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Turnips, bread-throwing and public weighing: the life of an MP

17 May 2013

10:27 AM

17 May 2013

10:27 AM

MPs don’t always enjoy the best of reputations with the voters they represent. In fact, if an MP is notorious and disliked, then at least they are doing better than their colleagues: the Hansard Society found this week that barely 20 per cent of voters can name their MP. So if a politician doesn’t fancy sparking a row with the whips by flying to the jungle to make a name for themselves, how do they connect with their constituents?

I’ve written a piece in today’s Telegraph that explores some of the bizarre and humiliating rituals that MPs have to endure in their constituencies. Initially I thought that being weighed in public or dressing up in a KGB suit was just the sort of thing you put up with as an elected representative: refusing to sing a song about turnips wouldn’t say much for your own humility, after all. But it was when I was chatting to Nicola Blackwood about her bun-throwing experiences that I realised that an MP with a sense of humour (and a good throwing arm) could make good use of a funny old local custom to put them in touch with their electorate in a way that a surgery or a dull walkabout in the local shopping centre can’t.


You can read the full piece here. I’ve used a number of examples of strange ancient traditions in it, and below is a little more detail on those rituals, along with other awkward political traditions:

  • Tomorrow Steve Baker and other elected politicians in Wycombe will troop up to these curious weighing scales in the centre of High Wycombe.IMG_1918

    Once the victim is seated, a town crier will bellow ‘and some more!’ if they’ve gained weight or ‘and no more’ if, like Baker, they’ve spent the past few months tapping their calories into an iPhone app.

  • Nicola Blackwood, who spent the Diamond Jubilee pelting her Abingdon constituents with 6,000 buns, admits that there is a downside to this tradition:

‘You almost need to train to be ready for it. Throwing that many buns really is a bit tiring. The worst bit was the email I received afterwards from someone who claimed I’d hit them in the eye and aimed straight at them.’

  •  John Healey, Labour MP for Wentworth and Dearne, celebrated his election in 1997 by climbing to the roof of a village church and throwing 100 bread rolls at locals. This recreates the ritual of an early Victorian philanthropist who gave bread and 1p to the poor in the parish once a year. But Healey is pretty game for a funny local tradition. He also took part in a traditional Yorkshire sword dance, and has kindly supplied Coffee House with photographic evidence, below:John Healey sword dancing
  • Richard Benyon might find his own bread ritual has a bit of a sour taste after it was used to mock him for claiming families were wasting too much food. As landlord of the Englefield Estate, he hands loaves through his window.
  • As Tory chief whip, Patrick McLoughlin created a tough boy image by hanging in his office what one colleague describes as a ‘terrifying’ photo of him kicking a hand-painted football at constituents in Ashbourne for the Royal Shrovetide Football Match.
  • It’s not just bread: John Glen took singing lessons at his local Cathedral school before singing a song about turnips. You can watch him performing Vly Be on the Turmut from a hotel balcony in Salisbury after being elected Tory MP for the constituency below:
  • Michael Fabricant’s local tradition in Lichfield seems tailor-made for the lively Conservative MP. ‘I am summoned to St George’s Day Court,’ he says excitedly. ‘And if it’s a day when Parliament is sitting and I cannot attend, I have to pay a fine!’ I’ve described his array of outfits in the piece, and you can watch one fine performance below:

  • Some of these traditions are enough to put off any bright spark mulling a career in politics. But remember: you might get lucky like Adam Afriyie, Windsor MP and Tory leadership hopeful. ‘Other than greeting heads of state with the Queen on the dais at Windsor castle, it’s pretty conventional stuff really,’ he says casually.

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