How to choose your MP?

This morning I gave a talk to the Sixth Form at Chew Valley School in Somerset. I wanted to encourage them to vote. Many people despair of politicians and believe it is not worth voting because (a) politicians are all the same, (b) they are in it for themselves and (c) voting makes no difference. But after researching Parliament for five years since 2010 I think all three assumptions are nonsense:

·      MPs are all different: The political parties still spend money on completely different things, which dramatically affects, who gains and who loses out in society, but also individual MPs vary hugely. For example, I have found that women MPs spend more time meeting their constituents than men do. Some MPs have had long careers, others have only had political jobs. Most work incredibly hard, a few are lazy and concerned with looking rather than being busy.

·      MPs are not in it for themselves any more or less than any one else. Half the new MPs in 2010 took a pay cut. Increasing numbers often rebel against their party even though it may reduce their chance of getting a job in government. They are very similar to people I have worked with in charities. They want to improve society. Whether they do or not is a matter of opinion but they are well-intentioned. Politicians are different in having thicker skins and more optimism than the rest of us, but morally they are similar to anyone aiming to do public service.

·      Everything is continually changing: This country has completely changed since I was a child and it is partly due to politicians. Some of the change is good, some not. But the point is that if we want to leave it entirely to politicians, then we deny ourselves the possibility of influencing them. Government does get things wrong – politicians get arrogant, especially when they have been in power for a while. Parliament challenges them but it does so much more effectively if we citizens get involved.

If you are going to vote, I told Chew Valley students, here are my suggestions for what to look for or ask them:

·      What do they believe in? Their political party will reveal some of their beliefs. But since most MPs only agree with their parties some of the time, and MPs increasingly fail to follow their party line, you have to look at their specific election material. Almost all parliamentary candidates have websites so google them and see whether their causes seem persuasive and well-chosen. Email candidates about something you feel strongly about. A few days ago I emailed four about whether they would stop companies dodging taxes and I have two replies so far. One was irritating, one was quite good.

·      What experience and skills are they bringing to the job? This relates to any job interview – we might want to know whether our MP has the capacity to be a good MP. What kind of previous work experience have they had and will they be able to use it in Parliament? Do they seem to have dedication, an ability to listen, some charisma, or whatever other qualities you think might make them a good representative, campaigner, scrutineer of government or Minister? Will they continue or create other work beyond their MP role at the same time?

·       How do they see the job and what do they plan to do when in Parliament? They will probably try and get a government job as Minister if their party is in government. They might plan to sit on a select committee looking at a specific government department like health or education. They might campaign on international, national or local issues. Whatever happens, they will be representing you and 1000s of others in your constituency in Parliament. 100 years ago MPs visited their constituency once a year, now they are expected to come fortnightly or even weekly to address problems, find solutions and then take issues back to Westminster. How much time do they plan to give to constituency work? How will they represent the diverse interests and views in the constituency? How will they find out what different people think and want?

If you would like to know more then please email questions or comments to ec15@soas.ac.uk. Or read my new book out mid April – House of Commons: an anthropology of MPs at work, published by Bloomsbury.