the ways in which we operate, including how we communicate with the public.

Our parliamentary democracy, with its general elections, delivers Parliaments, Governments and MPs accountable to their constituents. The Government offer a legislative programme each year, which is debated throughout the year and either stands or falls. This is conducted—let us be honest, given all the exaggeration of recent months and years—in an incredibly free environment, which is still the envy of huge numbers of countries in the world. That is a good product. You cannot communicate a bad product; unless you believe in the product, you might as well give up on your communication strategy.

The third thing that I want to say—this is important, as it is a pretty pervasive finding of polling—is that, whereas the public's perception of politicians in general is low, all the tests show that their perception of the parliamentarians whom they know and with whom they have worked, in particular their local MP, is always much higher. That is very much in keeping with tests undertaken in other walks of life. For example, people say that there are real problems with the health service. They talk about infections in hospitals and waiting lists. But when you ask them about their personal experience of hospital, they say that their local hospital is terrific. That happens time and again in polls and is relevant to today's debate.

It is from those three points of reference that I offer some limited solutions. My first one relates to the point that I have just made. If we are to improve the way in which we communicate with the public, and the public's perception of us, most of the work necessary to achieve this will have to be done by parliamentarians. You cannot subcontract it. MPs do an awful lot of work with their constituents, in advice bureaux, in offering information and in enabling visits to Parliament, and the same applies to Peers. Many noble Lords do an awful lot of work in that respect. We should certainly commend the outreach work that the Lord Speaker does. There is no better advertisement for Parliament than parliamentarians talking to the public about the work that they do. That is the case with most of us at any rate. We need to strengthen the outreach work to which the noble Lord, Lord Norton, referred.

Secondly, we need collectively to take pride in the institution. I offer two perhaps not so popular points in that regard. I wince whenever Members of this House make ferocious criticisms of the way in which Members of the other House operate and vice versa. It is a common activity. People make the mistake of thinking that, if you are in Chamber 2 and you demean Chamber 1, you are simply demeaning Chamber 1, when in fact you are demeaning the whole parliamentary process. They do not tend to say that they like some policies but not others. We should be cautious in that regard, particularly as a lot of what we say about the other Chamber simply is not true. Far more scrutiny takes place in the other Chamber now. When I was first elected, there were no Select Committees, which frequently hold the Government to account, and there was no broadcasting of any kind. Huge advances in accountability have been made and we are wrong to think otherwise.

My other mildly controversial point concerns the language that we use. We need to recognise and applaud—I hope that I might get the support of three-quarters of the House when I say this—the work of political parties. I am not ashamed of being a lifelong member of the Labour Party. Next year I will have been a member for 50 years, if anyone wants to send me a card. I am proud of that. I respect enormously members of other political parties who knock on doors on wet nights and attend public meetings where people shout at them. I have absolutely nothing against the other parties other than the fact that they get so many things wrong. However, I greatly respect their commitment to the operation of our democracy. I have many friends on the Cross Benches but I do not accept that somehow there is something inherently superior about someone who sits on those Benches. I know that they do not say that but sometimes the commentary on the Cross Benches is in those terms. We should applaud political parties and recognise what they do. You cannot understand Parliament without understanding how they operate.

We must make our language and our method of operation more accessible and intelligible to the public at large. I have two seconds left but I make a plea to our friends in the broadcast media not to show the stock shot of us all in ermine, which is totally unrepresentative of how the place operates. If we are to communicate more effectively with the public, let us at least have pictures that are accurate.