After writing to my local MP, James Heappey, about the threat to food and farming posed by US agricultural interests, I received his standard acknowledgement and holding reply. It contained, as usual, the lines “I receive a large number of emails each day and whilst we do aim to respond in the order that we receive them, we also prioritise those that are asking for help over those seeking to lobby or discuss policy”. It has always irritated me but until recently I wasn’t altogether sure why.
Things clarified for me somewhat when I stumbled across a tweet sent by Richard Holden, the newly elected MP for North West Durham and one of the so-called ‘Red Wall’ group of Conservative MPs – those who captured previous Labour strongholds in the last election. Mr Holden was boasting about his success in persuading the local water company to replace a “clonking drain cover” in his constituency. That’s right, he helped fix a drain cover!
I thought immediately of all the great issues of the day. We are in the middle of a pandemic, and by all accounts are not handling it terribly well. We are negotiating one of the most complex changes in our international relationships for decades, as we withdraw from the European Union and seek to negotiate trade deals with our former partners and scores of other countries. The world is facing potentially catastrophic climate change, mass extinction of plant and animal species and an unprecedented refugee crisis as people flee war, famine and persecution. Meanwhile Mr Holden dabbles in drainage.
I appreciate that people want their manhole covers mended, and when utility companies fail to do their job those people need someone to champion their cause. But it shouldn’t have to be an MP. They have far more serious things to attend to. Behind my irritation with Mr Heappey’s standard response is the suspicion that he too, at least some of the time, is tinkering with matters better left to a local councillor or citizen’s advice volunteer.
We elect members of parliament to scrutinise and vote on legislation. The 650 MPs in the House of Commons are the only people accountable to the electorate who can directly influence the laws that govern us, so one would hope that they spend most of their time making sure the laws are fit for purpose. The suspicion is that they generally don’t. Our ‘first past the post’ system means that the governing party can and generally does ignore any suggestions made by the opposition to improve legislation – a point underlined with disarming honesty recently by Nadine Dorries MP. Asked eight times by her opposite number Dr Rosena Allin-Khan if she would meet her to discuss issues around the mental health of NHS staff she replied
“One of the joys of being a minister…a minister of government is that we actually won an election and therefore that gives us the right to decide policy and the ability to decide policy and I can honestly say if the honourable lady wishes to decide the policy then the party opposite should do harder at the next election – try harder.”
If members of our opposition parties find it difficult to influence legislation, the position is not much better for back bench members of the ruling party. The role of the whips and the power of patronage exercised by the executive branch of government reduces the parliamentary role of most MPs to ‘lobby fodder’, trooping diligently through whichever lobby they are guided to. In our system, the big rewards for parliamentarians are linked to gaining ministerial office, not through challenging poor legislation in the House of Commons. This simply gets an MP marked down as a troublemaker.
It’s no wonder, therefore, that an ambitious young MP soon gets the message that it’s far better to focus on local potholes than national policy. Moreover, helping solve an individual constituent’s problem can be personally satisfying and genuinely worthwhile. It may even be worth a couple of votes at the next election.
There is a further reason why our law makers are so readily distracted from their main role. In an increasingly centralised system, the capacity of local government to effect change has been severely attenuated. The privatisation of public utilities has meant that more and more areas of life are remote from democratic control. The MP is perhaps the only elected representative that desperate people feel able to call on in times of crisis.
This has all the makings of a vicious circle. Members of Parliament fail for a variety of reasons to give legislation the attention it needs. They end up passing bad laws that cause problems for their constituents, which in turn lead to demands on their time to help resolve. As Isabel Hardman notes in ‘Why we get the wrong politicians’, MPs can end up “spending a lot of time on a problem that they had devoted a very short amount of time scrutinising in Parliament”.
In the long run it would benefit us all if MPs spent more time fixing policy and less on fixing potholes.