It's fair to say that, over the past year or so, British politicians have seemed anything but local. Whether they've been laying waste to decades of European legislation or wading in on presidential shit shows overseas, they've seemed more like pieces on a very big and battered chessboard, rather than playing a day-to-day role in the lives of ordinary people.
Yet so much of that is perception. It's easy to forget that most MPs are mostly doing their regular jobs: running their constituencies, chiefly through holding "surgeries" once a week, opening their doors to the British public and dealing with their concerns face-to-face. In some ways it comes across as a sort of quaint facet of our political system; a practice that makes running the country seem a little bit more like running a neighbourhood watch committee. In reality, it's a vital leveller, reinforcing the idea that even the highest appointed member of cabinet still has to spend a few hours every week sat in a damp church hall listening to pensioners complain about the light pollution coming off the big yellow Morrison's logo three streets away.
Tonight, Channel 5 is airing MPs: Behind Closed Doors, a documentary following a trio of relatively high-profile MPs as they open their doors to their constituents. Labour MP for Bradford West, Naz Shah; MP for Sheffield Hallam, one-time deputy Prime Minister (and full-time Nick Clegg apologist) Nick Clegg; and Conservative MP for North East Somerset, Jacob Rees-Mogg all feature, offering an insight into their weekly consultations.
In many respects it's a pretty heartening piece of television. Far from the "politicians as universe-wrecking lizards" impression we've all adopted of late, this is a chance to see them interacting with real people who have (mostly) real problems – and they come off pretty well. Shah seems fiercely proactive in how keen she is to support a local man's battle against a disruptive neighbour; Clegg appears so comforting and supportive you'd probably visit his surgery after a breakup; and even Rees-Mogg – a man so Tory he probably combs his hair with truffle oil – is compassionate and constructive in assisting a family whose disability support has been suddenly, and wrongly, cut off.
The programme depicts a part of our political machine that isn't failing; an opportunity to consult or interrogate our elected officials and get real answers in return. So why do none of us use it?
Judging by the snapshot offered in the show, there are basically two types of people who visit their local member of Parliament each week. Firstly, people who have nowhere else to turn. Across the episode there are a few genuinely heartbreaking stories, from a mother desperately seeking recognition for her son's severe mental health problems to a migrant who has been living in the UK for over a decade, suddenly threatened with deportation.
What's striking about all of these stories is that it has taken those involved so long to speak to their MP. In each case, constituents waited until their situation had become completely unbearable before reaching out, as if not wishing to waste the time of their elected official until that point. That's not to say that a visit to an MP will instantly solve all these problems – in fact, Jacob Rees-Mogg makes a point of telling his constituents the "extent of his powers" – but it's certainly true that in each case the MP's surgery could have been a first point of contact, rather than the last resort.
The second type of regular falls into a category probably best described as "bored old person". There's a traumatised Bremainer popping in to tell Jacob Rees-Mogg he done fucked up with the vote to leave the EU; a mother incensed that teachers are picking on her son because he's tall; and – in possibly the most yer da scenes since The Grand Tour premiered last week – a bloke complaining that the staff working for HMRC are probably spending all their time on Facebook and Twitter, sending text messages, booking holidays and "surfing insurance comparison websites". Bloody bastards! Browsing GoCompare when they should be reviewing self-assessment returns! And it's all coming out of taxpayers' money! Disgusting!
This is all funny enough, right? But then, it's sort of not when you consider the domineering role that over-65s play in British politics. We normally understand this in terms of voting turnout stats, but Behind Closed Doors shows us the IRL version. How the most direct point of communication with the government has become a sounding board for confused retirees who've seen one too many memes about cyber-warfare.
It's striking that barely anyone featured in the programme is under 30, and when they are it's only because they've completely run out of options. Why is this? Why are so many people in Britain completely absent from this easily-accessible part of the political conversation until they hit 60, experience some problems with the new double-yellow parking near the leisure centre and suddenly become the dominant voting bloc in the country? That's not to devalue the real concerns of the over-65s, but when political dialogue is dominated by hedge-trimming and church halls, something's got to be missing.
There's a practical reason, of course. MPs run surgeries during weekdays, meaning the elderly are the main group with the time to make an appointment and pay them a visit. But the real answer feels like something more fundamental: people just don't know it exists. Having spent my entire life in Britain, MPs' surgeries were only something I became aware of in more recent years. They were certainly never covered in school, and even then I still don't know when or where my local MP meets, let alone the types of issues I'm supposed to take to them. Sadly, surgeries are a part of political and social life that are seemingly invisible to most people – except those with enough spare time, or those experiencing abject desperation, to warrant seeking them out.
It seems that so much distance yawns between MPs and their constituents – both the fault of the culture of Westminster, but also the effect of demonising the "political class" at every opportunity – that we've all forgotten we can actually talk to government every week if we want. Hopefully tonight's documentary will build some awareness of surgeries, because until that happens our Members of Parliament will continue to be little more than therapists for confused OAPs – and paid for with taxpayers' money! Disgusting!
MPs: Behind Closed Doors airs on Channel 5 on Monday the 28th of November at 9PM.
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