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Imagine this job description. “Wanted: experienced professional to work fourteen-hours, six days a week (including four days per week away from home). Required skills include mastery of policy, legal knowledge, communication, organising and management. Must be willing to commit to five years, but without job security or a career ladder. Performance evaluations will be delivered by anonymous reviewers over Twitter, and the role comes with threats of physical violence. Salary: £74,962, non-negotiable.”
Six hundred and fifty men and women are Members of Parliament and, therefore, accepted this position.
It has become fashionable to talk them down; “lazy, work-shy,” and “in it for themselves” are common critiques.
Politicians are less trusted than estate agents, journalists and bankers; only 21% of Britons surveyed by Ipsos MORI in January 2017 trusted politicians to tell the truth.
They are treated with derision by commentators, interviewers and pundits, who revel in their ostensible stupidity. Both malevolent and incompetent, politicians are portrayed as Bond villains and Basil Fawlty simultaneously.
The rage is bubbling over. 2017 saw a spike in threats of physical violence, and sometimes even death threats, directed towards our elected representatives. According to a BBC poll after the 2017 general election, 51% of MPs said it had been the “worst [campaign] they had ever experienced.” 41 out of 47 Conservative MPs said they had been targeted aggressively. 87% of all MPs said they faced some sort of abuse, women and people of colour were disproportionately targeted, and death threats were common. One person told a woman Conservative candidate that he would “put [her] in a coffin.”
In 2010, Stephen Timms MP was stabbed whilst meeting with his constituents and, in 2016 Jo Cox MP was murdered.
Nicky Morgan, the Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, declared this December that “something is going badly wrong in our democracy at the moment.”
Politicians are not blameless for the diminution of their own standing, and they know it. The Iraq War, the expenses scandal, naked political ambition and the more recent reports of sexual assault all factor into a general sense that politicians aren’t working for the people.
But, by and large, they are. Here are some recent examples: Robert Halfon (Conservative) was the first MP to hire an apprentice and has campaigned tirelessly for apprenticeships as a path to success, including setting up the Parliamentary Academy; Stella Creasy (Labour) has attacked the leeches of payday loans; and hundreds of MPs fight tirelessly for their constituencies, like Ed Davey’s (Liberal Democrat) mission to save the A&E at Kingston Hospital.
“How do they spend their time?” is a common challenge, and MPs haven’t done enough to explain the answer.
If it was to be broken down into broad categories, ‘constituency work’ (representing constituents in matters of housing, immigration, social services and more) takes up at least two days’ per week, ‘surgeries’ (formal meetings with constituents) takes another day, ‘reviewing, editing, debating and passing national legislation’ takes at least two days, which leaves one day for meetings / events / party work. And this assumes a six-day week.
‘Political plotting,’ is a significantly smaller focus than most people think.
One MP, who has been in the Commons for many years, told me last month that “representing [her] constituents has been the honour of [her] life. Seeing how angry they are, often at me, is the great tragedy of it.”
Understanding why MPs face so much hostility is complex. It is partly the result of their own mistakes. It is also partly the fault of the Westminster journalism lobby, who are obsessed with political intrigue and like to write stories about the ups-and-downs inside Britain’s ‘House of Cards.’
More broadly, though, parliament is both a mirror and a vent. In its divisions, in its prejudices and in its failings, it is a mirror to wider British society: it is, for example, no surprise that MPs don’t know which way to take Brexit since the public itself is deeply divided.
It is also a vent for the angry, frustrated and disenfranchised. MPs provide highly visible, yet surprisingly powerless, authority figures to blame. In the era of social media, those with grievances can take them out on a member of parliament by simply tweeting “I’ll kill you.”
I hope that 2018 is the year when we begin to treat our servants – our public servants – better. As Tony Blair, someone who himself embodies our love-hate relationship with politicians, said in his final Prime Minister’s Questions: “Some may belittle politics, but we know it is where people stand tall. And, although I know it has its many harsh contentions, it is still the arena which sets the heart beating fast. It may sometimes be a place of low skulduggery, but it is more often a place for more noble causes.”
Benjamin Clayton is a Fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He was previously Chief of Staff at the British Government’s National Infrastructure Commission.