Job Descriptions for MPs?

By far the biggest story of the parliament-which-is-soon-to-end is the expenses of Members of Parliament. Expenses, perks, salary, general behaviour. To a certain extent, we ought to celebrate the final ending of the age of deference, when we, the people, now feel able to challenge the political class to explain how they spend our money.

But the elephant in the room (this cliché has become very common recently) is the question of what MPs actually do. Cabinet ministers, of course, run government departments. Sort of. Actually, civil servants run government departments, and cabinet ministers (if they are wise) set policy or (if foolish) get involved in top-level executive decisions. Junior ministers, naturally, do what their senior colleagues do, but less so. The opposition is there to hold the government to account, and back-benchers of the government are… well… to provide the necessary support for the government to be a government.

If MPs are merely voting fodder or some kind of inspection agency, then their senior-management level salaries look a bit over-priced. Some MPs ask barely more than one or two parliamentary questions a year — not the sort of thing which holds anyone to much account. There are All Party Parliamentary Groups on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from human trafficking (a substantially overlooked topic) to beer, a subject which is seldom overlooked. However, these APPGs have no direct influence on the activity of government. There are also select committees, which form part of the process of law-making. But, again, quite a few MPs are not members of any select committees. These are typically the MPs who ask the fewest parliamentary questions.

Members of Parliament have, at least since the war in most areas, supplemented their parliamentary duties with constituency duties. These range from holding surgeries as semi-surrogate social workers, to an endless round of openings and parties. MPs also respond to constituents’ letters, and raise issues of importance with local government. But, again, they raise issues, but have no direct authority. Naturally, in a public sector organisation, a letter from an MP carries a certain weight. But only a certain weight. It is soft influence, not hard impact.

Ask a member of the public exactly what an MP does, and you may get a fairly vague answer. Ask an MP what MPs do, and the answer can be equally vague. To restore trust in politicians, we need job descriptions.

To someone who has lived without one, a job description may seem threatening. MPs have muttered about the unfairness of being told what to do, and how to live. The phrase ‘living on rations’ has cropped up.

But the truth is, the entirely unregulated life of an MP can be as bad for them as it is for the people they serve. A friend of mine was told by his doctor that if he did not stand down as MP for a seat he had famously won a few years before, then he would be dead in five years. Endlessly late nights, a culture which emphasises alcohol consumption, and a demanding programme which is effectively a 40 hour week in Westminster supplemented by a 40 hour week in the constituency, is not good for the MP, nor is it good for the decisions they should be making on our behalf. There is a reason why good companies do not let their senior managers overwork — overworked managers gain progressively fewer results the longer they extend their hours.

The other benefit of a really clear job description is that, if an MP fails in it, he or she could actually be removed. The ability for the electorate to remove failing MPs is part of Liberal Democrat national policy. An MP who seldom turns up at the House of Commons, is rarely in the constituency, and whose letters are written by a team of poorly paid researchers working from a fairly elementary rule-book, is not earning the money we pay them. Worse, he or she is preventing a more diligent, hard-working person from representing the voters.

It is no surprise that all of the worst excesses of the expenses scandal were in ‘safe’ seats. An MP with no accountability framework, no means of removal, and no likelihood of even having to campaign hard when the General Election is called can casually disregard his or her duty. And, it seems, some, or even many, did.

Job descriptions, then. A simple summary of hours to be worked, outputs to be measured, methods of accountability, common standards and disciplinary procedures. Businesses discovered them decades ago. It’s time for the elected-sector to make its way into the late 20th century. Perhaps as a step (heaven help them) into the 21st.

The politics of hate

Do you hate the Tories? Or perhaps Labour? Or (heaven forfend) maybe even the Liberal Democrats? Or — deep down — did you breathe a secret sigh of relief at the rise of the BNP, as, now at last, there was someone you could legitimately hate without being diminished as a person by that hate?

When I was sixteen, I once told my (then) girlfriend “I really hate mods”. Mods, at that time, were not first year Oxford University exams, nor modifications to video games or other software, but were the fashion alternative to ‘rockers’. “Oh dear,” she said. “I don’t hate anyone”. We later split up, and while I, through many pathways and byways, became a politician, she successfully pursued her dream of being a diplomat. Of course, I didn’t remotely ‘hate’ mods. I didn’t even really know what mods were, and it turned out later that some of my friends were mods. But, at the moment, it seemed to establish me more as a ‘rocker’ if I said I hated them.

Many years later, I was having dinner with my ex-fiancée (not the same person as the former girlfriend) and another friend. I mentioned that I was going into politics, and, knowing that she was a skilled and passionate person, I asked if she would consider running my campaign. “Oh.” She said. “Which party?”. “The Liberal Democrats,” I replied. For a moment a shadow appeared to pass across the sun (which was impossible, because we were in a Chinese restaurant in Soho where the sun never came). All the Oxford-London fell from her voice, as she said in horror, with as deep a Rhondda valley accent as I’ve ever heard from her: “The LIBERALS?” She appeared to rise to her feet (though she has since assured me that she did not), as she said again, in a voice which seemed to fill the restaurant with centuries of astonished grief and hurt. “THE LIBERALS?”

