My latest hero is Laura Pidcock. Within a few days of arriving at Westminster as the new member for North West Durham, she was on her feet declaring that “this building is intimidating. It reeks of the establishment and of power. Its systems are confusing, some may say archaic” designed for the needs of the privileged men who ran an empire.
The editor of this newspaper promptly told her to get real. You are in the establishment now so get used to its trappings. But I say, right on sister. You see things most clearly on the first day in the job. Parliament must change its ways to accommodate your generation, your class and your gender.
The Scottish MP, Mhairi Black said much the same towards the end of the last parliament. Another one to watch, Mhairi said she hated the place and was minded not to stand for re election.” It is so old and defunct in terms of its systems and procedures” she said, “ it is just a waste of time.”
Thankfully Mhairi changed her mind. We need outspoken young women to tell us to mend our ways. If we want to have any chance of engaging a new generation in the art of politics, then we must listen to them.
An unlikely ally has emerged in John Bercow. The Speaker has taken the revolutionary step of allowing members to speak without a tie. This may be a sign of things to come but much more must follow without delay.
Fortunately, there is a golden opportunity to get up to date. The Palace of Westminster is falling apart. Fires, floods and rats on a scale inflicted on the Pharaohs are expected any day. Deloittes has estimated that it will cost between £3.5bn and £6bn to repair and take between five and ten years. Just imagine asking a plumber for an estimate and getting that kind of a back of a fag packet reply?
By contrast, it will only cost £350m to redecorate Buckingham Palace which makes monarchy a much more cost effective method of government.
It may sound blindingly obvious but Deloittes found that it will be cheaper and quicker to repair the building if everyone, a cast of 10,000 by the way, moves out and so here is the opportunity. Parliament should take to the road.
Anyone concerned for the future of the Union should jump at the chance of relocating to Cardiff, Belfast and Edinburgh for three years each. It would give the strongest possible symbol of the intrgrity of the islands.
Simon Jenkins, writing in the Guardian, has suggested a competition between English cities to host the Parliament rather like bidding for the Commonwealth Games. If the arts can change the face of Hull and maybe Sunderland, just think of the effect of becoming the roving seat of power as in days of old when kings imposed themselves and their retinue on far flung followers for months at a time. It would rebalance London with the rest of the country and show there is life in the north.
Jenkins says that Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds of Sheffield are the obvious candidates. I have been thrilled to see how the second city had been transformed into a vibrant, attractive metropolis by building a new John Lewis store and hiring a woman about the same age as Laura Pidcock to conduct the symphony orchestra.
Why stop at the big four cities? Quite by chance, Newcastle Gateshead has an opportunity to play at Westminster too. There may be time to reconfigure the new convention centre at Gateshead Quays into a temporary debating chamber or to knock up a prefab on the site of the current O2 Arena which has brown fields around and is in walking distance of the revamped Newcastle Station. New hotels are springing up with abandon and some of those colourful blocks of student accommodation could be requisitioned for minor factotums. We may all need to make sacrifices to win the prize.
As we all know, Newcastle Gateshead has excellent communications by rail and air but I am perverse enough to think that the journey matters and a certain inaccessibility improves decision making. Look what standing on a train did for Jeremy Corbyn.
The point about any decamped digs is that they should be as different from the current place as possible. The lines of leather benches must go. Debates in the round would transform the juvenile adversarial nature of political point making. I favour plastic chairs myself that prevent anyone from falling asleep.
There will be problems of course but they can be overcome with good IT and virtual debates. The reward of engaging with real people and getting away from City sharks and media moguls makes the upheaval worthwhile. Parliament could operate conventional working days and streamline its business. There should be time to enjoy the theatre and restaurants in the evening.
Of course, they need never go back. The Palace of Westminster could be given to Beamish so that people could parade about in ridiculous robes or sold to Travelodge to boost the tourist trade. Downing Street would be ideal for social housing.
At any rate, there must be a fundamental review of the way parliament is run. It is not a job for a retired judge and I can think of no one better to chair the inquiry than my new hero Laura Pidcock.
Published in Newcastle Journal 25th July