Select Committee elections: democracy washes over the machines

“The usual channels” is House of Commons code for the strange mixture of the whips’ offices, the Speaker’s office, the House authorities and the party leaderships, which has always arranged the business of the House.

Everything to do with select committees has always been carved up by the usual channels.

Not any more.  In the name of reform, democracy is intervening.

Though less than it may seem.

Most important is the distribution of committee chairs by party.  Some are decided by tradition: the treasury committee goes to the governing party, the public accounts committee to the opposition.  Most others vary according to the composition of Parliament.

This most important decision was made last week – in the coalition government’s tinglingly transparent new reform Parliament – by carving it up in secret between the usual channels.

The way is now clear to proceed with some elections.

All MPs may vote in the elections for the chairs, though they are not supposed to participate in votes for committees for which they have front bench responsibility.

This means that more Tory – and considerably more coalition – votes than Labour will decide who are the Labour chairs.  While Labour votes will likely make a big difference to who wins the Conservative places.  Particularly if what one old PLP lag called “the Trotskyist belief that worst is best” (from an opposition point of view) prevails.

In other words, will Labour MPs vote for the worst Tory in order to make them look bad, and vice versa?

One reason it might not work out thus is that it is not at all clear who the worst candidates are.

The three most interesting contests are for control of three important committees: treasury, defence and home affairs.

The incumbent Labour chair of the home affairs committee, Keith Vaz, faces a challenge from long serving former minister, Alun Michael.  When Michael was part of his shadow home affairs team in the early 1990s, Tony Blair used to say that “the most terrifying sight in British politics is Alun Michael with a clipboard”.  He was right.

Michael will get support from what remains of the Blairites and the Welsh.  Vaz, by contrast, can expect a Conservative campaign organised against him by his long time antagonist, Andrew Robathan.  Although now a junior defence minister, both Robathan’s temperament and the scale of his antipathy make it likely that the former SAS officer will bother.

Vaz has quite a network, is well-liked and is an impressive organiser, but his position is under serious threat.

The incumbent Tory chair of the defence committee is James Arbuthnot.  He is an urbane wet toff, married to a judge who is the daughter of the greatest English wine writer, Michael Broadbent.  Think of him a One Nation Zionist.

For the chair of his prestigious committee, he faces three Conservative rivals.

Patrick Mercer, like Andrew Robathan, is a former soldier.  He did nine tours of Northern Ireland and commanded the Sherwood Foresters.  A promising front bench career was ended by David Cameron in 2007 over allegedly racist comments Mercer made.

Notwithstanding which, he is popular among Labour MPs and respected by the defence people.  If Labour backbenchers were to coalesce around a “not-the-one-the-Tories-want” candidate, it would be Mercer.

Much less likely is Julian Lewis.  He is one of Britain’s pre-eminent thinkers on the nuclear deterrent and certainly the most knowledgeable in Parliament on that subject.  But his personal style is too mannered for many on the Labour side.  And he ran “negative campaigning” for Conservative central office for many years.  He was known as the Witchfinder General. As such, he is unlikely to set Labour pulses racing.

The real wild card candidate for the defence committee chair is Douglas Carswell.  His politics are strange.  Nor does the man easily fit an intelligible mould.  He would be Labour’s spanner-in-the-Tory-spokes candidate in spades.

The fight for the treasury committee chair is boring by comparison.  Either the incumbent Michael Fallon or his challenger Andrew Tyrie would likely do a competent job, backing up the government without being slavish.  Most people would probably prefer Fallon, but nobody cares much.

Such are the speculations in the tea room.  The brave new democratic world is so exciting.

The reality is rather more brutal.  Democracy will not allowed to interpolate itself unrestrained.  In Parliament least of all.

What will really happen is that the Labour and Tory front benches will cook up a secret slate between themselves, unofficially using their respective whips offices and payroll votes to give their preferred candidates what ought to be a telling advantage.

At times like this, the party leaderships do not see the opposing parties as the enemy.  The real foes are the forces of disorder which swirl around their own backbenches, ever liable to cause trouble and instability.

That is why democracy for decisions like this has been resisted so long.  And why it will be resisted still, beyond its introduction, by an officer class which crosses party lines and is most comfortable closing ranks against the men.


One Response to “Select Committee elections: democracy washes over the machines”

  1. Andrea says:

    These Committe contests look interesting.

    What do you think about Graham Stringer vs Andrew Miller for Science & Tecnology?
    Stringer didn’t list any nominations from other parties (I think he’s the only one so far)

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