Wednesday, 20 May 2009

What is a backbench MP for?

I was chatting to a Labour Councillor of my acquaintance recently. He is a well informed and asserted that he got more case work than a particular MP he knows. I was intrigued by this suggestion. It has struck me over the last 20 years that with all the quangos, arms length organisations and privatisations that have been created the balance of power has shifted away from local councillors. As a result folk are more likely to go to their MP with a complaint about, say, the water company, than they are to come to a councillor. Now granted that the backbench MP he was talking about has not got a desperately high profile and (at present enjoys a safe seat) probably does not advertise him/herself in the way that a Lib Dem MP or an MP in a marginal seat might do. If so why is s/he there? They are not seeking ministerial advancement. Select committees are feeble things and certainly not an alternative career structure as they are in the States. I doubt they would find much satisfaction in putting down the toadying questions that the whips hand out.

All this could change . If the House of Commons became a real vital part of our democracy; holding public hearings, confirming ministers or quango chiefs in office etc, then clearly that would be a proper job and the MPs whose sole fulfilling role is to do their casework would be drawn into a meaningful contribution. What then would happen to there 'super social worker' role if they had a proper 'day job' to do?

I guess that strengthening local democracy and accountability is part of the answer. Local councillors should and could be responsible for local casework and if they had real influence they might bend their minds to fixing the problems that give rise to the queries in the first place. Part of fixing the constitution is to clear what the role of MPs is that are not ministers or waiting to be minister. We will not get good folk to stand if we send them to Westminster to have the minds numbed.