Charlotte Leslie is a member of the Health Select Committee and MP for Bristol North West. She is the Spectator’s Backbencher of the Year.
“The trouble is, too many MPs spend too much time being fairy godmothers to their constituents in the hope that they’ll vote them back in,” said the former Labour MP – and great political author – Chris Mullin.
We were debating the role of a backbench MP on the BBC’s Daily Politics. I am no fairy-godmother, but was able to get in about 30 seconds of fulsome disagreement with Mr. Mullins, before we were interrupted by the exhilarating spectacle of Alec Shelbrook MP, bouncing onto the set, resplendent in a Tigger-Onesie. (He will be wearing this again in Parliament if he raises £5000 for his local charity ‘Martin House Hospice’. You can sponsor him here. )
The point that Mullins raised was too interesting even for a six-foot Tigger to derail, and is a question every new MP has to answer for themselves when they get elected: Is an MP a “constituency fairy-godmother” or a national legislator?
On one side of the camp, there are those who say that MPs are not ‘super-councillors’, but national legislators, and that those energies should be directed towards votes, and Westminster. On the other side, often in response to the very local brand of campaigning that the Liberal Democrats first established to gain parliamentary seats, there are those who see an MP’s duty as being primarily to his or her constituents and their daily needs. But I find a simplistic either/or approach is to misunderstand politics, and the challenge politics faces. One is essential to the other.
What is the most common accusation people make against us politicians? It is that we are all out of touch. I certainly remember the bewilderment I felt before I even considered entering politics when I saw the clenched efforts of politicians to find out “what people think”. “But even I know what people think” I mused “…Because I’m one of them.” Then I wondered “what happens to these people when they become politicians so that suddenly they don’t know?”
Later on when I became a candidate, I became terrified of that mysterious “thing” that converted normal people into a breed that seemed to spend their time conducting polls to work out what everyone else already knew. Blimey. Was it going to happen to me? It was as if I was on a conveyor belt moving towards some inevitable giant guillotine that was to castrate me of my common-sense as I entered through the doors of Parliament. Ouch.
Then when you enter the Commons you see what it is that can cut the unwary politician loose from reality: it’s not a guillotine at all, and it’s not painful. It’s the opposite. It’s all so seductive, oh-so important, and slow and subtle. People hold doors open for you, and call you Ma’am. You sit on those green seats that you’ve seen on telly. Newspapers sometimes print things you say in this room with the green seats, and as lots of people around you are making funny noises during Prime Minister’s Question Time, and saying “yyeeaaaahh yeeaaahh yeeeeaaah”, it doesn’t seem quite as mad as it did when you were in your front room watching it with a cup of tea.
What’s more, you spend nearly all your time in this place – breakfast to dinner: for votes, or for some meeting which someone expects you to be at. And even when there’s nothing to keep you there, and you’ve been yearning to get out all day, it’s easy to develop a kind of “Stockholm syndrome” – and it becomes strangely difficult to leave.
And all this time, the only other people you get to talk to are nearly all politicians, researchers or journalists. The most immediate source of information about the outside world is from material your party sends round, or from the Commons Library. No wonder anyone who spends much time in this place can easily drift out of touch…
That’s where the constituency comes in, like a refreshing cold wind, rifling dusty papers in a stuffy room. Thankfully, Parliament has evolved so that MPs step out of this extraordinary bubble back into reality for around three days a week – and weeks at recess. This time is every bit as important to national policy as time in the Commons, if not more.
Casework and campaigns are valuable in themselves – especially for those whose lives they transform. But there is another reason why it is crucial: through casework, you have gritty access to the realities of the implementation of policies; and through “getting stuff done” for and with the local community, you not only understand how things work in practice and the frustrations of trying to get common sense to prevail, but you also make friends. These friends are vital for “keeping you real”. The constituency is not only 80,000 or so people to help and serve; it is an MP’s “Reality Library”.
I’ve found that nothing can replace rolling up sleeves and doing the groundwork – not in a library, but in reality – to understand a problem and come up with a solution that actually works. So whilst on a rainy Friday evening, constituency work and that on-going community campaign to re-open that pub may feel a painful effort, it is effort well spent – not despite that fact that we MPs are responsible for our entire country’s legislation, but because of it.