July 2009 - Politics can learn from union elections

01 June 2013

It’s been deeply painful to watch the unfolding of story after story about politicians’ expenses over the past couple of months. I don’t want to join in the mud-slinging as it’s all been said. I’m more interested in how to stop politics steadily sliding into sleaze – and I’m convinced that the parties – all of them – can learn from our union elections.

Last month Marz Colombini was elected to join the Executive Committee as the member representing District One. Marz works in the District. The people entitled to vote for him come from the District. They know him, and he knows them. He does the same job, he understands their difficulties. There is a clear link between elector and elected.

This is no longer the case in Westminster elections. Too often we see candidates for Parliamentary seats who have little sympathy with the people who live in their constituency. They live different, alien lifestyles. How much understanding do you think Peter Mandelson had with the working people of Hartlepool? How many of them had a grandfather who was Cabinet minister or attended St Catherine's College, Oxford?

Other MPs have been ‘parachuted’ into safe Labour seats because they were friends of the Prime Minister. Labour Party members in Hull were told two weeks before the 1997 elections that a South London Blairite would be their candidate.

Political pressure was brought to bear on Normanton in West Yorkshire to ensure that the person who would represent them would be Ed Balls, an Economic Adviser to Gordon Brown who went to Nottingham High School – with its £9,000 a year fees.

Politics must stop being a job for superior Oxbridge types. Politicians must come from and reflect their own communities. They should live in their own constituencies. They should be part of, and committed to, the local people - and not to their own political careers.

If this happened, sleaze allegations would disappear, because local people would slap down MPs who started to get above themselves or who began to grow richer by the day.

Even better, if MPs were approachable and visible, the current disillusionment in politics would end. People would not feel inclined to use a vote for fascists like the BNP to register a protest. They could go to the person who represents them and explain what was on their mind to one of their own.

No train driver in the south-east is going to feel intimidated about letting Marz Colombini know how they feel, and they can be confident that his interests, life-style and aims are ones they share. Until we can all say the same about our Members of Parliament the ‘disconnect’ will continue, and we will all suffer for it.

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