Inside the Commons: A much needed look into the Westminster bubble

Parliament Street’s Matt Gass gives us an overview of BBC 2’s first episode of ‘Inside the Commons’ and what it may mean for the future of confidence in British politics.

If viewers of the first episode of Inside the Commons were expecting to see the worst of politics, they will no doubt be disappointed. Instead what they would have seen was a refreshing and very human glimpse into political life.

Whilst I don’t claim to be an expert on the place, I felt the programme offered a balanced view which took snippets of the good and bad of day-to-day Westminster life. Viewers with little knowledge of politics will get a much more accurate depiction from the almost Attenborough style documentary, than they would from headlines or TV.

The enthusiasm and determination of Conservative Charlotte Leslie and Labour’s Sarah Champion, the two new backbench MPs who were the focus of this episode, was infectious. In throwing themselves into issues important to their constituents, each achieved personal victories that although appearing small against the backdrop of budget speeches and PMQs,  meant the absolute world to people living within the communities they represent.

The game of Westminster was front and centre too. This was where the bad and the good were shown in their starkest contrast. During voting the menacing spectre of the Whips with their ‘black books’, was felt hovering off screen. Some of the manoeuvring described will have frustrated people who desire a more upfront politics. However a tactical withdrawal in public committee by Champion, followed behind the scenes lobbying, was shown to be crucial in helping the Rotherham MP amend a clause on grooming in the government’s justice bill. It also demonstrated the ‘impossible’ task of changing the law as a backbencher.

Similarly, the circulating of friendly questions before PMQs (which was widely reported ahead of the broadcast) and the jeering of MPs from both sides, were made to look petty from up close. However both Leslie and Champion used the event to give platforms to local concerns which would have been impossible without the added profile and theatre that PMQs provides.

Perhaps most strange for viewers was the intertwining of Victorian era customs with the running a modern parliament. Doormen in 19th century dress alongside crumbling architecture, made the implication impossible to miss. Sir Robert Rogers, the Clerk of the House of Commons was the heart of the episode, setting out the importance of traditions that many see as pointless while working to provide modern infrastructure like Wi-Fi that most viewers will take for granted. His line that ‘history should be our inspiration, not our jailer’ neatly summed up the challenge Parliament faces in the future and gave a face to its struggle in doing so. The indecorous applause when his retirement was announced was heart-warming; although the brief reference to the post’s continuing vacancy set the scene for  conflict in future episodes.

I first became involved in politics in 2009 during the height of the expenses scandal. Confidence in Parliament was disintegrating at an alarming rate and it often seems that little has happened since to reverse this. I’m not well placed to say if this created an attitude of public cynicism about the political system or merely exacerbated it. I believe that there is great value in our Parliamentary traditions and that trust in politics needs to be repaired and rebuilt-rather than torn down and replaced. As such I hope that people far removed from the Westminster bubble take this chance to look past the anger and the cynicism of the headlines. They might see a bit of what can and must work for democracy to prosper.

Giving people the chance to see refreshing stories like these may rekindle some faith in MPs. Similarly a real life view of some of the more ugly practices may discourage their use in the future.  At the end of the day politics is politics and shedding this kind of light may be the best way to help people understand what goes on behind closed doors. With any luck it might start reversing the downward spiral of faith that some in society have towards the way politics is perceived to be conducted in this country.

Episode 1 of ‘Inside the Commons’ can be viewed on BBC iPlayer


Follow Matt on Twitter: @Matt_Gass

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