Back a decade ago when I was building websites for politicians as a job, one of my clients wrote the following:
I was born in a council house in Kendray, a district of Barnsley, on the 9th April 1955. Apart from my time at university I have always lived in Barnsley.
That was the very first line on the “About” page on this MP’s website. You can find it in the Wayback Machine here.
Fast forward a decade and there will be a by-election in Newport West, the constituency where I used to live, and where my parents still live, on 4th April after the death of Paul Flynn. As I have previously written, Flynn was very important to me and central to me joining the Labour Party as a teenager. But were I living in Newport West today I would be voting for the excellent Green candidate – Amelia Womack.
So what happened when I tried to persuade my parents that they ought to back Amelia?
On a messenger app, back and forth, shortened a bit for clarity:
Me: “Vote Amelia Womack! She’s the green. And is good. I know her”
Parent: “How do you know a Green standing in Newport?”
Me: “She’s deputy leader of the party. I know her via German Greens. She’s from Bassaleg.”
(not sure that’s quite correct – she was born in Newport and went to Bassaleg School – close enough!)
Parent: “She has no intention staying there and would rather use this as her base”
Me: “Rubbish. She’s FROM Newport.”
What has been the debate with my parents over the past – oh, 3 years? That politicians in Westminster are incapable of showing leadership for the country on Brexit matters. My parents have even praised another Green – Caroline Lucas – for showing precisely that sort of leadership.
But the idea that their own MP might then be someone with a national profile (Deputy Leader of the Greens), oh no. My parents are among the 22% of the UK population that can name their local MP. They write to their MP and complain about things and expect answers.
There is a massive contradiction here between what they want locally and what they want nationally. A contradiction that First Past the Post makes next to impossible to solve.
I also have some deeper problem with the idea that local must necessarily mean good, or trustworthy, or somehow better at representing local people. And less than half of Brits actually live close to their childhood home (warning: Daily Mail link) – why the obsession about local roots in politics?
Yes, Paul Flynn was good for Newport West, and was local. But my former client mentioned at the start of this blog entry was… Eric Illsley. And look what happened to him.
More generally, I’m always annoyed when I see that my MP, Keir Starmer, is spending his Fridays worrying about how HS2 is going to affect the area around Euston, or about the Camden Clean Air Action Plan. Surely that can wait until after Brexit? And don’t even get me started about the kinds of questions he must get in his constituency surgery. But British voters expect their MPs to be a sort of all-purpose problem solver and personal advocate, rather than having them worry simply (ish) about running the country.
I wonder how much the excessive centralisation in UK politics is a factor here.
having moved from the UK to Belgium, where local councils have and exercise real power, I find it striking that people here are far more aware of who is on the council and how to get hold of them.
Obviously, the first past the post voting system doesn’t help, but I imagine that the insistence in the UK that MPs act as both local and national representatives is a bigger factor in the contradiction you describe.