Last week (29 June), in an act which brought an end to hundreds of years of parliamentary custom, John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons, said that wearing a tie within the lower house was no longer compulsory.
Opinions of politicians and the political commentariat were mixed at the news, with some expressing surprise that this is still a conversation we’re having in 2017, while others, especially the more elder statesmen to the right of the political spectrum, have expressed their disappointment in the ruling, with one Conservative MP going as far as to say it “reduces (the) esteem of Parliament”.
At first glance, Mr. Bercow’s move seems a little odd, particularly considering his own clothing choices have achieved blog levels of fame, but like many things, there’s a more serious reason for his decision, and to examine it fully, we’ll need to go back a few weeks.
The General Election results, revealed over the course of the 8th and 9th of June came as a shock to many people, as the Conservative party were largely expected to increase their majority.
As we now know, this was not to be.
Perhaps the biggest non-Conservative upset, occurred in the constituency of Sheffield Hallam, which was held until the 8th of June by the former deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg.
Mr. Clegg lost his seat by 2,125 votes to the Labour Candidate Jared O’ Mara, a publican in his thirties with Cerebral Palsy. Mr. O’Mara is one of three disabled MPs who joined the House of Commons last month, along with Marsha de Cordova, the new Labour MP for Battersea and the Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Lloyd, who returned to his Eastbourne seat after falling short in 2015.
So, what does this have to do with ties?
Mr. O’Mara has right sided Hemiplegic Cerebral Palsy, which means that the right side of his body is weaker than his left side. As a result he’s unable to tie a tie, or wear a dress shirt, as he’s unable to do up buttons.
As someone with right sided Hemiplegic CP, I fully understand the particular type of frustration which can only be created by trying to tie a tie at a dreadfully early time in the morning only to give up half way through, throw it around your neck, and try to pass it off as a ‘trendy’ scarf for the rest of the day.
Therefore, as a result of Mr. O’Mara’s impairment, Mr. Bercow has made a reasonable adjustment to his workplace to accommodate him, as is required by law, and has relaxed the Commons dress code, allowing him to wear a plain t-shirt without a tie.
He’s also taken the additional step to relax the dress code pertaining to ties across the entire house. Perhaps he’s done this not – as some MPs have commented – as a step to ‘dumb down’ Parliament, but maybe, just maybe, he’s relaxed the dress code to make Mr. O’ Mara feel a little more included within a workplace, which wasn’t exactly designed with disabled people in mind.
But, the House of Commons is a workplace unlike any other. This is a place where traditions are incredibly important. Because of these long standing traditions, laws are still printed on calf and goat skin and free snuff is made available to all MPs in the doorkeeper’s entrance to the house.
Until Monday (3rd July) the complaints of MPs objecting to the relaxation of the Commons dress code were limited to grumbles and the odd brief interview. But the Conservative MP and Transport Minister John Hayes, has taken things a step further, by refusing to take questions from any MP too ‘sartorially challenged’ to wear a tie.
He was swiftly and severely mocked by MPs for his comments, with the Labour MP Jess Phillips tweeting one of the better remarks of the day, but behind the jokes made at Mr. Hayes’ expense, there’s a serious point, which needs to be addressed.
Mr. O’ Mara does not wear a tie because he is as Mr. Hayes put it ‘sartorially challenged’; he does not wear a tie, because of his impairment.
He also chooses to only wear clothes that he is able to dress himself in, allowing him to be more independent. Mr. Bercow, by relaxing the Commons dress code slightly has acknowledged, if only indirectly, the importance of giving disabled people choice and control over every aspect of their lives.
Mr. Hayes on the other hand, presents a classic example of the kinds of problems that are still rife within Government. The comments made over the last few weeks from able-bodied men who are (usually) privileged and middle-aged expressing outrage at parliamentary traditions becoming eroded as if they’re somehow reflective of a larger societal problem is laughable.
As the new MP for North West Durham, Laura Piddock said in her excellent maiden speech in the Commons this week: ‘Turning to this place, this building is intimidating. It reeks of the establishment and of power; its systems are confusing—some may say archaic—and it was built at a time when my class and my sex would have been denied a place within it because we were deemed unworthy.
I believe that the intimidating nature of this place is not accidental. The clothes, the language, and the obsession with hierarchies, control and domination are symbolic of the system at large.’
It’s incredibly important to remember that you have a chance to change government from the outside, by pushing for a more diverse range of Parliamentarians, and by getting involved in the local branch of your chosen political party.
Only by continuing to break down the hierarchies Ms. Piddock refers to in her speech, will parliament begin to accurately reflect how diverse our society is and start to become a place where every single member feels as though they’re truly welcome, tie or no tie.