This MP is a prime example of a minority: Village idiots

I’m not entirely sure what to make of today’s sketch by Quentin Letts, which is centers on the very Mail idea of ‘fairness’:

“The equality maniacs are rampant. If they have their way it will be quotas at every turn, all-ethnic shortlists, ‘equality audits’ in political parties and a limit of four parliamentary terms per MP before enforced retirement kicks in. All to speed up the process of ‘making Parliament more representative’.”

Now, on the one hand, I can totally agree with him that quotas and all-ethnic shortlists are bad things, not least because being discriminatory in the name of equal opportunities  seems perverse. But on the other, is there anyone who’s against Parliament being more representative? Here’s Richard Littlejohn on the subject a year ago:

“Straw’s government introduced one-sided devolution and uses Scottish MPs to force upon the English laws which do not apply to their own constituents. The English have no say in what happens on the Scottish side of the border, yet are expected to pick up the lion’s share of the bill.”

Indeed, don’t we want to make public bodies in general more representative of the people they serve? Here’s Stephen Glover, last month:

“Our publicly-funded broadcaster can’t succeed if it is run by a narrow sect unrelated to the values of the people it is supposed to serve and inspire.”

In Letts’ defence, I haven’t found him speaking out previously in favour of greater representativeness anywhere, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt, but his is certainly an interesting position to take in a newspaper otherwise so scrupulously defensive of rights of representation. Particularly when discussing a committee which has yet to decide anything yet – the sketch outlined a session of the Speaker’s Conference, not its report. None of the dim future he foresees has yet come to pass. Who knows, on the back of this article he may be invited to outline his objections and alternatives.

At which point he would be stuck. I think the last time I looked at the sketch, I was mildly depressed by its negativity, and it’s got no better:

“When Mr Bercow was discussing bigots he put on an Alf Garnett-style accent. Of course, Mr Bercow himself is a prime example of a minority: Village idiots.”

Which dismisses Bercow’s point (about bigots in the media), but doesn’t engage with it. In a similar fashion, Letts takes snide pot shots at the idea of speeding along representative equity without ever saying why it’s a bad thing or what his alternative is. The people on the Conference are lampooned, but to what effect? If the ideas are so obviously wrong, it should be an easy task for him to knock them down, but instead he targets the village idiot, the “purple-nosed Solomon, that leathery fool Speaker Martin”, the “TUC sister”, the “suave charmer” who runs the organisation that “costs £70million of our money a year”. The only times he put forward an argument is when dealing with side issues like the suggestion that there should be limits on service in Parliament or whether or not Parliament contains gay role models.

Now, there’s a debate to be had in this area, and it’s quite an interesting one: for instance, does a political system based on constituencies need to pay heed to matters of diversity, or do we feel that our unity of locality neutralises our other differences? If we do feel we need a more representative parliament, can we achieve this in a first-past-the-post system where regional minorities are always at an electoral disadvantage? Can we legitimately restrict the franchise in the name of encouraging diversity, be it through quotas or any other method? Is the most we can do mere encouragement to stand for Parliament, or is even this affirmative action demeaning and discriminatory? It’s clear from the quotes he selects and the tone of his piece that Quentin has questions like this to ask, but we don’t get them, only the bashing of people who should be considering such questions. It’s probably more a failing of the sketch as a genre than of this one in particularly, but it feels like aa cop out.

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Would life as a librarian not better suit these invisible MPs?

Quentin Letts names and shames those that truly deserve it

“Then there are the likes of Mr Campbell (Lab, Tynemouth), Hon Members who so rarely leap to their hind hooves to shout up for their constituents that you wonder why they ever sought public office. Would life as a librarian not have suited them better?”

Which, on one level, is fair enough: trusting the ever vigilant theyworkforyou.com, Campbell has spoken in less debates than the average MP¹ However, although it may seem this way to a man whose job it is to watch debates, it’s not a competition. Not only does “Labour MP from Bradford, Terry Rooney … seldom catches the scorer’s eye“, no one does. There is no scorer.

The point was very well made by several constituents of Ilford North, who jumped to their MP’s defence in the online comments box². To take a reductio ad absurdum, a MP who spoke only in debates would be a very poor one: there are committees to sit on, votes to pass, written question to ask, policy forums to influence, local surgeries to hold, constituents to meet, visit and listen to, and so on. Merely speaking in debates is a very small component.³

Looking Alan Campbell, the brunt of Letts’ disdain, speaking in debates is also a poor proxy for ministerial effectiveness, which presumably has a much bigger ‘doing’ component than it does a ‘talking about’ part. Given that Mr Campbell had previously held a handful of small-scale back-office governmental positions, it’s not surprising that he’s now holding a minor back-office position at the Home Office. Again, as a reductio, would we prefer a ‘political personality’ like George Galloway to be working beneath stairs or someone with a bit of a track record quietly dealing with small bits of government?

Especially considering the magnitude of the position in question (Parliamentary Under-Secretary), the conclusion that all you have to do is ‘Keep your mouth shut..keep your nose clean…advance past go” towards some sort of golden stipend is something of an exaggeration. The glory is slight, the recompense inconsiderable.

This series of slights on MPs and belittlement of new ministers is a long way to go to pay a complement to Phil Woolas. A new favourite of the Mail for speaking their mind on immigration (or, as Letts puts it, having “a dash of mustard in his snout“), this column sees him already half-martyred, outlived by the unassuming Mr Campbell. Which leaves us with Letts’ own reductio – would you rather the unshowy administrator or the careless interviewee?

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¹ Interestingly, both non-Labour MPs picked on here do quite well on the ‘speaking in debates’ front, with both clocking up momre than 20 appearances in the last year.

² ” I have to tell you that in his Constituency of Ilford North, Lee is extremely well known“, say Irene Dunkley of Woodford Green Essex. “He’s a very diligent and helpful constituency MP, he has spoken in the Chamber on many occasions, and having worked hard on the Transport Select Committee is now an equally lively member of the Health Select Committee.” expanded D McDonald of Ilford, Essex.

³ Back at theyworkforyou, all of the named MPs are come out as ‘above average’ on some measure of involvement. Three of them also have websites in which they contrive to look very busy (Alan Campbell, Paul Truswell, Lee Scott). If anyone would like to email them to see what it is they do all day, I’m sure they’d be happy to inform you – theyworkforyou has all their contact details. [Other political websites are available]