Our political system is quietly suffering its most profound crisis for a very long time. Whilst the protests against the Coalition government have dominated the press’ political coverage, it is another threat to our system which may in the long term prove most damaging. What is this political snake in the grass? It is the steady but seemingly inexorable breakdown in the relationship between Members of Parliament and their constituents.
Politicians have always ranked alongside estate agents as a profession which we do not particularly like but seem stuck with. Even a cursory glance at William Hogarth’s Eighteenth century satirical political illustrations will show you just how deeply these feelings run. MPs have, however, always been very useful: if your granny can’t find sheltered accommodation; your Thai “girlfriend” can’t get a Visa (true story, apparently) or if you simply want to rant about how your local traffic wardens have a personal vendetta against you – in the words of Ray Parker Jr., “Who you gonna call?” That’s right, your MP. In fact, ghost-busting is one of the few fields they are seemingly unable to act on. Aiding constituents is the side of the job that the majority of MPs, except those who single-mindedly seek a ministerial career, seem to take most pleasure in.
This system, whereby your parliamentary representative can assist you with almost any grievance, has been gradually eroded over recent years. This is because it is built on a relationship which relies purely on trust and reliability. Both qualities have been brought under question through recent journalistic investigations, as well as politicians’ own actions and statements. The political class’ relationship with the general population has always been one of mild distrust and contempt, however it has worsened dramatically over the last decade. Anecdotal evidence from ‘canvassers’ of any of the major political parties shows that the ratio of doors-slammed-in-face to welcoming-smiling-constituents has been particularly affected. The current onslaught on parliamentary credibility began with the Expenses Scandals of 2009. It implanted in the public consciousness the idea that all politicians are self-serving criminals. Whilst the ongoing High Court cases and imprisonment of politicians show this was the case for a minority, it has permanently impaired the work of the vast majority who were, and remain, good public servants. More recently the Daily Telegraph’s so-called ‘fishing expeditions’ aimed at outspoken, potentially disgruntled Liberal Democrat ministers who might embarrass the Coalition in the safe confines of their constituency surgeries has, less dramatically but more damagingly, rocked the relationship between MPs and their constituents.
The latter case has been particularly damaging because it is at their weekly or monthly surgeries that constituents can raise their concerns directly with their MP, exactly as one would in the medical equivalent from which they take their name. This means that, since Telegraph journalists posed as constituents, for the first time not only do constituents not fully trust their MPs but MPs cannot fully trust their constituents. Clearly it is here, from the Shetlands to Cornwall and in everything from a Scout hut, to Tory office, to Working Men’s club, that the true breakdown in our political system lies. The loss of such productive relationships would mean the loss of a vital cog in the British political system. It is a silent menace that is a long way from the high profile protests and industrial action seen in London and elsewhere around the country over the Coalition Government’s proposed policies. To use an analogy from the medical world, imagine visiting a doctor who has begun to question whether every patient is a hypochondriac because of a couple of dodgy insurance claims they fell for, and where every patient secretly believes their GP is, at worst, selling prescription drugs on eBay, or at the very least, having an affair with their receptionist. You can see why one of the greatest assets British democracy possesses is so under threat.
As with any relationship built on trust it will take years to recover, if it ever does. But it is one which, I would argue, British society would be much much poorer without.