Friday, 20 September 2013

MPs in the 21st Century

In the last few days I have received five or six emails asking about the relationship between the candidate / MP and the Association. Applicants ask what type of person the membership will be looking for, what role they will be expected to have with the Association and if they should make specific commitments should they be invited for interview (ie, pledge to increase membership by x%, or form Y number of new branches) etc.

The relationship between an MP and the local Association, or his or her constituents, has always interested me.  I recall one story, told I believe by Gyles Brandreth when he was MP for Chester, welcoming Douglas Hurd (then Foreign Secretary) to the constituency for a campaign visit. As they walked alongside the River Dee for press and TV pictures, someone decided there should be a photo of them feeding the local ducks. Bread was produced and the Foreign Secretary and the local MP then spent 10 minutes on their haunches, waddling along the towpath, proffering bread to already overfed and disinterested waterfowl. After a few minutes, Douglas Hurd apparently turned to Gyles Brandreth and said sotto voce, "I suspect Neville Chamberlain was never asked to do this".

I have previously mentioned to the MPs I work for that I regret Parliamentarians are now regarded as local celebrities rather than legislators, and how much better it would be if we didn't expect our MPs to spend their weeks in Westminster and their weekends judging Bonny Baby competitions, awarding prizes at dog shows and picking out raffle tickets at the annual Barchester ward (processed) Cheese & (undrinkable) Wine evening.  Some secretly agree though believe the battle has been lost. Others, I suspect, quite like the celebrity and recognition, though I doubt any sane person could actually be sanguine about being followed around Sainsbury's by some random loon, Tweeting the contents of their shopping trolley.

Anyway, for what it is worth, here is a sample of the reply I sent to the various prospective candidates seeking my views on what "relationship" the Association might be looking for and how I felt candidates should interact with the wider membership.

Dear (x)

I would personally welcome and support any measure which might bring new people and activists into the fold. I don't think I have ever said "that won't work" or "we cannot do that as we've tried it before".  I have no time for such negativity, which simply drains energy and leads people to feel their views aren't welcome or valued.

Probably 50% of my ideas fall flat, 30% have limited success and perhaps just one or two in every ten meet or exceed our expectations. However, if we didn't work our way through the 8 ideas which did not achieve what we hoped they would, we would never find the one or two that did take off and fly.  A case in point being our local candidate recruitment campaign. The main plank of the campaign (the full-page press advertisements) was a complete flop, producing nothing from an expenditure of over £1,300. However the flyers to local community groups have identified around 40 potential new candidates.

I think your email however is indicative of a wider issue we must address as a party and perhaps even on a wider scale. It is a tragedy that those who seek to serve in Parliament often see themselves, or allow themselves to be seen, as "activists and celebrities". This doesn't mean that candidates and MPs should not campaign - far from it. Indeed, they have a duty to do so. With all parties facing an ageing and declining membership, and in many parts of the country hardly any organisation whatsoever, it is understandable that many candidates are forced to become the "campaigner in chief" (as without them taking the lead, nothing would happen).
However, the next stage they are defined as "local celebrities" and not as legislators and Parliamentarians. In the never ending battle for profile, many become better known for appearing in the local pantomime, tossing pancakes for charity and painting dilapidated scout huts. If this is what the public really want from their legislators then so be it, but I think it is a sad day.

Personally, and perhaps I am a bit old fashioned in this, I want my MP to be first and foremost an advocate for the people he or she is elected to represent, to scrutinise and seek to amend bad legislation and to hold an ever increasingly powerful Executive to account. I cheered over the vote on Syria, not solely because the motion failed, but because Parliament stood firm against the Executive, perhaps for the first time in a generation on such an important issue. That is why electors send people to Parliament, and that is, I believe, how Members of Parliament should be judged.

Whoever is selected for T&M will be fortunate in that if they are subsequently elected, they will inherit a local party, and a constituency, which has, for 40 years, elected to Westminster a Parliamentarian and legislator. I think any candidate would be wise to consider if they so quickly wish to redefine that relationship, and allow themselves to be judged not on their oratory, their ideas, their beliefs, and hopefully their record as a legislator - but on how many new members they have recruited or branches launched."

1 comment:

  1. Definitely agree. MPs should keep a certain distance from their local Association. Fundraising, membership, etc is the Associations's responsibility, which the Member can support if requested to do so.