John McDonnell said Parliament could move out of London, and why not?

There's strong opposition to moving parliamentarians out of the Palace of Westminster for renovation works, but some of the arguments don't stack up.

Parliament could hold sessions outside of London to better take into account the ‘real needs of the regions’, Labour shadow chancellor John McDonnell said yesterday.

During the launch of a Labour-commissioned report suggesting the Bank of England could move to Birmingham, McDonnell made further comments on devolving our institutions of state, saying:

“I think there is an argument put forward for ensuring that certainly Cabinet and maybe sessions of Parliament could be held elsewhere.

“I know Jeremy has been talking about holding shadow cabinet meetings around the country on a regular basis and I think you will see that evolve into other forms of direct devolution.

McDonnell’s view is especially pertinent given the current debate over the urgently needed renovation of the Palace of Westminster — works that could take up to thirty years and cost £5bn.

Though some parliamentarians have voiced opposition, one proposal is to move the House of Commons and Lords out of the Palace whilst the work goes ahead: to a building, or buildings, nearby in central London.

But if moving out of the Palace of Westminster is an option, why not take it a step further and move Parliament out of London completely?

Labour MP Alison McGovern set out what could be achieved by such a move, telling The Guardian recently: “If we moved out of London, it would have a profound effect on our political culture,” continuing:

“Imagine if we had a national competition for all the towns in Britain, and they could apply to become a city and get parliament in one go. What could be a more progressive thing, if, say, Barnsley could apply, and Barnsley could be the seat of our parliament?”

But the proposals aren’t popular with some. The journalist in The Guardian piece, Charlotte Higgins, seemed to speak for many responding to McGovern’s views: I had the feeling of how fantastical [this] kind of talk was”;

“Britain simply isn’t the kind of country that is willing to uproot its national politics from Westminster, the navel of church and state since the Saxons first moored their boats there, and plonk it down in Barnsley.”

Many who work in Parliament share this lazy view that British democracy and the Westminster site are irreparably linked by history — and could never be parted. But it’s not actually the case.

As Bernard Porter writes in the London Review of Books:

“Peripatetic parliaments or king’s councils are not unprecedented. We had them in the early Middle Ages. Other countries still do.”

There’s no sacrosanct, historic link between Westminster and British democracy. So why not get our parliamentarians out on the road? As Porter writes:

“That way MPs could re-engage directly with the parts of Britain that feel distanced from Westminster today.”

“Meeting one year in Manchester, the next in Glasgow (not Edinburgh, given the local competition), another in Swansea, then in Newcastle or even Hull, they would see the shuttered-up shops, the desolation caused by deindustrialisation, as well as the many positive and promising aspects of provincial life.”

John McDonnell’s comments are welcome and sensible. Moving parliament could be especially good for British democracy — reengaging people and their lawmakers and rebuilding trust in the institution, which has been in decline for decades.

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