I’ve been waiting for over nine weeks for a meaningful reply from my MP – Anthony Mangnall (South Devon): so far, I’ve only had a three-line response to 19 clear, precise questions I asked about a proposal he made to the Minister for Levelling-Up, regarding government-backed loans to private companies to ‘win’ public money (and whether any of those companies might be his donors).
Constituents regularly share responses from their MP, and there is a sad familiarity between my experience and the scant and seemingly evasive replies that are often returned to other people.
Since when did we become happy with answers to questions that we never asked, and a refusal to respond to the questions that we really wanted answered?
I have been reflecting on this lack of meaningful response, and wonder what has happened to our expectations of our publicly elected representatives. Why are we letting them off the hook so easily, filing away the evasive and scant responses with a shrug – “Well, what do you expect from an MP?” If we do that, we are complicit in the devaluation of our own precious democracy.
In the business world a prompt and full reply might be called a ‘minimum service standard’. For a member of parliament, it’s called the ‘principles of public life’, and those are enshrined within the MPs’ code of conduct. Openness and Accountability are core principles.
I expect this ‘minimum service standard’ from my MP. I should expect far more – but the chaos that writhes beneath the surface of this government is becoming ever more visible, so my expectations are already lowered. Flying in the face of futility has sadly become a factor in my personal dealings with my elected representative.
Meanwhile, during this exact same period of fobbing me off with a three-sentence reply (in which none of my questions were answered), my MP has clearly been busy thanking councillors for their hard work:
It seems my MP hasn’t been able to answer my inconvenient questions, but has found the time for some hasty PR sent out during his party’s disastrous conference. Notwithstanding the fact that most councillors will have seen through the timing of the paper-thin flattery, his letter has the distinct aroma of having been written with all the authenticity of a man fearing the descent of a party conference into little more than a conspiracy convention.
Am I wrong to expect some ‘bang for my buck’ from my MP? With his salary of £90,000 plus expenses and allowances, I believe my taxes should – as a ‘minimum service standard’ – buy me a full and open response to legitimate questions, as befits the principles of public life. Or are these principles instead going the way of the ‘meat tax’, considered secondary to the national crisis around bendy bananas?
I refuse to play into the false narrative being peddled by our government that ‘all MPs are the same’. I refuse to accept the blasé disparagement of the very institutions our government should be supporting, not undermining.
I believe any response to a constituent should be full and open, and that MPs should welcome accountability and be willing to explain their actions. What’s more, this belief is borne out by the principles of public life. In the case of public (taxpayers’) money, transparency is the very least we should expect. A lack of transparency is not democratic. In fact, lack of transparency reeks.
I worry that we have, in effect, outsourced our MPs to lobbyists and donors; and, as is the natural outcome of any outsourcing, we humble constituents are no longer the real stakeholders. Some accountability for this dire situation rests with us, and our impoverished expectations of our elected representatives.
That is why I’m very excited to see something called South Devon Primary being set up, and not only here but with counterparts all across the UK. I advise anyone who hasn’t done so yet to sign up to their newsletter at southdevonprimary.org. Godalming & Ash (the constituency of ‘axeman of the NHS’ Jeremy Hunt) and East Wiltshire have launched their own Primaries, with three others on the way. It’s inspirational stuff.
Unlike being lumbered with a monopolistic water company, I can vote my MP out of office – even if, as is the case here in South Devon, the Conservatives have held the seat for 99 years and are predicted to win again in 2024, albeit on a minority vote. The South Devon Primary is a vehicle that would enable everyone to partake in the effort, efficiently and collectively and, above all, democratically, to oust the Conservatives. Through holding a series of hustings for the main opposition parties, constituents would get to choose the candidate best-placed and with most support, to challenge their ‘below minimum service standard’ MP and get someone who tries a little bit harder (certainly not difficult in my case).
The South Devon Primary is a much-needed wake-up call that we expect more from our incumbent Conservative MPs. I shouldn’t have to remind my MP about ‘base level expectations’ around the principles of public life he has signed up to – accountability, openness. I shouldn’t have to remind my MP of anything but this: the strange thing called ‘probity’ is rarely – if ever – expressed in a three-sentence reply.
I would dearly love to be proved wrong. And I am still waiting for a full and open response.