In defence of Westminster - why we should go easier on our politicians

MPs are very industrious and increasingly in touch with and responsive to public opinion... yes, really

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The Independent Online

Yesterday, David Cameron suggested that MPs “overwhelmingly” enter Westminster for the right reasons and that they are motivated to help those “less fortunate”.

This was no great thundering defense of Westminster; no special virtue was claimed for MPs. This was merely the humble suggestion that our political representatives are a pretty decent bunch, and that perhaps, just perhaps, we could go a bit easier on them. Beneath a posting of the article, someone had commented: “dream on”.

Cameron’s comments may be modest, but they fly in the face of the public mood. Britons have grown enormously cynical about their politicians. Polling has found that a mere 10 per cent of the public believe that politicians are in it to do their best for their country. By contrast, nearly half agree that politicians are in it for themselves. So much for public service.  

Disaffection with politicians in general and Westminster in particular is now mainstream. Nigel Farage has been deftly harnessing it for years, railing against Westminster elites. Russell Brand has built a political reputation upon outlandish denunciations of Parliament, labelling it with great imagination “a deeply encoded temple of hegemonic power”. In Owen Jones’ latest offering, Parliamentarians feature as prominent members of a nefarious establishment; the book is a bestseller.

Aside from David Cameron, there seem to be few voices defending this ancient British institution. Yet there are plenty of things to admire about Parliament and Westminster politicians.

First, MPs are very industrious. According to Hansard, the 2010 intake work, on average, 69 hours a week plus 10 hours of travel.

Second, more of these working hours are devoted to MPs’ constituencies than ever before. Decades ago, the amount of time MPs spent in their constituencies varied greatly. Anthony Eden only visited his constituency once a year. Yet nowadays, constituency casework takes up the greatest share of MPs’ time, followed by constituency meetings and events. This means greater accountability to their electors.

Third, as forms of democratic governance go, Westminster is a bargain. MPs are paid less than half what their French and Italian counterparts are and markedly less than those in Greece or Germany.

Fourth, Westminster is increasingly in touch with and responsive to public opinion (yes, really). While there are downsides to constant polling and endless focus groups, the upside is that politicians have a much better grasp of what the public thinks on the key policy questions of the day and this is more likely to influence political decision-making. The Syria vote was a case in point, where public opinion swung Parliament against military intervention. Even where politicians do not vote with the grain of public opinion, they are now grimly aware of that they are doing so. Forgot whether they know the price of milk; knowing what the public thinks matters much more.

Of course there are problems with Westminster. MPs are not nearly representative enough of an increasingly diverse Britain. Too much electoral effort is focused upon a small set of marginal seats. On balance though, the prevailing extreme negativity about Westminster is not justified.