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Double slates?

During the last Parliament, Select Committee Chairmen and members were appointed, not elected.  And there were no Conservative backbench committees to be elected or appointed to.

All this is now changing, as Jonathan reported this morning here.

First, the Commons voted during the last Parliament to elect Select Committee Chairmen and members.  Nominations for Chairmen - who require support from MPs from other parties - close next Tuesday, and elections take place next Wednesday. Unlike Chairmen, MPs standing for the other committee places will be nominated and voted upon by members of their own parties only.  Neither a date nor a method has yet been set for these polls.

Second, a source tells me that the '22 is likely to re-establish backbench committees of Conservative MPs to represent its views to Government. (Richard Ottaway referred to this possibility in his piece on the Chairmanship for Conservative Home here.)  A date hasn't yet been set for these elections - but they may well take place when the Select Committee elections have finished.

Let's probe what these changes will mean by looking, in turn, at each set of committees - one Parliamentary, one Party.

Does it matter who the Chairman and members of a Select Committee are? Yes.

A bad Chairman and weak members will take the line of least resistance - and be led in their work by the Committee Clerks.  The Clerks will essentially decide the enquiries, write the questions to witnesses, draft the reports - and go with the flow.  I won't embarrass any such former Chairmen or members by naming them, but this has happened, from time to time.

A good Chairman and strong members will develop an agenda - and make the Clerks their servants, not their masters.  They will choose their enquiries, ask their own questions, and re-draft the reports presented to them if and when they need to.  Frank Field chaired the Social Security Committee when Labour was last in Opposition.  His committee gained a reputation for, as the saying has it, "thinking the unthinkable" - by seeking to learn, for example, from pensions reform in Chile.

And does it matter who the Chairman and members of a backbench committee are? Again, yes.

During the four last terms of Conservative Government, and previously, backbench committees were an important voice with which the Parliamentary Party spoke to Ministers.

Unsurprisingly, the right and left of the Party battled, particularly during the Thatcher years, to control these committees - which usually elected a Chairman, two Vice-Chairman and a Secretary.  The '92 ran the right slate; the "Lollards" the left.

Five years or so ago, I came off a Select Committee - for Work and Pensions, the successor to the committee chaired by Frank Field.  Almost 30 years ago, I worked for Sir William Van Straubenzee, who lived in Lollards Tower  in Lambeth Palace - after which the "left" slate for the backbench elections was named.

But whatever insight I may have gained into the workings of either set of committees can wait.  What's more important, as of now, is assessing what the changes that I've tried to describe mean for the culture of the Commons.

And in short, they mean an epic outbreak of democracy - thrice over.  First of all, the Select Committee Chairmanship candidates will make their case, lobby, cajole, inveigle, bargain, wheedle, promise, beg (if desperate), threaten (if even more desperate), and call in favours (or try to).  Promises will be made, and broken.  Grudges will be nursed, and never forgotten.

Then, the Select Committee member candidates will do the same, all over again.

And finally, the backbench committee Chairman and member candidates will do the same, all over again.  I assume that one will be able to be a member of both a Select Committee and a backbench committee in the same subject area.

In the Select Committee Chairmanship polls, the candidates will be looking to win votes on a cross-Party basis.  In the others - that is, for the election of Select Committee members and backbench committee officers - MPs will be appealing to their own Party colleagues.

It's not hard to see what's likely to follow - double slates, surely.  It'll be surprising if the left and right of the Parliamentary Party don't run tickets both for the Select Committees and the backbench committees.

But tickets won't be everything.  MPs who are respected by their colleagues will take votes from both left and right.  And the new intake - 49 per cent of the Parliamentary Party - may well stick together, at least in part.  After all, three of freshly-elected members of the '22 Executive from that intake stood together on the same ticket.

We'll be watching what happens.

Paul Goodman


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