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Parliament at the moment appears uniquely poised. The government has, to put it bluntly, stopped legislating. The now mandated five-year term which the coalition has introduced has meant that this government has run out of ideas and will spend the next year essentially campaigning.
However, this year does not have to become a “lost” year in regards to policy making. Select Committees, which have grown in prominence over the past few years, can exert their influence over the vacuous debates which will populate parliament. In what has been described as one of the most rebellious parliaments in recent memory, the much derided institution has appeared to have grown some teeth. Or rather, that as people in recent elections have voted for parties other than Labour or the Conservatives, government majorities have shrunk, making them increasingly susceptible to a small groups of resolute MPs. That prime ministers are now losing their main domination of the House of Commons is to be celebrated, but it should only really be treated as such if the space for legislation is taken up by the right MPs.
If this happens, the coming year could well be the time for an individual MP to make a big difference. We have already seen the result of some particularly dogged MPs. Labour MP Stella Creasy has fought against loan sharks since entering parliament in 2010 and appeared to have won when George Osborne confirmed the government would cap charges on payday loans in November last year. Similarly, Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen, after putting much effort into the project, managed to gain enough support to decriminalise TV licence non-payment in March this year. These are isolated examples of particularly dedicated MPs affecting legislation at a time when government, and the opposition, have their own agendas.
Considering this vacuum for debate in parliament, there is much room for other MPs to have a similar effect. In the next year, for example, we will see politicians debating the merits (or negatives) of drug legalisation in Britain. This is a result of the change.org petition made by Russell Brand which garnered popular support online. It probably won’t be passed, but the fact that the topic is even being debated by a chamber which can appear resistant to radical change is a sign of progress which should be commended. In a similar vein Zac Goldsmith, Conservative MP for Kingston, has appeared determined to push through the power of “recall” in the next year which, despite being in the coalition manifesto, has been dropped by the wayside. Recall would give the British public the power to trigger a by-election were an MP judged to have behaved wrongly by a certain number of the constituency.
We have seen “clicktivism” – people signing petitions and sharing posters online – derided as a means of making change. However, the founder of change.org, Brie Rogers Lowry, came out fighting last week, highlighting the good that online campaigns have done such as getting a woman on bank notes, while mother Stacy Stafford was able to keep her severely disabled child in school despite the council cutting his funding. Such campaigns have even helped a grieving family make an insurer pay out a promised life insurance policy which was being withheld. These are good and moral examples of people power which only serve to show the profound differences people can make. Hopefully in the next year this can be reflected in parliament.
Of course, it could turn out to be that all of this could be wrong. The narrowness of the polls could mean that party whips are even stricter on their MPs for fear of causing any controversy on the eve of one of the closest elections in decades. Similarly, any MPs seeking to gain re-election may be cautious in the face of a radical policy such as Caroline Lucas’s, knowing that it could lose a number of important votes at the general election. However, it’s far better to try and see what happens. People often complain that MPs do not listen to “the people”, whoever they are. It’s a saying which is a gross distortion of the responsiveness of many politicians. This next year is probably one of the best opportunities for people to get their voices heard. And whether it actually happens or not, it’s far better to try than wonder once this unique opportunity has passed.