ON THE ROLE OF AN MP
On Friday morning I discussed the role of an MP with a roomful of eleven and twelve year olds. A girl from Patterdale suggested I was there to improve rural services. A boy from Skelton focused on the cost of fuel. They explained the difficulty of making a profit in a village shop. And they had strong ideas about the constitution. ‘Your job is to advise the Prime Minister,’ suggested a boy from Stainton. ‘Your boss is the Prime Minister: it’s his money you’re spending,’ suggested a girl. But when I asked ‘Who are really my bosses?’ they turned this on its head. ‘We are,’ they replied. ‘What would happen if I just sat around drinking coffee?’ ‘We’d vote you out’. ‘Whose money am I really spending?’ ‘Ours.’
If I’m lucky enough to still be around in seven years time, I would enjoy representing the next generation of voters. But perhaps I could have explained an MP’s role better not with theory but by showing them what I do hour by hour. I did this for a student from Kirkby Stephen grammar school. He came with me from the primary school meeting to Penrith Hospital to hear about breast-screening in Carlisle and the new GP-commissioning process; then to Eamont Bridge, to examine flood protection; then to East Cumbria Family Support’s AGM and then to the Environment Agency. He wasn’t able to attend the morning meeting on Newton Rigg, see the 14 people who came to the surgeries that afternoon, or come to the speech at Longtown Memorial Hall that evening. But he sat through discussions on clinical procedures and survey data; tender and procurement processes for child-care; and mathematical modelling of river flows. I wonder what he concluded.
What would he have thought of the Newton Rigg meeting for example? It was I think the fiftieth meeting I have had on Newton Rigg with academics, farmers and Ministers from Cheshire to London. And many, many Cumbrians. Martin Holdgate has written and Richard Inglewood has led an entire report on its future; Ann Risman has campaigned for it across the country; the staff themselves have offered to take a pay cut and have their own plan; Catherine Anderson has been chasing the issue every day for months; the County Council has seconded full-time staff; Gordon Nicolson and Kevin Douglas from the District Council have convened a new group to develop a Cumbrian solution.I have been trying to establish whether Newton Rigg is really losing four million pounds a year, as the last Vice-Chancellor implied and if not, what the University is doing. This has involved everything from Freedom of Information requests to asking friends to examine accounts in Carlisle and Lancaster. Then, we have been trying to choose a legal status and partner for Newton Rigg. We need to make sure the college not the university keeps the valuable farmland. We do not want another forced marriage: Newton Rigg had suffered badly from its relationships with the University of Central Lancaster and Cumbria. But it is going to struggle on its own. Could we match the college with a partner, who wants the relationship, is wealthy enough to underwrite the deficit, understands land-based education and isn’t going to asset-strip and leave?
What kind of role is that for an MP? A cross between an intelligence officer and a marriage broker? And how would you explain the other fifteen meetings on Friday? The East Cumbria Family Support meeting was about trying to analyse the detail of government policies on charities; Eamont Bridge was assessing engineering work. In the meeting with Sainsbury’s, I was like a pedantic lawyer, pushing for a promise that the access to the old town centre from their car park would be ‘direct’, ‘immediate’ and ‘pedestrian’. In broadband meetings, I am raising money.
Would the children have seen a pattern in all these roles? What expectations do they have on how an MP should use his time? It is easy to lurch between optimism and pessimism: to think politicians could construct a perfect state or do nothing at all. But my sense is that politics starts from an awareness of limits. A sense of what politicians don’t know and of risks. It is an exercise in juggling roles, managing your own ignorance, and choosing competing goods and between lesser evils. We do best when we are reinforcing energies which are already there without us. It might not have been an easy lesson for a primary school but I feel it would have been the most honest way of explaining what we are trying to do.