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Getting the MPs we deserve?

April 12th, 2019

A guest slot from Harris Tweed

In a rare moment of PB agreement in a recent thread, Casino_Royale and Nick Palmer, himself a former MP, discussed the shallow gene pool which provides too many of our MPs, and the party and parliamentary processes which aim – not always successfully – to keep them in check. Strong whipping, party patronage and a lack of local competition in their seats mean too many members can enjoy a trouble- and blame-free life on the backbenches with an agreeably-subsidised lunch. As Nick also pointed out, this stifles free thinking and bores some of the cream before it has the chance to rise to the top. (Before I go any further, I apologise for the generalisations in this piece, and agree wholeheartedly that most MPs are doing what they believe to be best, and a number way in excess of zero succeeding).

The three factors I mentioned in breaking down this order of things are probably not the only ones, but they’ve each played their own role. Brexit and Corbyn are effectively the same issue – factors which have split parties to a greater depth than whipping can fix. Both stem from public/membership votes which weren’t tied to the provision of a Commons majority to deliver a programme. Labour members elected a leader clearly unacceptable to a majority of the MPs, and the great British public decided Leave was A Thing without providing the parliamentary clout to see it through. This has left the whipping system broken, and may yet split one or both of the main parties.

I mention social media, because it’s a relatively new influence on MPs. Too often it’s negative and reactive (“people on Facebook are for/against X, therefore so must I be”), and leaves MPs scared of the baying mob. They ignore the fact that the people moved to post about X are very much the fired-up front row, and never a representative sample of their constituents. Nor are they posting from a position of legislating in the round. But it has also democratised the process, and allowed actual experts to illustrate when MPs are talking out of their hats, using the valuable but unfashionable currency of researched facts.

And it’s the lack of that currency among MPs which worries me most. In the “trouble-free/agreeably subsidised lunch/working parliamentary majority” era, they could get away with being ill-informed sheep. Now that each one has become what Nick Palmer called a ‘quasi minister’, chuntering at an op-ed in the Mail and jeering at PMQs really won’t cut it. But we’re the ones who send them there, and the baying mob has more votes than the academic expert on trade in lemons. Too many times, MPs grasp onto a passing opinion piece in the papers as evidence for what they should think or do, without considering that its author was up against a deadline and will be measured on retweets rather than accurate facts-per-paragraph. Get your head in the Commons library and read some actual facts on which to base your opinions!

But even among PB members, how many of us do enough due diligence on the people we send to Westminster? How many of us consider the calibre and quality of the individual rather than which colour rosette they wear and whether they support Policy Y from Party Leader Z? And among the electorate at large, where local newspaper readership has been decimated and local radio stations no longer need to be local, how many voters even know or care who their MP is?

The ‘current situation’ may have left many holding heads in hands, exasperated at MPs’ collective failures. And that may increase the disconnect between Westminster and the voters. But perhaps we can also hope that it’ll lead to at least a few more of us checking who we’re sending there in the first place.

Harris Tweed

(Harris Tweed has been a PB poster for five years and a reader for over a decade. He works in the media, parts of which he fully agrees also find themselves in need of “adultier adults”!)