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.