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“Rookie” MPs Could Re-Shape Parliament After General Election Upheaval

Newly elected MPs enter parliament in 2010 (alamy)

5 min read

A major swing towards Labour at the next general election – which polls and local election wins suggest is likely – will not only mean a significant political shift, but also mean a huge personnel change in Westminster, with real consequences for the efficacy of the new government.

Even a slender Labour majority could deliver around 125 rookie MPs who have never held seats before. But there are also around twenty current MPs standing down in seats the party might expect to hold meaning even seats that Labour holds could have a new MP with no experience of parliament. The same goes for several Tories standing down in the few safe seats they have left. On current polling, there is also likely to be a few dozen new Lib Dem MPs. 

If Labour wins a landslide, this change will be even more pronounced. Perhaps half of the next parliament could be new entrants.

For a political system that thrives on unwritten rules and allegiances as much as formal procedure, a vast new intake who are unfamiliar with parliament’s codes could have a significant impact on the workings of our politics. In the run-up to the election, plenty of attention has been paid to selections. Within each party, different factions have tried to get their favourites in winnable positions, but an MPs’ newness could make as much of a difference in office as any ideological underpinnings.

Unlike in some jurisdictions, there is little lead-in time for MPs. The British electoral transition is incredibly quick: as soon as the result is declared they are into office, and parliament sits shortly after. For the rookie MPs, exhausted from weeks of electioneering, this will be an overwhelming time. 

Arriving in Westminster will be a huge challenge for new MPs before they even think about politics. Newly elected MPs, especially those who gain seats from the opposition, will get little handover. In the first few weeks, they will not only have to build up their parliamentary offices but reorient their personal lives (and those of their families) around the awkward realities of political life. In addition to this, there will likely be a host of constituency casework that has built up over the election period, or been inherited from before, to get to grips with.

Even when they have settled into Westminster, new MPs are likely to take time adjusting to the flow of how politics works in practice. “They need to learn not only the procedures and rules of the House, but also the nuances, the ways to really make things happen,” Alice Lilly, a senior researcher at the Institute for Government, said. “All that takes time, especially learning how to be really effective at scrutiny.” 

But a rookie parliament trying to get to grips with Westminster’s inner workings could help strengthen the executive. With so many new faces in parliament, it will take time for informal groupings and factions to coalesce. On the governing side, in particular, new MPs won’t have learned how to push the buttons of dissent. There will also be many ambitiously eyeing promotions, and fewer of the more experienced, independent and perhaps jaded figures who become the focus of internal opposition. All of which could make the government whips jobs easier and will tilt power back to the executive.

On the other side of the House, the new opposition MPs will also take time to adjust. They will need to learn how to best use parliamentary questions to push the government, and how to hold ministers to account. For the Tories, this will be part of a broader re-learning process. Whether by retirement or defeat, there will not be many MPs around with experience of pre-2010 opposition. Settling into this new reality, especially surrounded by so many newbies and with a leadership election rumbling on, will take the sting out of Tory attacks for a while, and could grant a new government a grace period.

The formal structures of scrutiny are also likely to be more robust. Though rookie MPs might end up on select committees, these tend to be chaired by more senior members, increasingly former ministers. They will be able to guide newer members who might lack the experience of scrutiny. MPs also benefit from more of their power having a formal backing. Lilly is more relaxed on this point, arguing that  “the powers that committees have to get answers from the government, as well as the staff and specialists that work with committees, will also help ensure good scrutiny.”

Aside from the political impact, a vast new intake of MPs might have the chance to shape Westminster in other ways. The broader culture in parliament is largely defined by MPs and how they behave. A load of rookies replacing older hands can provide a generational shift on this. The swathe of new MPs in 1997 helped usher in things like family-friendly sittings, while the 2010 intake helped move on from the worst excesses of the expenses scandal. With awareness now of parliamentary standards, sexual harassment and staff welfare, a big group of new MPs could provide a positive shift.

It's easy to think of electoral shifts in terms of nothing more than numbers. Yet a change to the electoral makeup on the scale currently predicted would be a huge personnel change too, with perhaps 300 new MPs heading to Westminster, shaping parliament and being shaped by it. 

Politically the rookie parliament could be a big boost to the executive, with the power of government and the whips boosted while new MPs on all sides find their feet in Westminster. The early days of a new administration can often be the most effective and having an opposition – both internal and external – that has failed to coalesce and find its way around the nuances of Westminster can really aid that. As an outsize intake, the effects might be more dramatic, but so too will the 2024-ers chances of eventually bringing bigger changes to parliament itself.

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