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“Few love to hear the sins they love to act.”
Shakespeare’s famous ‘truth to power’ truism in the opening act of Pericles, Prince of Tyre could be turned on its head for our current crop of Conservative politicians as: ‘You can’t be accused of ignoring the will of the people if you refuse to hear it.’
Nadine Dorries who failed to speak in the House of Commons for over a year, despite continuing to draw her £86,000 salary, perfectly exemplifies this ethos of personal ambition over representation. She had long made clear her priorities, disappearing from Parliament in order to take part in a reality TV show, taking up a lucrative ‘second job’ on TalkTV, as well as her books, Daily Mail column and her seemingly all-consuming pursuit of a seat in the House of Lords – free of any further need to represent constituents at all.
Although an extreme example of this tendency, Dorries was far from an exception. Indeed her colleague and current Conservative party Deputy Chairman Lee Anderson, who has taken up a £100,000 position as a presenter on GB News is another excellent example. An abrasive figure on public media, Anderson often appears to hold his own constituents in contempt. As one of his constituents Jim Cowan put it: “I feel I have been disenfranchised by an MP who ignores my emails and then blocks me from his social media for asking why I have not received a reply. At the next election, we need to elect an MP who represents his constituents.”
This frustration among his constituents has led to the creation of the Facebook forum, “Lee Anderson Doesn’t Speak for Me”, in which the dispossessed of Ashfield can at least share their discontent with each other.
In one revealing Twitter exchange, Anderson responded to a challenge from constituent Chris Delaney with the comment: “You have one Twitter follower in 5 years. Hardly an influencer are you when even your friends refuse to follow you. Assuming you have friends.”
Conservative MP Sheryll Murray’s constituent Perdita Heller says she had a similar experience in her own constituency. “When we moved to South East Cornwall from Tavistock, I tried to find out if Murray had a surgery where we could go to talk to her […] but found that there was no way of meeting her. I have asked her if there is any way we could meet to discuss issues of concern but never got an answer. I have also invited her to visit our farm to see what we are doing here to increase the biodiversity of our land – she is keen to be seen to represent the farming community – but got no reply.”
Helen Tucker, A Constituent of Conservative MP Mark Jenkinson, has voiced similar frustration. “There isn’t any point – it’s not very pro-democracy in my view. He blocked me for tagging him in posts, like the sewage post. He doesn’t like dissent.” Fellow constituent Alison Parker amplified the point: “There’s no requirement for him to engage with his constituents on social media, no complaints process.”
Current Conservative Minister Steve Baker has been open in suggesting that his aspirations may lie beyond the mundane job of serving his constituents. He was quoted in the Telegraph last year as saying: “It’s typical of me: it’s the precipice moment, yeah. It’s the skydive, the catamaran with one hull out, the motorcycle, There’s all sorts I’d like to do in Wycombe with pavements, potholes, healthcare, schools and ending foodbank dependency. I want to do all that stuff but again I’m afraid my curse is I’ve got this mind that expands to bigger horizons.”
The stock response to such complaints is that if people are not satisfied, they can simply elect a new MP, but this disenfranchisement has not emerged from nowhere. It is the manifestation of a creeping undermining of the democratic process.
When well-meaning MPs attempt to represent their constituents’ views that run counter to the government’s narrative, they too are ignored or rebuffed at a parliamentary level.
The proroguing of Parliament for five weeks prior to the United Kingdom’s scheduled departure from the European Union on 31 October 2019 was seen by many opposition politicians and political commentators as an unconstitutional move to sidestep parliamentary scrutiny in the run up to Britain’s exit from the European Union.
Again in May this year, under cover of the coronation, the Home Office used ministerial powers to directly overrule Parliament over the Public Order Bill. Even so, Parliament rejected the more draconian elements of the Bill, leading the Government to again sidestep further scrutiny and dissent from parliamentary representatives through the use of ‘statutory instruments’.
In her speech presenting her ‘fatal’ (but unsuccessful) motion to to stop the Government from using an equally unaccountable ‘Ministerial decree’ to overturn the Lords’ rejection of elements of the Public Order Bill, Green Party peer Jenny Jones warned: “This isn’t a one off, it’s part of a trend of legislation that undermines parliamentary democracy in the last four years we’ve seen a whole series of skeleton bills passed through parliament that hand over powers and discretion to ministers to make decisions with minimal parliamentary scrutiny these bills that hand over the power to ministers to make and amend rules and laws have become the norm it means that in recent years we’ve seen a major shift in power away from parliament giving it instead to Whitehall”.
Even in the courts, following embarrassing exonerations of climate activists by juries of their peers, the direction of travel has been to bypass jurisprudence through the use of injunctions which allow for jury-free trials.
Voter ID, introduced as a supposed anti-fraud measurem was admitted by Jacob Rees Mogg, in his speech to the National Conservatism conference to have really been a fraudulent attempt to suppress the voice of those voters least likely to vote Conservative. A “clever scheme” which he disliked only for its failure to work.
In what he describes as “a vacuum of decency, Mark Keiran, CEO of Open Britain warns that such “lack of engagement with constituents is dangerous for democracy. […] We need politicians who show up, who listen to people even when they disagree, and who devote their efforts to things that are clearly in the interest of their constituents and not simply a way of enriching themselves or their personal network.
Woodrow Wilson put it more succinctly: “The ear of the leader must ring with the voices of the people.”