Friday, 16 April 2010

The TV Debates

The TV debates have made the media complicit in the greatest change to the UK's constitution - turning the UK's constituency, parliamentary electoral system into the largest electoral college in the world. This semi-codifies the UK's elected dictatorship. That suits party politicians down to the ground, of course, as it maintains the status quo, and will encourage the next government to believe they have an even stronger mandate to force through whatever measures their party machine will roll over and comply with.

The electorate are being confused into believing that their vote is for a leader, when in fact on May 6th they will be voting for a constituency MP.

The expenses scandal and all previous parliamentary conduct scandals in the UK have demonstrated the importance of assessing the character of individual constituency candidates - one of the reasons all applicants for endorsement by the Independent Network are assessed against The Bell Principles. If the electorate continue to be encouraged to vote on the basis of the media performance of a party leader, the colour of their ties, their corporate brand, the dumming down of politics in the UK will be complete.

The task has become even harder for independents, who must remind voters that they're voting for a constituency MP. Gaining share of the media's attention has become even more difficult. National media will always be a challenge, but the even sharper focus on the three main parties in the UK during this election means that candidates must look to local media. Call radio phone-ins, try to work constructively with local media - offer them good content and comment, campaign positively about your candidacy and reasons to vote for an independent, offer a different perspective. Make sure they know that independents are the only true alternative to party politics, no matter what the smaller political parties say.

Local hustings are also taking their steer from the national media's concentration on the three main parties, so organise a hustings of all the candidates excluded from local hustings. Invite the media to attend, maybe encourage a local radio presenter, Justice of the Peace or other impartial person to moderate the session. If the media won't show, record the session yourselves and place it on the internet so that you can distribute it and give the local electorate an opportunity to hear from all contenders in the election.

Televised debates in the UK are nothing new. Parliament has been televised for years and the electorate has seen the pitiful performance of the main parties and their leaders for some time. The TV debates of the 2010 General Election are simply symptomatic of the public's despair at the conduct of MPs - the Punch and Judy, yah-boo politics that show the UK's MPs behaving like a bunch of school children in a playground, teasing, bullying and caring more about gaining cheap shots than constructive discussion of the UK's problems and opportunities.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

The Commons and Constituency Clash

It’s impossible to be in two places at once. Yet, to be an effective MP, you have to try to do both. For every MP there is a constant struggle between time spent at Parliament and time spent in the constituency.

Markedly, independent MPs loyalties often lie with their constituency, however, without voting in Parliament their constituents cannot be represented. As Dr Richard Taylor previously said in a conference of independents in January, ‘the ability to vote is a real privilege’.

In 2006 The Hansard Society found that MPs generally spent equal amounts on parliamentary and constituency work. When Parliament is in session, MPs usually spend most of their time there which accounts for around 165 days a year. In Parliament they raise issues affecting their constituents, attend debates and vote on proposed bills. Many MPs are members of Select Committees, which look at a wide variety of issues in detail. Examples of Select Committees include the Members’ Allowance Committee and the Energy and Climate Change Committee. If an MP has a special forte, for instance medicine, it then makes sense for them to sit on a Select Committee, such as the independent MP Dr Richard Taylor who sits on the Health Committee.

All Party Groups are growing in influence in Parliament and are very popular with both MPs and Lords. They are informal cross-party groups that have no official status within Parliament and are run for and by Members of the House of Commons and the House of Lords. Unfortunately an All Party Group must include at least five members of the Government party and five from the opposition parties. However, all party groups provide an opportunity for cross-party and independents to discuss a range of issues including animal welfare, sport, science, industry and the environment.

Therefore it is essential that an MP spends time in Parliament, technology also now allows MPs to undertake constituency work whilst in London. There are many innovative ways to keep in touch, such as Facebook, Twitter, email and blogs. Many MPs are using these tools - look at the huge list of MPs on Tweetminster. These approaches fall in line with the Bell Principles, which avow that MPs should consult their communities regularly and innovatively (The Bell Principles are thought to be the first set of conduct guidelines created by a political organisation for its affiliated candidates and representatives).

The vast majority of MPs hold weekly surgeries in their constituency, which allows constituents to discuss their concerns and problems with their MP. Constituency office staff have a key role to play and can make sure the community is aware that there is someone available for them, even if the MP is not there all of the time. Constituency staff main role is to do casework for constituents and help them with a variety of problems. Common topics of casework include immigration applications, council housing, dog fouling and student funding. Thousands of people contact their MP every year and it is the job of constituency staff to respond to enquiries.

It could be argued that there are four main parts to an MP’s job: taking part in debates at Westminster; working in Committees; dealing with problems and issues for constituents; and visiting and keeping in touch with local people and organisations. Without going into Westminster, the interests of the local people in the constituency can’t be represented at a national level. On the other hand, if an MP spends all their time in Westminster then local people will not be able to share their insights and concerns.

The nature of a good MP is one who divides their time appropriately between Parliament and their constituency and makes use of all the tools available to enable them to undertake a heroic job on behalf of the constituents and be in two places at once.