One thing that has certainly changed over my fifty years of political involvement has been the level of respect for Members of Parliament. Looking back, it is amazing how much esteem they were once shown, seemingly irrespective of their work-rate or their personality. When I was seeking Parliamentary nominations in the 1970s and 80s it was not uncommon to be told by activists that they were looking for someone who was as much as possible like their retiring member – even when the individual concerned was well-known to be both idle and ineffectual.
What was behind this was the celebrity effect. If a celebrity behaves graciously towards them, some people go weak at the knees. This is most obviously at work with the Royal Family. Recently I heard a woman on a crowded train ringing a family member to tell them, excitedly, that Princes Anne had waved to her from a car! Whatever next! Similarly, in the past, if an MP wrote a nice letter of thanks or congratulations, and even better remembered the names of someone’s family members, that would be sufficient to earn him or her the reputation as a good constituency member with immense charisma.
This sort of respect for Parliamentary authority has now eroded. Many of the zealots of the ultra-right who have captured their local Conservative Party, and the those of the ultra-left who have captured the Labour Party, are driven by a contempt for what they regard as ‘the elite’. Such mentality has always led to distasteful behaviour: Neil Kinnock, when he was trying to save the Labour Party from Trotskyists recalled going to meetings only to receive ‘carefully studied insolence’. Now this is unremittingly delivered through social media.
It is one thing for this to take place within the confines of a political party – serves us right for being activists and attending unpleasant meetings. It is quite another for a disenchantment with politicians to lead to a rejection of the principles of representative democracy. Many, possibly most, MPs do a good job, and this cuts across the party spectrum.
I am writing this blog on a day when our Prime Minister is apparently seeking to bypass Parliament to enforce a political change which will be disruptive in the short term and damaging in the long term. He is willing to lie to achieve his objectives. This same day our local MP, Sir Norman Lamb, has announced his retirement from Parliament; he has represented North Norfolk as a LibDem since he gained the seat from the Conservatives in 2001. I would like to use this column to pay him some tribute and wish him the best for the future.
Norman Lamb has always run a most effective constituency office. Any letter was immediately acknowledged and any serious issue investigated. His practice was to send legitimate complaints to the relevant Government Department, public or private body, and forward the reply to the constituent. He would often add a short hand-written note offering to take the matter further if requested. Moreover, he was always ready to receive a delegation and listen to them – even when he knew that he would not agree. In the days of the Cameron-Clegg coalition I organised a group of University academics to publish a statement on the dearth of local opportunities for 16-18-year-olds. Norman Lamb was the only MP in our county willing to receive the delegation.
Before my local comrades get irate, let me state that, in my twenty years here, I have never voted for Norman Lamb, though many Labour supporters (and indeed members) will have done so in this most marginal seat. I have frequently and publicly disagreed with him. This does not mean that I am unable to wish him well. It is far too easy to be negative. Those of us who believe in the Parliamentary system, and in representative democracy, need to say so before it is overtaken by an ugly tide of populism. Norman Lamb has been an assiduous and effective MP, albeit holding different views on many issues to the ones that I embrace.
leftyoldman blogs will appear occasionally as the Brexit battle continues and the shape of post Brexit politics emerges. If you would like to receive email notification of future blogs, please press the ‘followleftyoldman’ button on the left-hand side above. I continue to tweet at @eugrandparents.