Michael Brown: If I were a sitting MP, I'd be scared

Public trust won’t be restored until most of the faces in the Commons are replaced

Share
Related Topics

We shall never know whether the traditional advantage of "incumbency" would have worked in Dr Ian Gibson's favour if he had chosen to seek re-election in Norwich North as an independent.

On every measure the stunning Tory victory cannot be explained away by the pathetic excuses offered by Labour's high command. But the massive stay-at-home Labour vote, which hugely exceeded the increase in the Tory vote share, suggests that the popular personality of Dr Gibson was a major factor in the Labour wipe-out. If he had stood as an independent he might very well have won. It is more likely, however, that he would have split the vote and still ensured a Tory victory.

But any sighs of relief being heaved by MPs caught up in the expenses scandal such as the Tory Julie Kirkbride (reported to be re-considering her decision to stand down), are probably misplaced. Public trust, which might have been implicitly evident in Dr Gibson's case, is unlikely to be restored until most of the faces on all sides of the Commons benches have been replaced at the next election in 283 days time (assuming polling day is 6 May 2010). This has never been a better time for mere parliamentary candidates to stand against incumbent MPs. As David Cameron said on the BBC yesterday, "politicians are more reviled and hated than they have ever been".

By contrast, I recall with horror the utter misery of campaigning as a Tory candidate in Scunthorpe, between 1976 and 1979, against a sitting Labour MP. All formal doors of authority were closed to me. Local authorities and other public bodies – schools and hospitals – would not allow me on their premises. The British Steel Corporation, Scunthorpe's largest employer, would not allow me to visit the local steelworks which then employed 20,000 of my prospective constituents.

Even during the election campaign, the returning officer – the borough council's chief executive – treated me like dirt on the orders of the controlling Labour council. I only knew I was going to win about 20 minutes before the result when his previous contempt changed to obsequious fawning as he realised he would be dealing with me for the rest of his professional life.

Having recently spoken for the Tories in Brigg and Goole, (Lab majority 2,894) – the rump of my old constituency – I found the parliamentary candidate, Andrew Percy, riding the anti- incumbency wave of public opinion by giving public commitments to claim for barely more than a bus ticket. In my day, I would travel to London in grand style in the first-class restaurant car enjoying a taxpayer-provided full English breakfast. Assuming he is elected, Mr Percy, however, will always travel second class.

I was expected to live – beyond my means – in what my late party chairman, Major Clixby Fitzwilliams, once described to me as a house "appropriate for entertaining the local grandees". Mr Percy will probably choose a modest terraced home in Goole. New candidates in all parties will don the hair-shirt and trump the so-called "advantage of incumbency" in many contests, next May, against a sitting member. Unlike me, Mr Percy is already being feted by careerist bureaucrats who no longer treat incumbency with the slavish loyalty of yesteryear.

On the assumption that the Tories win, Mr Cameron will probably have at least 200 new members within his ranks. Only 140 or so of his existing 196 MPs will be returned – thanks to voluntary or enforced retirements. And whereas Margaret Thatcher only needed 40 extra MPs to win, Mr Cameron will need a minimum of 120 in addition to those who will replace retiring Tories. Even the depleted Labour ranks will be reinforced by new replacements for MPs in safe seats. This will result in the largest turnover of MPs since 1945.

Yesterday, it was being reported that several Labour MPs – not just those directly affected by the expenses affair – are even considering resigning between now and the general election to force yet more Norwich North style by-elections. Some are allegedly prepared to stand as independent candidates. This would directly test the extent to which incumbency is still an advantage. Frankly, I am doubtful that such threats will come to anything. An MP resigning now would forfeit the one year pay-off, which Dr Gibson has done, and which is only available to a sitting MP who stands down or is defeated at the General Election.

Meanwhile, Gordon Brown lives in a dreamworld thinking that Royal Assent to the Parliamentary Standards Bill has now restored public trust in politics. The notion that the public will now see their MPs as any more trustworthy today than they were yesterday is laughable. This legislation, emasculated since its original introduction a month ago, makes a nonsense of the Prime Minister's claim that "this is root and branch reform – Parliament will never be the same again".

Like all legislation enacted in haste, it will be superseded by events requiring further changes. In the autumn Sir Christopher Kelly's recommendations from his Committee on Standards in Public Life will be published and may well contradict several of the recent enactments. As Alan Duncan, the shadow Leader of the Commons, warned last week there is an inevitable "looming collision" between the newly created Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and Sir Christopher's committee.

Actually, it was right that MPs rejected the attempt to interfere with parliamentary privilege – the absolute right of MPs to speak in the chamber without their words being admissible in any court proceedings. It was a disgrace that the Government was even prepared to countenance such a measure. Thankfully, this piece of stupidity was defeated by the Commons, albeit with only a majority of three. Even former cabinet ministers Margaret Beckett and John Reid recognised that this was a disgraceful infringement of Parliament's right to free speech.

No legislation, standards authority or complicated rules structure can compete with the hair-shirt of challenging candidates with public promises of personal frugality scaring the wits out of incumbents. Never has the tag "MP" been a bigger millstone around the necks of those seeking re-election.

m.brown@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: English Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: This post arises as a result of the need to...

Tradewind Recruitment: Class Teacher Required ASAP In Uminster

£120 - £150 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: I am recruiting on instruction o...

Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Director - London - £70,000

£70000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Head of Finance - Financial Controller - Fina...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wimbledon, SW London

£24000 - £28000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Executive - Wim...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

I’m not sure I fancy any meal that’s been cooked up by a computer

John Walsh
Labour leader Ed Miliband delivers a speech on his party's plans for the NHS, in Sale, on Tuesday  

Why is Miliband fixating on the NHS when he’d be better off focussing on the wealth gap?

Andreas Whittam Smith
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee
World War Z author Max Brooks honours WW1's Harlem Hellfighters in new graphic novel

Max Brooks honours Harlem Hellfighters

The author talks about race, legacy and his Will Smith film option to Tim Walker
Why the league system no longer measures up

League system no longer measures up

Jon Coles, former head of standards at the Department of Education, used to be in charge of school performance rankings. He explains how he would reform the system
Valentine's Day cards: 5 best online card shops

Don't leave it to the petrol station: The best online card shops for Valentine's Day

Can't find a card you like on the high street? Try one of these sites for individual, personalised options, whatever your taste
Diego Costa: Devil in blue who upsets defences is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

Devil in blue Costa is a reminder of what Liverpool have lost

The Reds are desperately missing Luis Suarez, says Ian Herbert
Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Ashley Giles: 'I'll watch England – but not as a fan'

Former one-day coach says he will ‘observe’ their World Cup games – but ‘won’t be jumping up and down’
Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

Greece elections

In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

Holocaust Memorial Day

Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

Magnetic north

The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness