REGULAR viewers to BBC Question Time will have noticed a shift in public mood of late. What has long been regarded as a well-mannered current affairs programme has begun to stray into something more akin to a sporting event, with a sometimes restless audience venting their frustration at the panel like a football crowd roaring at the referee.
This loss of civility comes at a time when cynicism in politics is at high tide. It seems fashionable now to lament the quality of our politicians – and to knock the BBC as a nest of bias to boot.
The danger with oversimplification is that reality cannot be crammed into a tweet or a Facebook post.
As part of our undergraduate journalism course at Leeds Beckett, our students learn how to recognise the real work of politics and politicians. Many young people arrive at our doors without knowing the name of their MP but leave, hopefully, with a deeper understanding of how society works.
And so, each year, we conduct an analysis of the activity of all the MPs in the region and rank them accordingly. Using publicly-accessible data, taken from official government sites such as Hansard, our students investigate a range of metrics, including how many times our MPs vote, speak in Parliament, write questions to ministers and so on. We then analyse what they actually say in parliamentary debates, and record how many times MPs mention the name of the place they represent. After four years we’ve noticed a distinct trend.
The most active MP over the last two years – by some distance – is Rachael Maskell, the MP for York Central. Her work offers an exemplar on how to become a capable constituency MP. The former NHS care-worker used her maiden speech to argue for a new mental health hospital in York and she hasn’t stopped championing the walled city ever since.
Indeed, our students discovered that Maskell spoke 161 times during debates in the House of Commons last year, second only to Barry Sheerman, the veteran Huddersfield MP. But it’s what she spoke about that distinguished her. Maskell mentioned her constituents more often than any other MP in the region – 113 times in all. Maskell is first among equals of hardworking MPs not necessarily on first-name terms with Fiona Bruce. Stephanie Peacock, a former teacher, mentioned her constituency, Barnsley East, 65 times last year, followed by another teacher Emma Hardy (55 times), and then Dan Jarvis (39) and Martin Vickers (32). What’s noticeable about this list – Jarvis aside – is how little known they are beyond their constituency or the Palace of Westminster.
Perhaps the point is put more forceful another way. Look at the MPs who discuss their constituency less often and you have a list more illustrious. Household names, such as Ed Miliband (six times), Yvette Cooper (five), Caroline Flint (three), brought up constituency business less often, even though they no longer sit in either cabinet.
Furthermore, frontbench MPs such as David Davis, John Healey and Richard Burgon also failed to mention their constituency last year. As did Imran Hussain, who described himself as “fearless” defender of Bradford East when he took office, and who is now Shadow Justice Minister.
David Davis, doubtless, will argue that he was too busy. Until an intervention last month on railways, there’s no mention of Haltemprice and Howden in Hansard since 2015 – over three years ago – back when Take Me to Church by Hozier was top of the charts and Leicester City flying high in the Prmeir League. Clearly his former role of Brexit Secretary stole his attention.
This all reveals a paradox. The more famous your representative, the less likely they are to mention your neck of the woods – at least in the House of Commons. There’s also a mass of Parliamentary convention which prevents some MPs, like deputy speaker Rosie Winterton and the party whips, from actively speaking in the debates.
So, amid all the clamour, let’s hear it for the doughty backbench MP who goes about the job with less fuss – it is, after all, what they are there to do. This is what renowned Conservative philosopher Edmund Burke meant when he wrote that the representatives of the people should “above all prefer the interests of their constituents to the interest to [their] own”.
Sean Dodson is the postgraduate course director of journalism and PR at Leeds Beckett University. Additional reporting by Suzannah Rogerson, De-Mornae Clarke, Katie Garrett, Harry Graham and Eliza Laben.