Monday, September 07, 2020

"Far from politicians not listening, they have never listened more"

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Fifty years ago, the Labour MP for my home town of Lincoln was Geoffrey de Freitas. In those days, Lincoln was a very safe Labour seat and Geoffrey de Freitas was a very wealthy man.

In common with many MPs of that era, de Freitas did not maintain a home in his constituency (a practice that at least had the merit of incurring no controversial expense claims). Indeed, he spent little time in his constituency at all. On the rare occasions he paid a visit, he and his wife would get in the Rolls Royce and drive north to Lincoln, his chauffeur following in a Morris Traveller. When the convoy reached the constituency boundary, it came to a halt. Mr and Mrs de Freitas would get out of the Rolls and into the Morris, and make a suitably modest entry into the city. The chauffeur followed at a discreet distance in the Rolls.

Simon Titley died almost six years ago, but I thought of that anecdote today because it opens an article he wrote for Liberal Democrat Voice in 2008 about politicians who claim to 'listen'.

As Simon went on to observe:

Far from politicians not listening, they have never listened more. In the 1950s, most MPs – not just Geoffrey de Freitas – put in only token appearances in their constituencies, while local councillors were never seen from one election to the next. Yet electoral turnouts and party memberships were at an all-time high. 
Nowadays, most elected politicians conduct regular surgeries and carry unprecedented loads of casework; they are accessible online via e-mails, websites and blogs; they deliver leaflets and appear regularly in various local media; and they conduct frequent surveys and polls. Today, a politician with Geoffrey de Freitas’s hauteur would not even get selected, never mind elected. Yet people still moan that politicians are “out of touch”.

He goes on to argue that there is certainly a widespread sense of powerlessness and alienation among voters but that, given all the listening that is going on, it is doubtful that more of it is the solution.

Instead be recommends the report of the Joseph Rowntree Trust's Power inquiry, which had just been published and is still worth reading.

Simon was writing at a time when the whole party was being urged to listen, but his words still have resonance:

Politicians of all parties must stand for something, not blow with the wind. Their job is to lead, not follow; to persuade, not accept public opinion as a given. This does not mean being arrogant. Politicians should engage in debate and connect with people’s concerns. But they can do this effectively only if they have a clear sense of right and wrong, and they should not be afraid to communicate that moral clarity to the electorate. The people have the right to elect or reject them on that basis. But any politician who has no idea of what he stands for and instead can only ask “you tell me” is unfit for office.

You can find an archive of Simon Titley's writings on the Liberator website.


david walsh said...

The anecdote about Geoffrey de Freitas reminded me of two stories of past Labour MP's. The first was the now forgotten Jim Boyden, a really nice bloke who became the MP for Bishop Auckland after the departure of the veteran Labour front bencher High Dalton. Asked by the Station Master whether he would be would, as the railway official assumed, be continuing with his predecessors six monthly visits, could he let him have the dates when convenient so he could be there to greet the MP in person ? Boyden said he hoped to be there every week if at all possible and pointed out to the Station Master that he actually only lived 10 miles away in Durham City. The second was the very grand (at least in his own estimation),Liverpool Edge Hill Labour MP, and Solicitor General, Sir Arthur Irvine. Irvine was so grand that he held his very rare surgeries in a suite of rooms down the corridor from his own room at the Adelphi Hotel. How prepared or ready were his working class constituents to brave the ornate lobbies and commissionaires of the Adelphi in order to see their man in parliament is not recorded.

Frank Little said...

I have heard that same story about changing cars in relation to a Labour MP visiting his Welsh valley constituency. Is it apocryphal or were well-heeled Labour MPs at it generally?