Honourable Friends? Parliament and the Fight for Change, gives a real ‘of-the-moment’ and ‘from the trenches’ snapshot of life in Parliament. Caroline tells her story from the insightful perspective of an outsider, on the inside for the first time.
Honourable Friends? takes readers on a compelling journey in three parts. Firstly, we join Caroline as she arrives in Parliament and finds out that much about the way it works is either “obscure or downright weird”. In the second part Caroline starts to work to reform Parliament and to use its existing processes to represent her constituents and to campaign on key issues. The final section offers her vision.
I shared in Caroline’s bafflement when, on arrival in Westminster, she was given a pink ribbon to hang her sword on a hook outside the Chamber but wasn’t allocated an office. Instead she, like all other MPs, was expected to camp out at a café table.
Offices, we discover, are Westminster “currency”. Having an acceptable office in which to work is a perk that is allocated by the main political parties and their whips as a reward for well-behaved MPs. Officials told Caroline that MPs would have to wait for up to a fortnight: the whips needed time to decide which MPs deserved an office with a river view and which MPs would have broom cupboards with limited ventilation.
Whilst some of Parliament’s daily workings are just strange and quirky, Caroline describes others as “actively malign; and probably kept that way deliberately.” For example, the right for individual MPs or cliques of MPs to ‘talk out’ Private Members Bills, and the antiquated system for voting that Caroline explains works to keep power in the hands of the whips.
The story of the failed campaign by MPs from different parties to introduce electronic voting is also highlighted in the book. The challenge of reforming Westminster, warns Caroline, is that it’s a race between new MPs seeing what needs to change and those same MPs being absorbed into the prevailing culture”.
There’s a warning for all new MPs from Caroline, who advises: “If you are ready to accept it all, the place will treat you like minor royalty bringing with it the risk that you lose your sense of perspective (even of reality) and also forget who you are there to serve.”
With Honourable Friends? Caroline also signals what she sees as some of the biggest challenges for the future, including the battle against climate change and the threat presented by the EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), that is under discussion. The TTIP, warns Caroline, would allow corporations to sue sovereign governments in so-called arbitration tribunals on grounds that their profits are threatened by policies or laws that protect the environment, or animal welfare, or food safety or privacy.
Importantly, throughout the book, Caroline gives hope to every campaigner, by showing how the nearly impossible can sometimes be achieved. By writing letters, visiting MPs, protesting outside Parliament change can be achieved and disasters averted. Honourable Friends? demands to be read by anyone with an interest in how politics currently works and how it could be.