I’d like to make some promises on consultation which many MPs and candidates would think unwise. The reason I’m making them is that I’m tired of people saying that politicians are unapproachable, indifferent and remote. Politics in Britain has become too much a trench war between rival bands of professionals who have never done anything else.
I’ve worked in the private sector for 18 years, for an NGO for five, and run my own business twice. Nobody would tolerate the sort of behaviour that has become the norm in politics: the reply a month later that doesn’t answer the question.
Let’s have some service standards.
One of the weird things about politics is that you’re effectively on a 5-year contract with very little supervision; at the end of the period, you’re either reappointed or fired. You send out a newsletter and broadcast your views from Westminster by email, but you don’t really have to get challenged locally.
Incumbent MPs like to profit from this – they can get coverage anyway merely by saying they support this or oppose that; challengers get less coverage. So traditionally, sitting MPs refuse debates. Ms Soubry has refused my renewed invitation to debate the NHS or HS2 or anything else before the election, and introduced a new condition for debating: not only must every candidate be selected first (the LibDems are still to announce) but she is now only willing to debate when the election manifestos for all candidates have been published.
Thus we have the odd position that the former Conservative Minister of Health is unwilling to debate health in her own constituency until UKIP, and the Greens, and the LibDems, and the Justice for Men and Boys Party have put forward their manifestos and are ready for a 6-cornered tangle. National manifestos are always interesting, but in the last resort we shouldn’t need the parties to tell us what to think. Just like Mr Cameron, she’s (successfully) sought the support of the Green candidate in evading an earlier debate. She’s also declined a proposal by the NUT to take part in an all-party discussion of education chaired by a local head teacher.
This is all silly. Politicians who aren’t willing to debate with opponents are like bake-off contestants who draw the line at cake. If we’re reduced to regurgitating national manifestos, why have local candidates at all?
Service standard 1: daily online debate
So I’d like to promise some innovations. One I’ve done already – opened my website www.nickpalmer.org.uk to discussion by anyone. It’s the only politician’s website in Broxtowe that allows the readers to argue back. You can post a reply to any message and it will appear on the site after a short delay. Agree or disagree, put alternative ideas – it’s a free country and you’re entitled to put your views. Just a couple of riders: I won’t publish spam, illegal content (porn links etc.) or commercial adverts, or attacks on other people (I don’t have time to get into the right of reply cycle). Within reason you can say what you like about me. The website is billed as “A home for intelligent political dialogue” and that’s what politics should be about, rather than just everyone broadcasting in one-way monologues. Why not try it now?
Service standard 2: annual report-back in every town
Next, if I’m elected, I will have at least one report-back public meeting every year in each of Beeston, Stapleford and Kimberley. These will be primarily formatted as Q&As, and will happen regardless of what controversies are raging nationally. Anyone will be free to take part, regardless of their views, and there won’t be any charge beyond a voluntary whip-round for the cost of the hall. The first one will be this July, so we can discuss the Government formed after the election and the first post-election Queen’s Speech.
Service standard 3: a personal response in reasonable time
Tired of form responses? If I’m elected and you need a response from me, I will normally send it within three days. Not a form letter or email saying “I’m very busy and I’ll get back to you”. A proper, personal reply.
MPs get two kinds of email or letter. One is a question or proposal about policy. Why is the Government doing X? Why isn’t it doing Y? I’ll think about the arguments that you make, and give you a personal reply, not a blah statement written a 25-year-old special adviser about why my party’s policies are wonderful. If I don’t know the answer, I’ll tell you frankly, and try to find out – and that may take longer, but I’ll keep you posted. If you persuade me that a policy needs to change, I’ll argue for it in Parliament. If you don’t persuade me, I’ll explain why I disagree. Sometimes we will fail to agree and I hope we will respect each other just the same.
Alternatively, if you have a practical question (when will my road be repaired? Why is my pension late?) then I’ll pass it to an assistant immediately. We’ll tell you at once – within three days, as noted above – what we’re doing to investigate. We’ll get back to you as soon as we find the answer.
There are exceptions. Now and then I’ll take a holiday. Sometimes MPs get enormous letters – 10 pages of handwritten argument raising 15 different issues. As soon as the MP replies, they may get a further 10 pages by return of post. So if you raise lots of issues at once, the replies will be proportionately slower. That’s not because I’m reluctant to respond, but I need to respond to other constituents too. Also, some problems are insoluble and I’ll have to say so (I was once asked if I could change someone’s postal address from “Nottingham” to “Nottinghamshire” – the answer is no, I can’t). And if a constituent writes again and again on the same issue with the same arguments, I’ll refer them back to earlier answers.
MPs typically get up to 100 queries a day. The thing is, if you don’t deal with them, next day you have 200. Hiding behind a standard form letter doesn’t solve the problem – the pile just builds up and you end up not answering substantively at all.
Please note that I’m not promising to agree with everything. I’m a long-standing left-of-centre politician: I am biased to public services, to fairness and tolerance and equal opportunity. But I also like to think I have a mind of my own – not every left-wing idea works, and not every other idea is bad. I won’t do whatever the whips tell me, and I won’t do whatever you tell me.
If you vote for me, you’re engaging me to put my mind and energy at your disposal, not to slavishly follow every twist in public opinion. But I recognise that there are lots of things that I don’t know from personal experience, and I won’t fob you off. I’ll listen; I’ll try to help.
- £50 for thinking of voting Tory
An interesting new initiative: people aged 25-45 who live in Broxtowe and have not ruled out voting Conservative were invited to a two-hour discussion in Beeston last Tuesday, and offered £50 for attending. With the almost limitless funds provided by hedge funds, the Conservatives are able to afford this sort of thing, though if say 200 people turned up it’d cost a handsome £10,000.
- In defence of Anna Soubry
Several people have asked me what I think of a Daily Mail report claiming that Anna Soubry used a particularly offensive word in the Commons. I think it’s unlikely she used that particular word – she has a history of four-letter outbursts, but I believe her rather than the Mail. In any case I’m not standing against Ms Soubry because of any difference of personality, but because of disagreement with her policies and her political approach. I hope we can both keep the campaign at that level.