Paris Gourtsoyannis: Democracy is alive and kicking

REFERENDUM campaign may grab the headlines but there's still plenty of real politics going on finds Paris Gourtsoyannis

PMQs this week was a little unusual but MPs were also playing their under-rated role as tribunes of the people. Picture: Getty
PMQs this week was a little unusual but MPs were also playing their under-rated role as tribunes of the people. Picture: Getty

If you needed any evidence of how totally the EU referendum is dominating life at Westminster right now, join the political anorak’s club and watch Prime Minister’s Questions from earlier this week.

So often at David Cameron’s mercy, Jeremy Corbyn was treated with kid gloves by a Prime Minister desperate to show the two were, for once, on the same side when it came to the EU debate. “Here I am trying to be so consensual,” Mr Cameron exhaled, hardly believing it himself.

Just as the common market dismantled the barbed wire and border posts, turning Europe’s frontiers into little more than lines on a piece of paper, the EU referendum has temporarily scrubbed the boundaries from the political map.

In some cases, that has created uncomfortable new alliances – such as Nicola Sturgeon debating on the same side as Tory minister Amber Rudd, with Kezia Dugdale spinning for them both afterwards. In others, it has set colleagues at each other’s throats.

Thursday night’s debate was supposed to be all about the Sturgeon v Boris prizefight, but it was Rudd on the under card who stole the show and pleased the punters, calling Mr Johnson out for only being interested in the keys to Number 10 and suggesting you wouldn’t want to get in the car if he offered you a lift home.

Those lines – plus the shout from Labour’s Angela Eagle for the Leave campaign to “get that lie off your bus” – are all good fun for the sketch writers, but as with the independence referendum, voters trying to make up their minds probably took precious little away the a six-person shouting match.

Party infighting and constant accusations of lying do nothing to encouraged undecided or unlikely voters that they have to get out to the polls.

Against that backdrop, it’s easy to forget that the past week has been quite a good one for UK democracy. Away from the EU campaign trail, politicians have been getting on with the work of holding the wealthy and powerful to account for their worst excesses.

Mike Ashley, the founder of Sports Direct, was confronted with claims of Dickensian workplace conditions at the retailer’s warehouses when he appeared before the Commons business, innovation and skills committee. That he was there at all is a credit to the persistence of MPs. Mr Ashley doesn’t readily submit himself to scrutiny, rarely speaking on the record and only coming to parliament under threat of a contempt order. It wasn’t hard to understand his reluctance once he got going: “I don’t think I’m Santa Claus,” was one attempt to explain himself.

The evidence was even more dramatic on the collapse of BHS, with its owner Dominic Chappell being accused of being “a liar” who had his “fingers in the till”.

In both cases, the pressure from MPs cracked the corporate facade and forced the men at the top to confront failings they’ve so far been allowed to avoid.

Credit should go in particular to Hartlepool Labour MP Iain Wright, the chairman of the committee holding inquiries on both cases, but also to unions that raised the alarm about employment practices at Sports Direct and the impact of the BHS collapse on pensions.

Unite, in particular, were instrumental in cutting Mr Ashley down to size with their evidence, including the story of one female employee who gave birth in a warehouse toilet out of fear of the consequences of taking time off work.

While the Sports Direct boss was being grilled in one committee room, executives from defence contractors from the shipbuilding industry were being given a hard time in another, thanks in part again to Unite, who raised fears over the risk to jobs from a delay in construction of a new fleet of frigates.

MPs didn’t get clear answers on whether funding shortages were to blame, but contractors were forced to admit that engines on board new Clyde-built destroyers were at risk of breaking down in warm seas like the Gulf, where they might reasonably be expected to operate. The spectacle of executives sweating it out in front of elected representatives is one we should see more often at the Scottish Parliament.

After four years of being tamed by majority government, there’s hope that the committee system at Holyrood can regain some of the firepower it had in the early days of devolution.

At Westminster, there’s more to come – Sir Philip Green is due to appear before MPs next week to account for his role in the BHS saga, amid accusations by Mr Chappell that he blocked attempts to save the company, and calls for him to be stripped of his knighthood. MPs have also recalled Mr Ashley to answer more questions – this time about his own involvement in BHS, after he couldn’t resist confirming he had tried to buy the company out of administration.

As a spectacle, it might be squeezed by the Euros and the latest EU stair-heid rammy, but given the choice between watching that or Romania v Switzerland, I know what I’d choose. Bring the popcorn.

The political theatre has a purpose. Some may dismiss the hearings as show trials, but they’re one of the only mechanisms available to make the private sector accountable to the electorate. A few celebrated campaigns aside, it’s actually incredibly difficult to get consumers to change their habits. Three years of revelations about Sports Direct had little impact on the company’s bottom line, and its share price actually rose as the committee hearing was taking place. If people can’t be encouraged to vote with their wallets by revelations of exploitative work practices, then the public embarrassment suffered by Messrs Ashley and Chappell is the next best way to encourage them to change how they do business.

The biggest names in politics may be daily grinding each other’s credibility into dust, and turning off swathes of voters in the process. But quietly, in the background, it has been a very good week for Westminster.

Try, if you can, to keep that in mind in the run up to June 23.