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Coffee House

Parliament itself shouldn’t drag MPs down

24 January 2014

2:56 PM

24 January 2014

2:56 PM

The conventional image of Parliament is of a grand, imposing building packed with ancient traditions. The reality for those who work in it isn’t quite so glamorous: mouse-infested offices, administrative chaos, and weeks of camping in committee rooms when you first arrive as an MP. Even though Parliament has been around for much longer than modern companies, it still has the internal feel of a start-up that just accidentally spiralled into something much bigger, with MPs fending for themselves when it comes to employing and managing their staff, for instance. I write about the way that this chaos makes the job of an MP just that bit less attractive to continue doing in my Telegraph column today.

Now, it’s easy to mock MPs for complaining about their working conditions when they are paid far more than the average salary, can enjoy hefty outside earnings from directorships, and can, if they’re not deathly dull, enjoy some quite nice hospitality from journalists, lobbyists and other sorts who inhabit their bubble. But the problem is that if Parliament itself is a bit chaotic, and you’ve come into politics from a better-paid profession to work longer hours and read a stream of abuse about you on social media, then you might be forgiven for wondering whether the career change and pay cut were worth it. It is quite revealing when talking to members of the 2010 intake of Conservative MPs, for instance, that many of them become distinctly despondent not about their prospects for promotion or whether the PM talked to or looked at them recently (that sort of anxiety tends to manifest itself primarily among the 2005 intake, who feel they have more reason to be bitter on both counts) but just about the sheer frustrations of trying to do their job. If Parliament wants to represent wider society, perhaps modernisation of the way it is run wouldn’t be the worst step.

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But even before MPs turn up, slightly giddy with excitement and exhaustion after an election campaign, they’ve already been filtered by the demands of campaigning. I spoke to three former candidates for the Tories, Labour and the Lib Dems late last year for Radio 4’s Week in Westminster programme, and all three pointed to significant tolls on their personal finances and time in becoming a candidate for their party and then campaigning in the election itself. The expenditure and time commitment involved means that those without personal means, such as those from low-income backgrounds, or those without personal flexibility, such as those in demanding full-time jobs, are put off entering politics. Candidates often fight elections in unwinnable seats to prove themselves before being given a shot at ones with a real chance. But if you don’t have personal wealth or a boss who approves of you taking weeks off to knock on doors, then chances are you won’t even enter the selection process.

Conservative candidates in highly marginal seats, for instance, have targets for the number of days they spend campaigning, the number of newspaper articles and blogs they write, and so on. If they don’t meet them, they are given a series of warnings, and can end up being asked to stand down from the candidacy altogether, normally by mutual arrangement. This is understandable as the party wants to win those target seats and doesn’t want someone who isn’t committed to the campaign. But it does narrow down the field of possible candidates: there are very few professions or trades where the job interview requires you to take weeks of holiday and spend a lump of your own money before you even know you’ve got the job.

Does this matter? If we want our politicians to represent us and to have a sporting chance of fighting the out-of-touch charge then yes, it does. And it seems a little silly that the daily grind of being an MP can be so chaotic that it grinds some MPs down when they might have a great deal to offer public life for many years.

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