How will the new politics come about? What’ll be the big bang to bring about this brave new world? Will it be gender equality on the green benches? The first black prime minister? Or might it be something altogether more prosaic and less obviously ‘progressive’?
There’s long been a tendency in Westminster to overreach where notions of progressive politics are concerned. The hard graft of building trust at a grassroots level and the need to keep tired hands firmly gripped to the public pulse is frequently overlooked. There’s always some gamechanging idea that special advisers think can get round such drudgery, dazzle the electorate and achieve a short cut to success.
Except this sleight of hand doesn’t always work. We live in a cynical age where people are more aware of the limitations of politics than ever before. The only real way to raise people’s hopes of what politics can achieve is not by pulling rabbits out of hats but by hard work and a relentless push to root politics in the fabric of local communities. Forget the stardust, we need more sawdust.
A starting point should be giving MPs a job description setting out a contract between them and the electorate in terms of casework, availability and their role in local issues.
Think about that for a moment. Does the public have any real idea of what MPs do? I doubt it. Most people don’t even know who their MP is. Some are virtually invisible.
It’s time we asked some fundamental questions about our politicians. What is it that we expect of MPs, what are they for? It often seems to me that the role of MPs is to represent the state to the people rather than to represent the people. This has to change.
What we desperately need now is for MPs that engage with their constituents, have an active role in their community and provide some leadership at a local level in helping tackle difficult problems. Politics must move away from Westminster and reconnect with community.
There are many excellent MPs already doing this and working really hard for their constituents. But there are still too many MPs who barely visit their constituencies at all and seem to view their constituents as a pathway to a glittering Westminster career.
To change this, we should introduce greater scrutiny at the local level. It’s relatively easy to form a judgment on how an MP is performing in parliament. You can see their attendance, read their speeches and check their voting record. But who checks up on whether MPs are doing their job in their constituencies? Nobody. Casework is such a large and important part of an MP’s job that it’s staggering that they’re left completely to their own devices. I’ve heard of some MPs who only open their offices for a few hours a week. Others have offices the public cannot access. It’s as though some work hard to actively ignore their constituents.
I would advocate introducing checks such as ‘mystery shoppers’ to make sure MPs are dealing with casework effectively and keeping their offices open and well-staffed. There should also be checks to ensure MPs are holding regular surgeries where they engage with local people. The late Middlesbrough MP, Stuart Bell, for example, had not held a surgery in 14 years.
Doing casework does not make MPs ‘glorified social workers’ as some have suggested, it is one of the most effective ways of staying in touch with local issues. Some MPs need to take it more seriously.
MPs are well aware of the widespread public cynicism in our political system but there’s still considerable resistance to allowing a new style of politics to take root. The former minister Denis MacShane recently pined in the Huffington Post for an era where politicians had safe seats they’d never dream of living in and mourned the loss of MPs who could spend all their time thinking and not have to bother engaging with their constituents. How it’s taken so long for such an outdated ivory tower model of politics to be rumbled I don’t know.
MPs are not precious philosophers. They belong in the bloodstream of politics not in a Proustian cork-lined room. They have to grapple with all sorts of issues, including national and international problems. But as the events in Rotherham have shown us, they can no longer ignore local issues.
This change is slowly coming about, but we need to accelerate it. The days are long gone when we used to think the dawn of a new politics would be heralded by the kind of scenes witnessed in 1997 when Tony Blair walked victoriously down Whitehall. This time I think we all know the revolution won’t be televised. And the modest introduction of a clear job description to re-define an MP’s role could be the first step.