Many bloggers to this site are delightfully cynical about politics, and sceptical about many politicians. That is healthy in a democracy. Nor is it my job to act as shop steward for MPs. I am not a Shop Steward, and my colleagues would not welcome having one. If an MP reaches the point where he thinks it is about him rather than about the people he serves, it is time for him to be moving on to a different job.
Occasionally, however, I feel I need to tell you more of the mood of the House and the things that do play on MPs’ minds. After all, many of you interested in politics and government want to influence the people who govern you, whilst reserving the right to condemn, criticise and complain. Some of you seem to think that there are lots of safe seats, “seats for life”. These are somehow given out by party High Commands to those whose faces fit. This makes these people immune to commonsense or persuasive lobbying from electors. After all, you argue, these lucky lifers just need to keep the whips or leaders reasonably happy and so they keep their jobs for life.
That is not generally true in my experience. In the Conservative party candidates are selected by local Committees. It is true they select from a very long list of approved candidates that Central Office has passed. This list contains a very wide range of characters and viewpoints, as examination of the statements and voting records of current Conservative MPs displays. It may occasionally be true that the Centre has a view on what type of candidate or even which candidate is to be preferred. They have no power, however, to place such a person in the job in normal circumstances. In many cases any attempt by Central Office to influence could backfire. Doughty independent minded Selection Committees might see it as a negative that Candidiate X was CCHQ approved.
Most successful Conservative candidiates who make it to the Commons have served a long apprenticeship. They have usually fought a seat they could not win. They have often been Councillors. They may well have done national policy work, and usually now have been active in community programmes of one sort or another. They may well have nursed the constituency that finally elects them for two or three years before the General Election, acting as an unpaid community worker and campaigner.
20 years ago there were 7 Conservative MPs in the place I know best, my home county of Berkshire. Most pundits then would have said that six of those seven seats were safe seats, “seats for life” for their incumbents. The seventh, Slough, would have been put down as a swing marginal between the Conservatives and Labour. The caricature of Berkshire then, the royal county, was a pure blue home counties area. People would joke that you could put a sheep up and as long as it had a blue rosette it would be elected. So what happened next?
Conservatives held all seven seats in the 1992 General Election. One elected a new MP to replace someone who willingly retired. Tragically that new MP died prematurely during the Parliament. The Lib Dems took the seat in the by-election which followed. They held the seat in the 1997 and 2001 elections, only to lose it in 2005 to the Conservatives.
The MPs for Reading East and Reading West had majorities of 16217 and 16753 at the 1987 election. They won easily in 1992. Both decided to retire in 1997. The MP for Reading East would I think have liked to carry on, but was concerned about his ability to win the seat. Both seats were lost to Labour. The Conservatives recaptured Reading East in 2005, two elections later, and recaptured Reading West only in 2010, three elections later.
Berkshire East (Bracknell) and Windsor remained in Conservative hands. Their incumbent MPs both, however, resigned when they lost the confidence of their Conservative Associations over how they had handled their expenses. The Associations chose new candidates who were able to win in the Conservative cause.
Slough went Labour in 1997 and remained Labour, even in 2010, confounding ideas that it was a swing seat.
So out of the six “seats for life” three saw two changes in the MP and party thanks to the wishes of electors in elections, and two saw changes in MP when the winning party chose a new candidate, worrying that the incumbent MP might have lost the electors’ confidence as well as the local party’s.
Labour has had similar experiences with its so called “seats for life”. In the 1970s pundits said the arc of seats in south London were rock solid safe Labour seats. Yet Labour lost Bermondsey in a by-election in 1982, and it has stayed Lib Dem ever since.
Today in Parliament this type of background generates great uncertainties in many MPs. Whilst Lib Dems stay cheerful in public as they have to do, they would not be human without pausing to look at the electoral consequences of their current poll ratings. Lib Dems will be doing private calculations of how far they need to get their vote to rise to save a significant number of their seats.
The boundary review is abolishing 50 seats in total. It is a preoccupation of many MPs. Many more seats have changed boundaries that make minor or major differences to how winnable those seats are for their current incumbents. As 31 seats are taken away from England, 10 from Wales, 7 from Scotland and 2 from Northern Ireland, there is jostling for position as MPs seek to gain the favourable attention of the selection committees for the new seats.
All this creates a jittery Parliament. It certainly makes MPs accountable. The average MP does the job for 10 years or two Parliaments. MPs often do not do what you would like them to do, but they are more conscious than most that they each have around 75,000 bosses and they live in the goldfishbowl of public accountability. They cannot please all 75,000, as electors have such differing views and problems.
Every MP who knows the job well knows he or she could be just one foolish statement or action away from losing it. Maybe some of you remember Howard Flight. He had his “seat for life” taken away for saying at the start of a General Election that if an incoming Conservative government could find more economies it would spend less. He was particularly unlucky and unwise with his timing. It does remind you how slender is the line between “safe” seat and political oblivion.