I recently spoke at the book launch for Paul Flynn’s latest book How to be an MP. It was, people think, the first book launch held in the Speaker’s House, and was introduced by the Speaker, John Bercow. I think I was invited to speak because, a few months ago, when Paul Flynn was getting lots of stick for offending someone or other (and those who know him know that doesn’t help narrow the time frame down very much) I tweeted that people should leave him alone because he’d written what I described as ‘the single best thing ever written about being an MP, full of humour, insights, wisdom’.
That quote was about his earlier book Commons Knowledge, which came out in 1997, but with publisher’s typical chutzpah that quote has found its way onto the jacket of the revised and updated book. But no complaints: if the new book is half as good as the old book, then it’ll be a cracker. For those of us who have to teach parliament to undergraduates, an up-to-date Flynn publication is a Godsend. There are lots of good books out there about Parliament, but many of them are – bluntly – a little dull (I may even have written some of the duller ones), and it’s useful to have something with a bit more punch to get students interested in the topic.
I dug out my old copy of Commons Knowledge to prepare for the launch and almost every page has some underlining or marginalia. Every page is quotable.
Those who are slightly mad, eccentric or possessed by demons are magnetically attracted to MPs. The obsessive, the weirdos and devotees of religious cults ventilate their irrationality at great length and frequency to Members (p. 63).
All MPs know exactly what he means.
Or this, from p. 27, his advice for aspirant ministers:
Cultivate the virtues of dullness and safety. Be attuned to the nation’s lowest common denominator of conscience, idealism and cowardice. At all costs avoid any appearance of humour, originality or interest in your speeches.
Whatever, whoever, can he mean?
Or this, p.93:
The expectation is growing of the omnipotence of MPs as a point of help of last resort… A woman rang me from a hotel in Milan to say her husband had died ten minutes ago and asked what should she do next. I was paged in the Chamber by a man who complained that the dustmen had left his emptied bin in the middle of the drive. He had been forced to stop his car and move the bin to the side. I asked why he was ringing me. He said he had already run 10 Downing Street and they told him to contact me.
One point that I made during the speech was that what MPs do does matter. The public do notice what goes on in the Commons. In September last year there was wall-to-wall media coverage of the latest report by the Committee On Standards In Public Life showing the extent to which MPs expenses had damaged the standing of Parliament and MPs. The next day, however, some of my colleagues at Nottingham reported some more up-to-date figures, which showed that the way Parliament had responded to the phone hacking scandal had led to a noticeable increase in trust in MPs. The latter survey also revealed that hacking had damaged the reputation of journalists, both broadsheet and tabloid, which may explain why, with the honourable exception of Bloomberg, not a single national media outlet covered the second story.
How To Be An MP is dedicated by Paul to David Taylor, MP for North West Leicestershire until his death in late-2009. David was always incredibly helpful and kind to me in my work, – and I say that despite the fact that he caused me lots of problems. Because when you’re studying the way MPs vote, the last thing you want is people who vote in both division lobbies at the same time. David Taylor wasn’t the first person to do this as a means of recording an abstention, but he raised the art of double voting to an art form. Back in 1997, the Modernisation Committee said that it would be in favour of an Abstention option in the Commons, but nothing happened, and once he’d realised he could do it de facto, David was soon abstaining all over the place. I once got into an argument with a Labour MP who told me that the act of voting in both lobbies was known as a Skinner Abstention. That was rubbish, not least because Dennis Skinner has never abstained on anything in his life, ever.
Previous Speakers are on record as deprecating the act of double voting, but I’m hoping that the current reforming Speaker, in his infinite wisdom, will somehow get it on record that they’re a perfectly acceptable thing to do, and they should hereafter be known as Taylor Abstentions.
And there I was following the advice on p. 50 of Commons Knowledge, where it says:
Flatter the Speaker, subtly.