How to burst the Westminster bubble: Simple steps MPs could make to connect us all

This election left voters feeling jaded with the conduct of British politics, but it doesn't have to be this way

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Indy Politics

Our elected MPs are more unpopular than ever, but the following step-by-step guide could help connect the public with the way the country is run and regain some faith in politics.

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How to fix the media

Chuka Umunna pulled out of the Labour leadership contest because of the “scrutiny and attention” it brought on him, his family, his girlfriend and her family.

Liz Kendall, the surprise candidate for the Labour leadership, sought to pre-empt interest in her personal life by telling the Daily Mirror yesterday that she had broken up with boyfriend Greg Davies, the Inbetweeners comedian.

Ed Miliband had to endure reporting of his father’s political views (“The Man Who Hated Britain”, according to the Daily Mail), how he ate a bacon sandwich and the number of kitchens in his London house.

What could be done?

1. Peter Jukes, the campaigner against press intrusion, has called for new laws to prevent journalists harassing members of politicians’ families and other people not directly involved in frontline politics.

2. More, longer, interviews on TV, so that people have a better chance to make up their minds about the personalities of MPs.

3. In the end, though, would-be politicians have to realise that the voters want to know a great deal about them. Umunna said he thought he was prepared for it, but when it came to it, he wasn’t. Others can learn from his experience.

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How to fix the family life of MPs

It is not just the media intrusion, there is also the practical difficulty of living in two places and the long hours. Dan Jarvis, the Labour MP for Barnsley, pulled out of the Labour leadership race because he felt the need to spend time with his children.

What could be done?

1. Move the House of Commons to a more central location in the country. That would also help tilt the economic centre of gravity away from London.

2. Change the hours of the House to something like normal office hours (currently the day ends at 7pm at the earliest), allowing school runs in the morning and constituency business in the evening, when people want to talk.

3. Electronic voting could mean MPs didn’t have to spend so much time in Westminster.

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How to fix the House of Commons

The Gothic Hogwarts of the House of Commons sometimes seems designed to discourage normal people from wanting to be MPs. After the election, there are more women MPs than ever, but it still feels a bit like an all-male public school.

The way it conducts itself doesn’t help inspire public confidence. The yah-boo of Prime Minister’s Questions is a constant complaint. Many of the rules seem obscure. Last week, the 56 SNP MPs were shown around the Chamber and told that it was “poor etiquette to clap”. This instruction was greeted with “rapturous applause” from all 56.

What could be done?

1. Prime Minister’s Questions could be twice-weekly again, and the Speaker could start to throw out MPs who heckle or shout.

2. A reinvention of parliamentary reporting for the internet video age – perhaps a 15-minute summary every night – would be a great gain for democracy.

3. John Bercow, the Speaker, has tried to open up the House more to the public, but more could be done to modernise language and traditions. The reform to allow public petitions to be debated in the House if they have 100,000 signatures could be extended.

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How to fix trust in politicians

Gloria de Piero, the Labour MP for Ashfield, toured the country asking, “Why do you hate me?” One of the big reasons is the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2009. It meant that good MPs were tainted by bad, and that every MP feels under suspicion.

That makes it hard for them, and hard for voters to trust them, which cannot be healthy, at a time when voters’ faith in politicians to deliver their promises is at a low ebb.

What could be done?

1. Ed Miliband tried to deal with the trust problem by carving his promises in stone. That’s not the answer. And MPs could start by not making unrealistic promises and then not breaking them. It is not complicated.

2. More could be done to publicise the information that is already available. The Register of Members’ Interests is on the internet, with the details of all MPs’ earnings. Ministers have to disclose their meetings and gifts. Political donations have to be declared.

3. An online “diary” for each MP of where they have been, who they’ve met and what they’ve done would be a clear signal of honesty.

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How to fix opinion polls and policy websites

The media are obsessed with the horse race of opinion polls. Who’s up, who’s down, who’s ahead and who’s behind, rather than what they stand for. Instead of debating policies, the last week of the election campaign was dominated by poll-driven speculation.

What could be done?

1. In an interview yesterday, Lynton Crosby, who ran the Conservative campaign, supported the idea of a ban on polls in the two or three weeks before an election. But Peter Kellner, of YouGov, says this would simply mean that banks and big companies would commission private polls and that rumours would be impossible to verify.

2. It is in their interest, as well as being a responsibility, for journalists to minimise reporting of poll-based stories, especially in the final week, which is when many voters are just starting to pay attention and want to know about policies. Parties also have a duty to allow journalists better access.

3. Building on the work of the many websites that tried to make party policies accessible in quiz format during the election campaign, a not-for-profit organisation could devote itself to an online resource keeping track of all parties’ policies, and allow for public feedback.

 

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