Michael Brown: Gimmicks won't make Tory politicians worldly wise

'Mr Maude is another who thinks dressing up in the clothes of ordinary people can help understanding'
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How does the Conservative Party make its new leader, Iain Duncan Smith, look sexy and "in touch" with the rest of us? Francis Maude, a former shadow foreign secretary, thinks he has the answer. But watch out if you are waking up in hospital following an operation. Mr Maude's proposal is for a Tory MP to stand over you complete with bedpan and mop.

Interviewed last week for the political website Epolitix, Mr Maude suggested that the Parliamentary Conservative Party, frontbench and backbench, should "immerse" themselves in the public services by becoming classroom assistants and ancillary health service workers for prolonged periods. "Spending the next two years really immersing themselves – and actually not just the senior politicians. I mean right through the parliamentary party en masse, going off and really immersing ourselves in the health service, in the way state schools run, living it, breathing it, feeling it, touching it."

Oh no, Francis, please! I can think of nothing more gruesome or gimmicky than sick people being "touched" in hospital by Ann Widdecombe, Michael Howard, Nicholas Soames or Douglas Hogg and all the rest, got up in white overalls, feeling their pain. This is a quick fix designed to go horribly wrong from the start.

Mr Maude is yet another in a long line of politicians who think that dressing up in the clothes of ordinary people for a few hours every day can suddenly transform their understanding. Part of this is due to guilt from his hard-line past. When Mr Maude was climbing quickly up the greasy pole of ministerial careers he did so by stressing his macho Thatcherite "if it isn't hurting, it isn't working" style. He now seems to be undergoing a conversion to the real world of "touchy-feely" politics such as occurred when, during his short exile from politics and before his election as MP for Kensington and Chelsea, Michael Portillo worked for three shifts as a hospital porter.

There is no hard evidence, however, as to whether Mr Maude has actually followed his own advice by setting a personal example to other Tory MPs. And even for Mr Portillo, who was planning another stint on the ward the weekend after the final parliamentary ballot, boredom with such gimmicks seemed to set in. Once he had lost the leadership race, the night in the hospital ward was reported as being quickly replaced by a visit to the opera.

But even in the 1980s, lesser backbenchers were already trying out this current approach to be "more ordinary and in touch". It all began when a fellow journalist and former MP, Matthew Parris, and I were elected in 1979. Matthew decided to try to see whether he could live in the North-east on unemployment benefit for a week. I also tried my hand variously as a milkman, a butcher (during the BSE crisis), a steelworker and a ship's pilot. I went down coal mines, drove a combine harvester, road tested a 40-ton lorry and delivered the Christmas post by bike in the pouring rain. Hardly a week went by when the Grimsby Evening Telegraph did not see me photographed in all manner of overalls and funny hats.

All my exercises in on-the-job training came to an end. At the completion of each task I resumed my day job and continued throughout to draw my salary as a member of Parliament. I arrived at each location in my comfortable Jaguar and escaped every evening to the comfort of my pleasant country house in my erstwhile constituency. But it was escapism because I knew that I was not going to be doing badly paid, repetitive jobs for more than a temporary period.

The essential thing about doing other people's jobs is that it must be with no prospect that we can escape from them. To "immerse" oneself in the reality of another person's working life, to "live it, breathe it, feel it, touch it", requires experiencing the domestic conditions, the grotty council block, the bus service and the pay that go with the job.

The point was brought home to me starkly by one disgruntled postwoman who recognised a politician's stunt when she saw one. She would be finishing her shift and returning to a small council flat in Grimsby in her A-reg Fiesta. She could not really afford to run the car, but there was no public transport to get her to the sorting office for 5am. Her husband was unemployed and they had a disabled daughter. To some extent, once she got to work, wet, boring and repetitive though her duties were, she was able to leave behind, momentarily, the difficulties of balancing the family budget.

Accusing me of wasting both her time and mine, she wanted to know why I was not doing my "proper" job of looking after my constituents. Remonstrating that I wanted to get to know what a postie's life was really like, I got my come-uppance. "Well, you will only know if you stop being a politician and do this, indefinitely, with no chance of escape," she said.

And there's the rub. So long as MPs know they will escape, there is a limit to their experience of "the real world". This was the final conclusion of Matthew Parris's unemployment experience. After his week on benefit, he was back on his MP's pay. So is there any way we can get our MPs to see the real world as the rest of us live it? Frankly, probably not. But that should not prevent MPs from being able to get to grips with understanding how the other half lives without opening themselves to charges of hypocrisy. This is bound to be the likely fate, next month, for David Willetts, the Conservatives' social security spokesman who is planning to stay overnight on some of Britain's worst sink estates.

There is something about the Lady Bountiful to this approach to politics which, inevitably, leads to ridicule. It was bad enough when the Queen descended on an "ordinary" family in Glasgow where she took tea. Replete in hat and white gloves, she did more to enhance the impression of two nations than if she had not have bothered. Even worse, the former French president, Giscard d'Estaing (of all people) used to drop in for dinner on a hapless refuse cleaner or other public servant, creating chaos and embarrassment in his wake.

The best way for MPs to "see for themselves" is simply to use the public services. I learned more about the horrors of our public transport system after my House of Commons car park permit was taken away from me after my election defeat. The withdrawal of all chauffeur-driven cars for ministers, and the concreting over of the Westminster underground car park, forcing everyone in Parliament to use the Tube, buses and trains, would transform the fortunes for public transport quicker than any MP dressing up a bus driver or a train guard.

But Tory MPs, especially, are riding for a fall with this nonsense. All the while they are on the wards or in the classroom, they will be pray to only one question from journalists, nurses and teachers. "So do you have private health insurance Mr Maude, and where do you educate your own children?" MPs should stick to their day job and maybe hold some extra surgeries.