She later confided in me that it wasn’t the Liberals she hated (we’re actually the Liberal-Democrats), but the Conservatives. She later went off and joined the Labour party, and became a Labour parliamentary and European candidate. We’re still friends, and, no, this was not why we split up, which was, in any case, ten years earlier.

Especially in politics, we use the word ‘hate’ rather freely. But there are times when our distaste for our foes is really no more than ‘I hate Marmite’, and times when it is rather more. Ann Widdecombe famously said that she went into politics to fight socialism. ((She also, equally famously, appeared on Doctor Who in support of Simon Pegg’s John Saxon, aka The Master. If she had waited long enough, she could have joined Tony Blair’s New Labour to fight socialism.)) I always found this odd. If she had said ‘to fight communism’ I could have understood it. But socialism? Really? I remember that hatred between the Socialist Workers Party and the National Front in the 70s. And, of course, the undisguised hatred of the National Front for anyone who did not look exactly like them. As Britain, we somehow learned during the 1970s that hate based on race, then known as ‘racialism’, but now known by the catchier term ‘racism’, was simply wrong. But, in 2001, it suddenly became fashionable and acceptable to hate one particular category of foreigner, the ‘bogus’ asylum seeker. It didn’t take long for the term ‘bogus asylum seeker’ to be melded in the popular conscious with, simply, ‘asylum seeker’, so that anyone who came to these shores fleeing persecution could look forward to disdain, disgust and derision from those they met.

It’s always easier to get people to do things if you can stir up strong passions. Hatred of the BNP will doubtless bring many people into politics over the next few years. But hate is a uniquely destructive attitude. It causes us to obsess over our enemies, to see conspiracy theories, to misinterpret innocence, to categorise other people into the hated group simply because they look or sound similar. Hate causes us to mistrust, to pre-judge and to misjudge. It develops double standards in ourselves, which become embedded in a persona of hypocrisy. It causes us to skew our own positions. When we hate, we lose sight first of truth, then of honesty, and, finally, as the rot really sets in, of plausibility. We see the entire world as a battle between what we hate and what we use against that which we hate. As times moves on, those who refuse to take sides garner even more of our malice than those who are the original object of our detestation.

Hatred twists the most normal, sensible people into a horrific parody of themselves. I’ve found things written about me on websites, or said about me in meetings, by people who have never met me, never heard me speak, and (possibly) never read a word I’ve written. And yet, simply because I belong to one party rather than another, they see me as fair game for whatever they choose to throw. But these same people are, in their ordinary lives, quiet, sensible, law-abiding, the kind of person you would be quite happy to see as a magistrate or a school-teacher, or (until you found out), your town councillor.

Not all politicians are like this. In fact, it seems to me that it is more often supporters of politicians rather than politicians themselves who pursue hatred as a vocation. After I first stood for public office — as a councillor, in a seat I couldn’t win, and didn’t want to if I did — the Labour councillor who did win came up to me and said ‘Well done lad’. After the 2001 General Election, the Tory MP who won the seat came up to me and told me that he thought it was highly likely I would become an MP sooner or later, and gave me some advice on my campaign. Not sneering, measly-mouthed advice, but sensible, valuable advice, which he had learned himself, and which I have taken to heart.

All politics is made up of temporary alliances of people who agree on some important things, and disagree on others. Part of the reason we are locked into a seemingly endless cycle of boom-and-bust electoral landslides in the UK is that our parties have become virtual armed-camps. The rhetoric of Prime Minister’s Question Time makes this quite apparent. You cannot pretend a man is the devil one day, and then plan with him how the country could be served and improved the next.

Whenever I talk about this, people start to be nervous. “If we cannot hate, should we just roll over and let our opponents have whatever they want”, they start to say. Of course not. But we need to rediscover our vocabulary. We can disagree, dispute, rebutt. We can dismantle a flawed policy, discredit a misleading piece of information, decry an unworthy attitude. At times we may denounce an opponent who has, for example, claimed for a mortgage that did not exist. Not hating barely has an impact on the range of means by which we can oppose. You can love and respect someone, and yet be quite clear they are entirely wrong. You can recognise the good in someone’s motives, and yet also recognise they are completely incompetent. And you should. The duty of opposition is to oppose. It is an honourable duty, and serves the public good. But no good is served by hating them ((that is, hating a person — it is entirely right to hate injustice, hate people trafficking, hate cancer, and so on)).

It is time to take the malice out of British politics.

What would you do?

Here’s a game you can play at home. Imagine that you are Britain’s next prime minister. You’ve decided that you’re going to stay in power for five years. To begin with you have high hopes of changing everything for the better, but you quickly discover that there is so much work to be done to change even one single thing, and so many obstacles and vested interests, that you will only be able to five really big things — one a year. What would your five be?

Forget, for a moment, how you choose to implement them. If you could have five things, what five? I tried this one with some of my colleagues. Making the unemployed work was a popular choice, so was making people more honest (remember, I did say don’t worry about how to deliver it). One person said she wanted to plant lots of trees, and make sure there were lots of parties.

