Politics degraded by ritual abuse

In an interesting burst of utter candour Tony Banks MP recently coupled an announcement that he would not contest his West Ham seat at the next election with the comment that he found his constituents "tedious in the extreme." Rare indeed is it for an MP to voice such heresy. Forty years ago, when being harassed by constituents for being absent from his constituency, Duncan Sandys replied that he was the "Member for Streatham in Westminster, not the Member for Westminster in Streatham."

The cult of constituency casework that has developed since the 1960s ensures that it would be difficult for an MP to make the same statement today, even though no MP can possibly give enough time to casework to enable him or her to remember personally the individual problems contained in the letters he or she signs but which are drafted by a highly efficient secretary. One of the best bits of practical advice I received when I arrived in Westminster in 1983 came from Alan Beith. "When a constituent stops you in the street," he said, "and thanks you for your letter, the best response is always, 'it's the least I could do,' - it covers every eventuality!"

I realised how one is often perceived by constituents one Sunday afternoon when the 'phone rang at home. "Michael Meadowcroft," I announced. "Oh," said a woman's voice, "Is that Mr Meadowcroft himself?" "Yes," I replied confidently. "Is it Mr Meadowcroft in person?" I quickly checked. "Yes, it's me!" "I hope you don't mind me calling you - a friend gave me your number." "No problem," I said, "it's in the telephone directory." "Oh, I never thought of looking there," she responded. Then she went on, "could I possibly deliver a letter to you?" "Of course." There was then a long pause until she asked tentatively, "could you possibly give me your address." I did so, commenting that it was also in the directory.

She delivered the letter and I dealt with the problem raised. In order to discuss the solution reached, I invited her to attend a weekend constituency surgery held at the little library on the Cow Close estate in Farnley. She arrived and to put her at her ease I made her a cup of tea and chatted about the weather, and she then burst out, "I can't get over how ordinary you are!" Quite what she expected, I couldn't really divine but I took the comment as a compliment.

I found such casework useful in itself but also an excellent way of building a relationship with the voters who otherwise only saw politicians as combative hurlers of insults at their opponents. In the communities of West Leeds news travelled fast, and the awareness that the local councillor or the MP was "ordinary" - and sympathetic - gradually increased the number of constituents who made contact. In the television age, with rapid communication and invasive cameras, respect for the position occupied, whether teacher, doctor or politician, is no longer automatic. It has to be earned and it is by maintaining a consistent style in one's regular contact with constituents that it can be built.

I had two advantages in the constituency. One was the number of local businesses that could be visited on Friday afternoons and during parliamentary recesses. Only one - Farnells - refused my request to visit to learn what the business did and to meet employees. The other advantage was the existence of over thirty working men's clubs - possibly the highest number in any constituency. Sadly a number of these have now closed, but during my time it was possible to pay an unheralded visit to a club and to see, and to be harangued by, many hundreds of local people at each venue. I confess now that I often used a calculated subterfuge to avoid being introduced formally by the concert chairman. I always had my clarinet in the car and, if I knew the band at the club, I would sit in with the group unannounced and thus break the ice informally.

In addition I believe strongly that electors deserve reasoned responses to their representations on current policy issues. Whenever a controversial issue was on the agenda, such as capital punishment, European unity, or embryo research, I prepared a standard letter setting out my views, which could then be "topped and tailed" personally to each correspondent. I know that this was appreciated, as was the "half-term report" that I had printed and delivered to each house after two years as MP.

Damage to the image of politicians comes more from the slanging matches across the floor of the council chamber or the House of Commons than from any number of scandals. The ritual abuse between parties, and the imputation of ulterior motives to the views of individual representatives, undermines respect for all politicians and alienates the public from the political process. To enhance their status in the public mind politicians need a self-denying ordinance to refrain from personal attacks.

One final local illustration. Early in my time as a local councillor, and still only around a tender thirty years or so old, an elderly lady approached one of my colleagues on Armley Town Street. "That Councillor Meadowcroft," she said, "he's like a father to me."<

2 January 2005