Wednesday, 13 May 2009

What puts you off getting involved in politics?

Inspired by the Prime Minister's setting up a special Speakers Conference to look at ways of better representing women, ethnic minorities and the disabled in Parliament, Radio 4's devoted its programme yesterday to a wide-ranging phone-in on the obstacles to entering parliament. There was an introduction by MPs from the three main parties: Kerry McCarthy (Labour), Lee Scott (Conservative) and John Hemming (Liberal Democrat). There were also contributions during the programme from Priti Patel (Conservative), Anne Begg MP (Labour, vice-chair of the Speaker's Conference) and Nick Radford (LibDem candidate for Salisbury)

John said that you should get involved in politics if you want to make the world a better world, your country a better country, or your area a better area. He was a candidate five times in Birmingham before he was finally elected. Most people give up after one or two tries, but you shouldn't expect immedate success if you are serious about politics. You should regard being a MP as a vocation, not a career.

Two of the most frequently-cited reasons for people not standing for parliament came up early on the programme: not wanting to be beholden to a party; and the financial advantage which the parties have. I think this is only part of the story.

Lack of money, or party affiliation, is not in itself a bar to election. What is needed is recognition. With the best will in the world, you can't, as an individual, get round to all the voters in your constituency before an election - or, at least, if you do, you have to start so early that most will have forgotten you by the time polling day comes round. If you are already known to the voters - Martin Bell in Knutsford, and Dr Richard Taylor in Wyre Forest are independent MPs who come to mind - for particular points of view which chime with their own feelings, you are at least half-way there.

Martin Bell was familiar from his TV appearances as a brave foreign reporter, and his stand against political sleaze (including a promise to stand down after one term, which he duly did) certainly matched the national mood. It did help that Labour and LibDem candidates did not stand against him. Many of their activists delivered for him, as did actor David Soul. That advantage was not available to Dr Taylor, but he was well-known for leading a campaign against closing a local hospital. He is still in the House of Commons.

So, failing name-recognition with the majority of voters, having a party label gives your prospective constituents an immediate indication of your general views before they even see you. It also gives you a certain standing.

Where electorates are smaller, such as in community councils or smaller wards on principal councils, the personal approach is not only feasible but also welcomed. Here, independents come into their own and indeed some county councils are not run by party groups.

Finally, there is the question of selection. We Liberal Democrats are told we should pick more women (or ethnic or other minority) candidates. My response is that this is a bottom-up, not a top-down, party. We do not parachute favourite sons and daughters in to parliamentary seats, as Labour can and does, and as the Conservatives do to a certain extent. If you agree with us to the extent of wearing our party colours in an election, and you are not male or white or middle-aged, it only takes a slight push at a half-open door for you to do so.

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