In the last couple of weeks I’ve found myself talking about democracy a little bit more than usual. The US elections, the PCC polling fiasco and an MP visiting the I’m a Celebrity jungle, have all made me stop and think about the wonders and weirdness of our systems of democracy and representation.
How often is the government accused of sitting in an ivory tower or a Westminster bubble – out of touch with the views of the people? Christian Socialist Movement chair and Labour MP for East Ham, Stephen Timms, was on BBC news this week after it became apparent that he holds the most constituency surgeries of any London MP. Research suggests on average London MPs held 48 surgeries last year lasting two-and-a-half hours each, seeing a total of 720 constituents. Stephen, who was stabbed twice in the stomach in 2010 while meeting a constituent, said he saw 2,300 constituents in 2011.
Wow. I don’t think I looked in the mirror 2,300 times last year – and I’m reasonably vain. Of course it’s a tragedy that, that number of people had cause to seek out their MP’s help in the first place – but thank goodness they could. I want to celebrate our political processes which have listening built into them. An MP can’t be elected unless they go and meet with and listen to the concerns of their constituents and they can make very little impact on society without regularly hearing what the ongoing issues are.
The role of an MP is incredibly demanding. The vast majority have to work in two very distinct geographical locations, with two different groups of people. Constituencies can be many, many hours from London. This split means that MPs have to work hard to hold family life and relationships together and there is the added pressure of the 24-hour media scrutiny of everything they say and do.
We also grossly overestimate their ability to effect change, creating unrealistic and unfair expectations. For example, as a GP, when someone comes into your surgery, there is a basic unspoken understanding that their problem will be medical. This means that through her training and experience the GP will be able to accurately deduce the problem. There are also ready tools to hand, such as prescriptions for drugs and referrals to specialists. However, when a constituent walks into an MP’s surgery, the situation is very different. Their issue may be about anything from bin collections, to schools, to green spaces, to third world debt. The breadth of understanding required is huge.
It’s worth bearing in mind that an MP holds no official post of responsibility in their locality. They do not run any of the local councils. They are not the chief constable, or the tribal elder. Any impact that they have on situations comes through influence and relationship. But as we all know, relationships take time to build. The scale of emotional engagement required is also huge.
Are you starting to see why these people might need more of our support rather than our complaints? Having observed many MPs at work, I want them better resourced and better staffed, rather than the opposite. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want overworked, under-slept, stressed out, media-hounded, family-absent people making my laws. I want people who have time to experience community life to the full and who have some space to reflect on the deeper things of life.
The GP analogy also holds for another common complaint about politicians. When we campaign we often hear this: “The only time you hear from politicians is when they’re looking for your vote. We never see them round here any other time. Then they’re all over us.” At this point, we often try to politely point out that this constant attention would be impossible, if not even counter-productive.
People don’t expect their GP to simply wander around housing estates knocking on every door, asking if there is anyone sick in the house. Even the idea of it is ridiculous. So why do we expect it of our MPs? On average GPs often have about 2,500 people on their lists, and yet people know that GPs have to prioritise those who are sick. They do this by having surgeries where those most in need can make their needs known. How far-fetched is it then to expect an MP whose constituency may cover a huge area, and probably about 75,000 people, to be personally checking up on everyone? That is why MPs run surgeries where those in need of help can make their case.
This is where the hard work of representation takes place. MPs can’t represent if they don’t listen. After he was stabbed by a constituent back in 2010 you might not have blamed Stephen if he had decided to scale down his direct interaction with those he represents. But no, he met more of his constituents last year than I had hot dinners. Six times more.
Aren’t we called into those uncomfortable places? “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44) is not comfortable. “When someone slaps you on the right cheek offer your other as well” (Luke 6:29) is pretty hard. “Take up your cross daily and follow me” (Luke 14:27) is not easy. Playing our part in society – being citizens rather than mere consumers, is certainly less comfy than spending every evening just selecting our next entertainment option. But it is ultimately much more fulfilling.
It’s easy to jump on the media bandwagon and say ‘MPs are all money and power grabbers!’ How about instead we celebrate our democratic system and support our MPs? Particularly the ones that are not just going without their creature comforts in the jungle like Nadine Dorries – but those that are right where they should be, in the often uncomfortable reality of meeting with the local people they have been elected to represent.