Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A Labour MP Who Should Be Listened To

A reader points me towards a truly excellent article in today's Times by ... wait for it ... a Labour MP. Natascha Engel has written about the role of Parliament and the rather tepid reforms suggested by the Parliamentary Reform Committee on which she sat. Here's an extract...

Most government agencies, such as the CSA for child support and HMRC for tax credits, have dedicated MPs’ hotlines. For those who know the system, going to see your MP has become a way of fast-tracking your case. As a result, a whole bureaucracy has emerged to service MPs servicing constituents.

And MPs encourage this. They know that the more direct the contact with constituents, the higher the chances of electoral success. This is good — it makes MPs work hard all year round; but the downside is having a huge, negative impact on our parliamentary democracy.

While our focus remains so resolutely in the constituency, we are spending less and less time in Westminster doing the scrutiny and the holding to account. Even when we are in London, we tend to be organising constituency campaigns and finding ways to raise parochial concerns.

We are leaving ourselves no time for ideas and thoughts. We are hollowing out our politics. Where is the ideology in getting the CSA to chase a non-resident parent for payments? We need to show people how to use agencies that are there to serve them. Not do it all for them.

But we are moving in totally the wrong direction. I don’t know how many times I hear people demanding a more consensual style of politics, asking us to put aside political affiliations and work for the good of the people that elected them. This is only making it worse.

After the expenses scandal, this view has become even more dominant. Yet the vast majority of us were elected only because we stood for a political party. In fact, Parliament is predicated on the very existence of political parties. It’s how we organise ourselves.

But our system breaks down when our political parties are not ideologically distinct. Today, we define our differences by dividing lines. We ask a small group of people — a focus group — what they care about, and then ask them what they want us to do about it. That’s not politics. That’s marketing. It’s turning us into admen and PR agents.

The politics of focus groups makes politicians reactive. We should lead, persuade and inspire. We should argue for what we think is right, even if popular opinion is against us. Leadership is about taking risks, even if that means losing our positions as a result.

Politics and politicians need to encourage big ideas and promote different ways of organising our society. Parliament should be a forum for clashing ideas again. And politicians need to rediscover that being an MP is about more than doing a job. It’s about being in a privileged position to put into practice deeply held beliefs and ideas.

When we debate parliamentary reform this week, we need to talk about getting back to first principles. Papering over the cracks won’t do any more. We need to tear down the flock wallpaper and fix the plasterwork underneath.

Great stuff. But I wonder how many other MPs will be brave enough to speak out in the same way. Engel has a fairly healthy majority so she feels she can speak out like this. MPs in more marginal constituencies feel constrained from saying some of the things in this article. The status quo is the safer option. But it is not an option for the long term if we want Parliament to prosper.

12 comments:

John Moss said...

I read that this morning on the train and was waiting for her to say that MPs should give up their final salary pension and have their expenses veted by the HMRC, just like small businesses ......................

still waiting.

Libertarian said...

Excellent article. Totally agree with her. Shame that Dave and the Tory red's have gone totally in the opposite direction and just aim to become part of the bureaucracy machine.

startledcod said...

Hear, hear!

The Labour Party was formed so that the working man's voice could be heard in Westminster. They worked hard to support penniless MPs sho could hold the Executive to account.

If only the measure of an MP was the number of DEBATES they attended and contributed to instead of whether they could sort out a local issue for which they have local Councillors and countles other agencies.

Mike Law said...

A great article.

let's hope Conservative candidates who are successful in the forthcoming election have taken note.

Maybe someone should photocopy the article and send it to them during their first week at work.

Old Holborn said...

O/T Iain

Nasty stuff

http://www.annaraccoon.com/politics/stop-press-bercows-begging-bowl-stop-press/

Mrs Clayton said...

That is impressive stuff. It is a double edged sword...those who know their MP will respond to the trivia result in them taking time away from those with genuine problems who then feel ignored because it is a harder problem to deal with.

Another reason why MP's should travel standard class and take that opportunity to .....just chat with people. Life is not Westminster and organised visits

Mrs Clayton said...

That is impressive stuff. It is a double edged sword...those who know their MP will respond to the trivia result in them taking time away from those with genuine problems who then feel ignored because it is a harder problem to deal with.

Another reason why MP's should travel standard class and take that opportunity to .....just chat with people. Life is not Westminster and organised visits

eb said...

"The politics of focus groups makes politicians reactive."

Is she getting at Dave by any chance?

Jonny said...

Great article, but I disagree with her when she says
That’s not politics. That’s marketing. It’s turning us into admen and PR agents.

I'm an adman and we know how much you can gain by leading market opinion, rather than simply following focus groups.

Focus groups are what our clients use to cover their backs and avoid taking responsibility. The prizes go to the brave.

Hope you're listening, Mr Cameron.

Tim Carpenter said...

The EU now does what MPs did.
MPs now do what councillors did.
Councillors now do what people did (for themselves)


MPs are, or it now seems WERE, part of the LEGISATURE.

I can see it makes sense if a constituent complains that a law is bad or is being incorrectly applied or there is rottenness or corruption in the local Fiefdom and so motivates improvement, reform, head-cracking or repeal, but casework on what appears to be aspects of Social Service bureaucracy, "chivvying along", "visibility", "string pulling"?

Intentionally Blank said...

She's done so well for herself since she escaped from that cellar.

ourgoverningprinciples said...

While I agree with Ms. Engel’s desire to reduce MPs constituency roles, her call to ideological arms is a mistake. Partisan politicking is a great way to fire up the party but a poor way to serve the public. Both Labour (1979-1997) and the Tories (1997-?) got locked out of power for years when they concentrated on “leading the debate” rather than “listening to what people want”. The fact is that British voters want both capitalism and a fairer society in varying degrees; the argument now is who can deliver it best. Ms. Engel needs to come to terms with the fact that an MP is a public servant, not a leader.

www.governing-principles.com