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Robert Leitch: What should be the primary duty of an MP?

Picture 20 Robert Leitch is a party activist who is working in Parliament for a Conservative MP.

One of the most peculiar, yet treasured consequences of an open and free democracy is that almost anybody can stand for election. Whether it be as an independent candidate or as the representative of a political party, the door to our Parliament is supposedly always open to each and every section of our diverse and vibrant society.

Despite this, however, the fallout of the 2009 expenses scandal vividly highlighted the public’s view of our politicians as being somewhat bland, dishonest and untrustworthy. Alas, Coalition Government and the resulting policy compromises and confusion over political identity have further added to this exasperation.

To certain sections of society, politics and our elected representatives have long been regarded as irrelevant. Yet, more worryingly, I would argue that there now exists an underlying lack of respect for the role of politicians in general.

This sorry reality of modern-day political life poses some rather profound questions: What is the primary role of our politicians? How do we want them act when elected? What criteria should they have to meet before even being selected as candidates? In essence, what should the DNA of a modern-day politician contain?

In recent years, scepticism about the political careerist route into Parliament has reached new levels. The progression of individuals from local activists to parliamentary researchers to special advisors and then, with a bit of luck, to prospective parliamentary candidates is very much in operation. On a personal note, I find this political ladder approach to Westminster both extremely narrow and utterly unappealing.

Should we demand, therefore, that exposure to the harsh realities of private-sector employment is a must before one can be deemed experienced enough to stand for Parliament? Or, are we seeking more experienced public sector champions to act as the perfect medicine for our somewhat broken political system?

What about the balance between women, men, ethnic and sexual minorities? The ‘A list’ followed by the Party’s ridiculous threat to introduce all-women shortlists before the last General Election failed to arouse much support from within our own membership. However, are such checks and balances considered more positively by the wider public? Do they play a vital role in bringing a social balance to Parliament?

Personally, I want people of substance - the best of the best to rise naturally to the top without favouritism or any form of positive discrimination. What about the balance between local champions and parachuted hotshots though? If my crème de la crème theory is desirable, surely favouritism should not be shown towards the locality of candidates either?

If identifying the criteria for the selection of new candidates is tricky, what about the day-to-day role of already elected MPs? Since May 2010 a number of new Members have entered the House of Commons in turbulent and politically unpredictable times. How should they act and what should their priorities be?

Previously, I have written in defence of our Party’s loyalist MPs who enable the Government to pursue its agenda so comfortably at present and I fully stand by my thoughts. However, even from the article’s subsequent comments it was clear that many ConHome readers consider line-toeing, whip-following Members as near-traitors!

The question begs, therefore, should our elected Members:-

  1. Follow their individual principles and convictions as they trundle along to the voting lobbies;
  2. Place the overwhelming views of their constituents at the forefront of their mind when voting;
  3. Listen to the Whips, trust the Party leadership and vote accordingly?

The competing pressures upon MPs in our political system are, at times, overwhelming. Getting the strategy wrong could seriously impact any chances of re-election in marginal, swing seats.

Focus too locally and potentially face a charge of being too parochial to be an effective parliamentarian. Focus too nationally, on the other hand, and some may claim that you are out-of-touch and uninterested in the local issues of the day.

Frankly, we need to make up our minds. Is a politician’s primary duty to act as an informed legislator who will be held accountable at the next General Election for their voting record? Or is it now more important for MPs be considered as community champions, akin to a form of supreme councillors?

So, what do we want? Bland or extreme; big personalities or dependable loyalists; risk-takers or careerists; experience or enthusiasm?

Naturally, most MPs will try to achieve a delicate balance of each of these competing pressures. Yet, given the widespread public dissatisfaction with MPs, and the growing frustration amongst the grassroots of the mainstream political parties, it would seem that many have failed to achieve an adequate balance thus far.

Indeed, perhaps trying to tick every box is a rather futile exercise. Perhaps it is simply impossible for politicians to be all things to all people.


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