For the record, my five things would be:

    Restore trust in democracy
    End human trafficking world-wide
    Put a stop to predatory commerce (loan-sharks, scams, and those cash machines they put in deprived areas that charge you for your own money)
    Make Britain an environmentally sustainable economy
    Brand greed as a vice, not a virtue

This might strike you as an odd list for a Liberal Democrat. Why nothing about education, the health service, the arms race, child poverty? These are all important issues, but they’re also all issues which pretty much everyone agrees on. All parties are for health, against crime, against bloodshed, against poverty, for education. My five are things which either — generally — government shows little interest in, or problems to which no-one yet has an adequate answer. Things that are worth going down in history for, perhaps.

So, what are your five?

Nonetheless, tomorrow we must vote on the issues

Tonight is pre-election night. Tomorrow, county and Euro elections.

Which means not one person who has been implicated in MP expenses is standing. To be sure, MEPs have been questioned about their expenses in the past, most notably UKIP, whose value to the taxpayer in terms of cost for work done is lamentable.

Westminster must be reformed, but tomorrow’s vote will not have a direct bearing on it. We could, of course, vote to send a message, but, for once, it appears that all the major parties have got the message already — though, what they intend to do about it varies from the disingenous to the radical.

So, what are the issues for the European elections?

By number of parties standing, you would think the main issue is Europe — in or out. But it isn’t. Not one of the major parties suggests we should leave the European Union. UKIP may see itself as a major party on this issue, but, after a full term with members in the EU parliament, UKIP has yet to be able to show a single change to the European system which it can call its own. A vote for UKIP is, in every sense, a wasted vote.

The reason that the serious parties all agree on our membership of the EU is that, notwithstanding any number of pictures of Winston Churchill and British Bulldogs (now more commonly used for selling insurance), Britain needs to be at the head of an effective, negotiating Europe. No matter what we would love to believe, the USA, Russia, India, China, and the federations of South America and of Africa are much too big for us to negotiate with as a single player. Worse, climate change is much, much too big for us to deal with alone. And worse still, international crime has now successfully organised itself to slip by any single-government policing programme.

Of course, the serious parties disagree seriously on how we should be involved in Europe. To me, it seems clear that there is only one logically consistent position. If we accept at all that we should be in the EU, then we should be fully participating just as much as France and Germany. Otherwise, we will be second-class members paying the full membership fee. This means full co-operation on crime, a genuine collaboration to rebuild our economies, and a concerted approach to climate change. Pollution, drug and people trafficking, and the credit crunch are three things that will not stop at the white cliffs of Dover.

Various gradations of ‘not-really taking part’ seem to me to be more about being seen by the electorate to be just Euro-sceptic enough to vote for. But they will do us as a nation no good in the long run, nor in the short, as we have bitterly seen in the last years.

So what about the ‘consistent’ position not of Euro-scepticism, but of total Euro-phobia? I spent a bit of last Thursday handing out leaflets while the BBC filmed me as background material to vox-pops. It didn’t take long for us to spot which two people were (more or less) walking up and down, lingering, in order to get their chance on camera. And, of course, they launched a tirade against Europe, the Commission, MEPs, MPs expenses, etc, etc.

If you want to get really angry about something, Europe is always a good choice — after all, it’s not going to come round to your house later saying “what was all that about, then?”, nor is it likely to be on the committee of any club you might subsequently want to join. Europe is, in some ways, tailor-made for the English eccentric who wants to have a jolly good rant, and then get back to raking up the leaves or making cakes for a jumble sale.

But, in reality, the Euro-phobic parties do not go any further than that in terms of their real policies. Euro-phobia is just another manifestation of xenophobia. And, like xenophobia, the real problem is where you draw the line about who is ‘foreign’. In its extreme form, American survivalists end up drawing a line around themselves and their immediate family, and declaring cold-war on the rest of the world.

Neither UKIP nor any of the other fringe parties has ever put forward any kind of a credible process by which Britain could leave the EU, nor have they ever put forward figures that any independent commentator would accept about how much it would cost the British economy to do so. This is not simply because there is no credible process. It is because anyone who works to acquire sufficient knowledge to put together such a process learns quickly that the programme itself is nonsensical.

I used to know a lovely old lady who had (as anyone would confirm) a heart of complete gold. Occasionally, though, she would talk about Europe. “They should never have built the Channel Tunnel”, she used to tell me. “That was really the end of Britain as an island.” She never quite explained what the exact implications of the channel tunnel were. I’m not sure if she felt that European-ness — perhaps a fondness for olives, French bread and espresso coffee — would come wafting through the tunnel like a ground mist. I don’t think she knew herself. But I feel that her fears were of exactly the same kind as the Euro-phobic parties: ill-defined, unfaced, impossible to pin down to any specific threat that could be managed or mitigated.

Such is the way of fear. Fear, as we have seen too often in the 20th century, is the worst of all guides at the ballot box. Closely followed by fury.

Tomorrow, we must put aside both fear and fury, and face the issues. We owe it to ourselves, and we owe it to each other.

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