Today's MPs are a bunch of toothless sycophants

I made a complete fool of myself but it taught me that my job was to fight for my constituents
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The Independent Culture
MEMBERS OF Parliament return to Westminster today after their lengthy summer recess. For many, it will be a welcome break from their self-imposed duties as unqualified constituency social workers.

The House of Commons will provide them with a welcome chance to rub shoulders with the high and mighty between now and Christmas. Over the next few weeks, Labour MPs will resume the practice of showering the Prime Minister with inane sycophancy, which has been the hallmark of this Parliament so far.

I was an MP for nearly 20 years before I was rejected by the voters of Cleethorpes at the last election. Since the spring I have been sketch- writing and observing the new House of Commons with its infusion of over 250 first-time members, predominantly Labour and strikingly female, elected last year. And, I am sorry to say, I have come to a profoundly depressing conclusion. The current batch of backbenchers are, on both sides, the most toothless and cowed set of sycophants I have seen. Far from scrutinising the work of government, most meekly accept the orchestration and manipulation of their whips (a process that my party started and Labour has taken to new heights). There are too few signs of independent thought.

I do not wish to totally denigrate the hundreds of obedient backbenchers. I have seen so little of them in the chamber that I realise they must spend most of their time poring, no doubt assiduously, over endless piles of constituency correspondence in gigantic paperchases in their offices.

It is questionable, however, whether this is the correct priority for a Member of Parliament. I would advise all MPs to read last week's publication by the Fabian Society of Greg Power's paper Representatives of the People? The Constituency Role of MPs.

Mr Power, who heads the Parliamentary unit of Charter 88, says bluntly that MPs spend too much time in their constituencies and not enough on the workings of Parliament. His paper provides a useful reminder that the volume of constituency correspondence leaves Parliament failing in its principle duties to hold the Government to account and scrutinise legislation.

Of course, there is nothing that the Government likes better than to see its MPs buried in paper. It has given legitimacy to the social worker role by introducing "constituency weeks" - a device enabling Labour backbenchers, on a rotational basis, to stay away from Parliament while it is in session in order to spend time on constituency activities. Usefully, this clever ruse can be used to keep troublesome MPs away from the Commons during a contentious debate if he or she has a view that is contrary to Government policy.

It is alleged that MPs are actually disciplined by Labour whips if they are spotted in Westminster when they have been told to go to the constituency. This is a fundamental abuse of the duties of MPs, and the Speaker, Betty Boothroyd, is right to deplore the practice. But does all this constituency activity add up to anything anyway? The Fabian paper points out that MPs have no special qualifications to give professional advice and can usually achieve nothing more than bringing a constituent's file to the top of a Government department's pile. Certainly the threat of "writing to my MP" is a powerful weapon for the individual against the bureaucratic excesses and mistakes of the state and should not be restricted. But neither should it be over-encouraged. Rule by an MP's post bag is just as undemocratic as rule by focus group and spin doctor.

Most of my Saturday morning advice bureaux and correspondence over 18 years were taken up by 10 per cent of regular customers using (and abusing) 90 per cent of my time. Half would have received better professional advice from their doctor, accountant, solicitor or (if we Tories had not had cut the funding) the excellent Citizens' Advice Bureaux than they ever got from me.

I could occasionally jump the queue and leapfrog an impatient constituent's desire for council housing, tax rebate, passport or immigration application. However, as a housing officer once reminded me, the more I pressed, successfully, the case of an aggressive constituent, the more I was condemning an unknown, silent constituent to a longer wait.

Where my voice mattered was in Parliament. For example, Kenneth Baker, when Environment Minister, hit on the wheeze of nominating my constituency for the dumping of nuclear waste. My constituents went ballistic. The value of houses slumped. Industry was dissuaded from investing locally. By making a noise in the House of Commons I managed to get the policy changed. I filibusted. I gummed up the works. I tabled a million oral and written questions. I detained the chamber on interminable points of order. I went on voting strike.

In short, I made a complete nuisance and total fool of myself. I even promised to resign and cause a by-election unless I succeeded. This experience taught me a valuable lesson: that the job of being a Member of Parliament was, first and foremost, to fight my constituents' battles in Parliament. The job of being an unskilled social worker came a long way second.

I can see why it is in the interest of the Government whips to encourage new members to expand their constituency role and to restrict the public arena to simply paying loyal homage to the great leader, but, as a former whip myself, my advice to any MP is to discard all suggestions that come from whips.

The orchestrating of events in the chamber, certainly for Prime Minister's questions, now knows no bounds. In the past, backbenchers would either rely on their good fortune in being drawn high on the order paper or would stand in the hope of catching the Speaker's eye. Now Government whips require MPs with a question on the order paper to submit it to Downing Street for approval. Those who stand ask the whip's permission first, having been briefed on what to ask.

One fine day it will dawn on the serried ranks of Blair loyalists that there are only 60 ministerial cars for 417 Labour MPs. Slowly, that blind loyalty will give way to cynicism and disappointment - healthy fuel for calling government to account.

Then we will see the Blair babes grow into mature and truculent teenagers, and, who knows, great parliamentarians like the fearsome Gwyneth Dunwoody or the determined Tam Dalyell may emerge. Parliament may, one day, still yet matter to this Government.

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