Dear Chief Secretary to the Treasury,
I'm afraid to tell you there's no money left.
Signed, Liam Byrne

(Outgoing Labour Chief Secretary to the Treasury. May 2010)

Thursday, 4 February 2010

Tower Block of Commons.

In this new four-part series the MPs leave Westminster and their comfortable homes to live for eight days and nights in tower blocks on different council estates in some of Britain's most deprived neighbourhoods. They will be living alongside and meeting a wide range of residents on the estates and coming face-to-face with issues that affect their lives: including gangs, immigration, drug addiction, poverty, crime, housing and unemployment.
The group of MPs in the first programme, which covered their first 48 hours on the estate, were Austin Mitchell (Lab) (in Hull), Ian Duncan Smith (Tory), Mark Oaten (Lib Dem) (in Dagenham) and Tim Loughton (Tory) (in Birmingham).

Ian Duncan Smith had to pull out because his wife needed some urgent medical treatment - please let her recover - so the first programme only looked at the experiences of three MPs.

They were meant to lodge with residents, but Austin Mitchell declined - and also brought his wife and his car along, she also took responsibility of sorting out their flat.

Each of the MPs was meant to hand over their personal goodies - cash, mobile phones, credit cards and so on, and they did - except Austin Mitchell and his wife who were filmed surrounded by newspapers and using a laptop.

The MPs were expected to wear clothes provided by their hosts, which was a bit of a culture shock, but they went along with it if only because they were advised that suits would lead to unpleasantness - but Austin Mitchell declined, because he'd already bought himself a leather jacket, and Tim Loughton decided to keep his deck shoes - he even checked with a newsagent that they looked okay.

To be honest, Austin Mitchell came across as a bit of a coward - unable to live without his creature comforts and his wife for eight days and even unwilling to visit the local eateries. Imagine what he'd be like on a camping holiday or in the military.

One thing that was particularly striking was that the young people in the programme knew virtually nothing about Parliament, had never seen pictures of Big Ben and they had no idea who their MP was - and these people have been through an education system that uses the National Curriculum which includes "Citizenship". KS3 Citizenship is outlined as follows :-
Education for citizenship equips young people with the knowledge, skills and understanding to play an effective role in public life. Citizenship encourages them to take an interest in topical and controversial issues and to engage in discussion and debate. Pupils learn about their rights, responsibilities, duties and freedoms and about laws, justice and democracy. They learn to take part in decision-making and different forms of action. They play an active role in the life of their schools, neighbourhoods, communities and wider society as active and global citizens.
The C4 website carries both testimonials and interviews from Mark Oaten and Tim Loughton. They are remarkably honest. Let's look at what Tim Loughton says
it was an exercise in showing communities which are clearly fairly disenfranchised and disengaged from politicians and the political process, to show them that actually, you can use MPs and other elected representatives to try and bring about change in your community. MPs are for everybody, and this is what the programme is partly about.
and, quite damningly for the current MP
It was Clare Short's seat, although nobody actually knew who their MP was. If that was my constituency, I would have been very, very worried about that. She's been the MP there for 26 years.
And now for Mark Oaten
I went along with the BNP when they were canvassing in one episode, to get a sense of what people were saying to them. It was very seductive. The BNP guys were basically saying 'You must be fed up with your house, you must be fed up with these living conditions. Do you understand if there were less people we could build houses, we could move you out of here. Why don't you vote BNP?'

And what I discovered, really, was that people were not racist, they were voting for the BNP because they were fed up with the other parties, and were desperate to get out of the tower blocks. They were looking for anybody that would say anything which might give them a glimmer of hope.
It has changed me as a MP. I feel less powerful and have less answers in many ways – it is a experience I would definitely recommend to other MPs – it helps to get you beyond the 20 minute surgery appointment and means a rural MP can understand an urban area better. Perhaps all MPs should swap seats every now and then to get an idea of the different issues facing different communities.
It will be interesting to see what Austin Mitchell has to say, because so far there is nothing from him on the C4 site, perhaps he has been too busy to comment or be interviewed, There is however his profile. There is nothing, yet, from Nadine Dorries either, possibly because her involvement has not yet been broadcast.

Let's hope that other MPs, of all parties, take the time to watch this series or at least discuss it with those who have taken part - because each and every one of them, new or old, needs to take off their rose-tinted specs and see the country, and 'society', they have created in the last 13 years. They also need to understand that it isn't just those who live in inner city tower blocks who are unhappy, disenchanted and feel as if they are disenfranchised.

As an aside ...

It's interesting, don't you think, in Harriet Harman's equal-opportunity, diverse, equal-voice, quota-driven, times that of the 646 who work at Westminster - of whom 349 are Labour, 193 are Conservative and 63 are Liberal Democrats - giving a ratio of approx 5.5 : 3.1 : 1  and of those 646 there were 15 MPs elected at the 2005 general election from an ethnic minority - the programme makers chose 1 Labour MP, 2 Tory MPs, and 1 Lib Dem MP as a  fair cross section of our Parliamentary representatives.


418 said...

We get the MPs we deserve. I am just about sick of the MPs we have. They are there because "communities which are clearly fairly disenfranchised and disengaged" are allowed to vote. The time has come to reform politics completely: this means that most people in those communities will be completely disenfranchised. The voting qualification need not be Victorian: in my view the franchise should be restricted to those with two 'A' levels or equivalent or who pay higher rate income tax. There would be far fewer voters but they would be of a much better quality and more engaged; fewer voters would mean we would need fewer MPs. The number of MPs should be reduced to about 125 members each with a constituency of about half a million people (only some of whom would be voters). 125 may seem mean but the USA House of Representatives only has 435 congresspeople, one for each district of about 700,000. When it comes to MPs, less really does mean more.

Mrs R said...

You sound very much like somebody we know, who suggested that only those paying, or who have paid, income tax should be eligible to vote - but it's a non-starter, not only because it doesn't seem right to disenfranchise people just because they don't earn. What about, for example, women who choose not to work to raise their family? How would you deal with that situation - not all are riff-raff.

The academic qualification wouldn't be workable because there are plenty of decent people in this country who left school at 15 or 16 and have never wanted, or needed, to further their education.

But then ... if people choose not to exercise their right to vote could the right lapse?

Whatever happens at the next election it's likely there will be changes to both the voting system and the number of MPs, let's also hope there's something in it for England. ;)

418 said...

Disenfranchising someone because they don't earn seems like an excellent idea and for some would prove a powerful incentive to get back to work!

Women who choose not to work to raise their family or for any other reason are either trust fund beneficiaries or married, n'est-ce pas? Income tax paid by trustees can be counted toward the franchise; same thing for tax paid on dividends and interest. In the interests of equality as well as to promote the indivisibility of the married couple, if one spouse has the vote then the other should also whether or not he or she is a homebody. This should exclude the riff-raff.

I agree it's a non-starter but only because there is no politician with the nerve. Maggie the Thatch came close with her community charge and the rest, as they say, is hosiery.

Mrs R said...

"Disenfranchising someone because they don't earn seems like an excellent idea and for some would prove a powerful incentive to get back to work!"

Not really, not if they can't be bothered to use their vote and have a comfy enough lifestyle without needing to earn their keep.

418 said...

Listen to her, she's right! The rarer the right to vote, however, the more it will be cherished; even by the feckless, the comfy, the gilded and the young. Which makes me wonder if 18 is too young an age at which to vote; better push that up a bit so even if one does get one's 'A' levels at 17, got to wait until 21 or 25 before casting a vote to determine the nation's future.