Leading Article: Lessons from an untimely death

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IN A RATIONAL world, John Smith's death would inspire serious soul-searching among MPs about their parliamentary as well as their life styles. Reactions to the Labour leader's fatal heart attack revealed a level of cross-party affection and respect that must have surprised a public accustomed to the bear-garden atmosphere of the Commons in its normal mode. That same public would undoubtedly like to see more mutual respect on view during parliamentary debates.

John Major in Scotland yesterday caught something of the popular mood when he expressed distaste for politicians 'fighting like ferrets in a sack' and said that there was 'too much knocking, too much carping and too much sneering' by public figures. He was right, and no doubt politicians of all complexions will wish to be associated with his remarks. But the test of their sincerity will come after Mr Smith's funeral, when normal political life is resumed. How long before the mud starts flying once again?

MPs should also ponder the emphasis laid in most tributes to Mr Smith on his decency, integrity and sense of real anger at social injustice. The implication, generally unspoken, was not merely that Mr Smith had these qualities to an unusual degree, but that he was rare in having them at all.

It is not news that politicians are held in poor esteem and widely considered to be cynically opportunistic. Such accusations, sweeping though they may be, are reinforced by procedural tricks such as those involved in killing the private member's Disabled Persons Bill earlier this week. There was no decency, integrity or feeling for social justice in that action.

No one will ever know whether Mr Smith would have lived significantly longer had he remained a full-time barrister. Probably he would have: there is general agreement that the working schedules and associated life styles of both back- and frontbench MPs is not conducive to good health. When the Commons is sitting, votes tend to be taken at 10pm and onwards, with debates often continuing past midnight - even occasionally all night. That is not a sensible way for men and women often in their fifties and sixties to shape national legislation. On top of that, backbenchers sometimes have to sit on committees in the mornings, when all MPs have constituency business to deal with, involving dozens of letters, casework and visiting constituents.

Lobbyists pushing this or that worthy or disreputable cause add to the burden of visitors for ministers and frontbenchers. On Friday it is usually off to the constituency for the weekend. That can involve a drive there and back of 700 miles. If the family lives in a distant constituency, that will be the only chance to see it, too. For such weekday bachelors, both the losses and the temptations are obvious. They include killing too much time in Commons bars and restaurants, no humanising family influence, and not nearly enough exercise. It is a schedule that deters many good people, especially women, from contemplating a political career.

Since MPs quickly grow attached to the strange customs of their club, it will not be easy to persuade them to adopt more sensible hours, as one or two attempts have shown. Sittings that began in the morning, they argue, would simply displace important work relating to their constituency, which might have to be done in the evenings. Many would also query the damage done by stress: one person's strain is another person's stimulus.

Yet something manifestly needs to be done. Mr Smith was the sixth MP to die this year, the others being four Labour MPs (James Boyce, Jo Richardson, Ron Leighton and Bob Cryer) and one Conservative, Stephen Milligan. Michael Heseltine happily recovered from the heart attack he suffered in Venice last June. The pressures are damaging not just the health of politicians, but the political health of the nation. If MPs' lives are abnormal, their work suffers. Let Mr Smith's death be a catalyst for change.