The public, egged on by the media, think that MPs – and Peers too perhaps – are just mindless robots. They accuse Parliamentarians of being the creatures of the Party Whips, voting as they are told rather than as they believe. The common perception is of a herd of sheep, rather than a collection of individuals, thinking for themselves.
And there is also the regular suggestion that Westminster has got worse, with more full-time politicians and tighter party discipline.
Last night Professor Philip Cowley told us that this is all nonsense. His careful research shows that MPs have become more revolting (I mean that in the technical sense, rather in relation to personal hygiene). There was no golden age of independence on the backbenches. The House of Commons has become less and less prone to accept party discipline. Steadily through the 1980s, 1990s and into the new century there have been increasingly frequent rebellions.
What of the House of Lords? Professor Cowley has less evidence about the behaviour of Peers, but the House shows signs of being increasingly unpredictable and less managed by Whips. This is assisted by the lack of a Government majority. The discussion brought out some interesting issues. For example, it is obviously desirable that the reformed Second Chamber – when it comes – should be less rather than more firmly under the thumb of the political parties than the Commons. We have an independent reputation to live up to. To that end the electoral system must be designed to give maximum choice to the elector, within parties and across parties. No regional lists for the party bosses to fix.
Professor Cowley cheered us up. The trend is towards more independent thinking in the Palace of Westminster. The Senate (if that is what it is to be called) should be part of that change.