Friday, May 19, 2006

Politicians What Are They Good For?

The most impressive politician I have ever met in person was Eric Forth, even though it was only once and at a meeting/discussion he addressed. Obituaries of the MP for Bromley who died this week have noted his supreme ability as a parliamentarian. Often "great parliamentarian" is a respectful way of saying he didn't do much but had been around a long time, but in Forth's case it was true and it had been widely recognised long before his death, when after the 1997 election with the Tory party in disarray he along with his colleague David Maclean, organised much of the real opposition to the government from the backbenches. The reason he was able to master the Commons well enough to frustrate the Labour government's super majority is surely partly explained in this description by his friend Iain Dale:

Eric had a 19th century approach to constituency politics. He never, ever held a surgery, yet his majority increased at every election. He believed he was in politics to be a Parliamentarian, not a quasi-social worker.

And quite bloody right too. MPs are supposed to scrutinise legislation and question the government not act as a branch of Citizens Advice Bureau. We, the voters, employ MPs, but somehow suppose that the best way establishing someone's fitness to be an MP is how time he spends being a dogsbody for his constituents. I suppose I might be tempted to vote for some chump like Stephen Byers if he washed my car every Saturday, but it is not really an effective way of selecting competent people. If you tried to foist the tasks people give to MPs onto any other group of people they would tell you where to go, if you don't believe me try telling your bank manager that you will go elsewhere unless he fills in a tax return or a housing claim for you.

This isn't about MPs being remote, they should find out how government legislation affects their constituents, they should be available to people who want to express their views on relevant matter to their elected representatives.

Most constituency work is an informal way of campaigning, a permanent job interview and it renders MPs less effective at doing their actual job. It is also used to justify the extravagant expenses and salaries that MPs take home, they whine about how they have to do so much work and they need a large office staff when they don't need anything of the sort, Eric Forth certainly claimed very low expenses, they just use it to campaign.

Ultimately a good MP will be more valuable to their constituents in parliament than as a glorified odd job man.

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