In 2001, MPs asked why there was so little public engagement in politics. Irony? – excerpt

November 19, 2020

by Martin Odoni

NOTE: This is an excerpt from an article I have written for The Word.

A problem identified 19 years ago

At the 2001 General Election, an MP called Graham Allen comfortably retained his seat of Nottingham North. A few weeks after the Election, on 22nd June, Allen opened a debate in the House of Commons. He expressed alarm at the low turnout at the polls. He despaired at a lack of public engagement.

Former Nott’m North MP, Graham Allen

“The bald figures are quite frightening: the overall turnout was down nationally to 59.5 per cent, while in my constituency the turnout was a shocking 46 per cent.”

Allen suspected that Britons no longer felt very engaged in politics. He was certainly not wrong. The artificiality put people off. The ludicrous, obvious theatricality. The formal mud-slinging. Politics were an alien world, in which inhabitants not only tolerated stiff politeness and childish namecalling, but expected them side-by-side.

Allen went on to add; –

We shall come to rue the fact that political activists are disparaged, often by the media, because those people are the very life-blood of our democracy. We should encourage people from all parties who play their part in public life by engaging in political activity locally. We must ensure that they feel that what they are doing is important. Our democracy is not a given; it is a fragile flower.

Hague saw it too

Interestingly, the outgoing Leader of the Opposition of the time, William Hague, had similar sentiments to share just two days earlier. Speaking during the First Day of Parliament, Hague referred to; –

the lowest turnout at a general election since 1918, with the number of voters staying at home exceeding the number who turned out to vote for the winning party. Elections to this place should be the cornerstone of democratic accountability in our country... [but] the blunt truth is that people increasingly see politics and Parliament as remote from their lives… Why should any of this be surprising when many Governmentshave taken every opportunity to sideline, marginalise and bypass Parliament, with the consequence that its standing and reputation are lower than at any time in living memory? We face an urgent task to reform Parliament, to make it relevant to the people whom it is supposed to serve and to place it once again at the centre of our national life. Without a strong Parliament, democratic accountability in Britain ceases to exist.

The world's most boring stand-up comic
Conservative Leader of the Opposition William Hague questions Prime Minister Tony Blair during Prime Ministers’ Questions in the House of Commons, London. (Photo by PA Images via Getty Images)

When Hague later demanded that,

“We need the Government to be honest and straightforward about what they are trying to achieve, about where they succeed and about where they fail,”

he was being a prospective hypocrite. His own penchant for two-faced lying in later years as Foreign Secretary demonstrated that. But on the subject of grass-roots-engagement, much as it pains me to agree with a tedious cynic like William Hague, he was not wrong.

What do MPs expect after recent years?

This issue of politicians displaying contempt-for-public and contempt-for-Parliament has not gone away. In fact, it is more pressing than ever. Just consider what Boris Johnson did within a few weeks of becoming Prime Minister last year. He tried to prorogue Parliament for an unprecedented length of time so that it could not cross-examine, or have a say on, Brexit legislation before the date of British departure from the European Union. This triggered a constitutional crisis………….

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