Scott Colvin worked for the Conservative Party under William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard. He is now a political consultant at Finsbury.
Let’s begin with an obvious fact. The general public distrust politicians. This has long been the case, but the expenses scandal in 2009 magnified the utter contempt in which voters hold their representatives. When you consider that Cash for Questions in 1994 haunted the Conservative Party for a decade, it seems reasonable to suggest that the Telegraph’s revelations of financial wrong-doings will taint the political classes for a generation.
How do politicians, especially those in Westminster repair the damage? The party leaders did what they thought was best, to introduce tough new rules implemented in a transparent way. We also had a general election less than a year later, which also meant that a new generation of MPs emerged without the baggage of their predecessors. But poll after poll demonstrates that the public remains unimpressed. The change in perception has been minimal.
This leaves us with a fundamental question about the role of an MP, and how they rebuild trust. I have written a book, How to Use Politicians to Get What You Want, which provides a very practical way that they can begin to do this. It is my contention that most people do not believe that politicians make much of a difference. Your local MP is either likely to be a backbencher, in which case they appear to be marginalised, or your MP is a minister/shadow minister and they seem too preoccupied with their frontbench careers to sufficiently focus on local issues.
But politicians of all flavours, and all parties, can make a difference. They especially have influence amongst some of the corporations which we have to deal with on a daily basis – water companies, energy providers, trains and airline operators. The service we get from these companies is often patchy at best. Prices rise, customer service seems to fall. But even though they might treat you with scant regard, they don’t treat MPs in the same way. In my years of working with FTSE-100 companies, I cannot recall a single instance of a chief executive or chairman refusing to meet with even the humblest of backbench MPs. Quite simply, they cannot afford to take the risk, and our leading companies are more risk-averse than you might think.
So I am encouraging you to use MPs directly in your consumer and community battles. It could be trying to save a post office from closing, fighting for the local A&E service, or just trying to get your boiler fixed. When I have reached the end of my tether with an airline, I do not simply write an angry letter to the chief executive; I copy it in to the head of the aviation regulator, the minister for consumer affairs, the minister for aviation, the passenger watchdog, as well as my local MP. I promise you this – your letter or email will not go unanswered.
Should MPs only be glorified social workers or consumer champions? No. But this type of help is a ‘win-win’ because the constituents win and the MP is finally seen to be useful. Decisions about whether we go to war or whether we build new nuclear power stations are taken by a small group of people, and it is unlikely that your MP is one of them. But the manner in which you are treated as a customer by certain elements in the public and private sectors can be changed by any MP. It is tangible and satisfying for all concerned. There may even be votes in it.