It Started with a Hiss…

Having written a few emails to Kevin Barron over the past few weeks and had no response, I now have received quite a long letter which mentions this blog. It seems our MP is a reader, which is great news. Kevin: I’d love you to contribute too if you feel able. I think dialogue is a wonderful, useful and beneficial thing.

I’ll talk more about the letter in a later post, but Kevin Barron didn’t seem very pleased at the idea of me blogging about our letters, and I can see his point as I didn’t tell him about them – more of that later too – but first of all I thought I’d post and explain why I started the blog in the first place, if you will allow me that indulgence, dear readers?

I have communicated with three different MPs in the constiuencies in which I have lived over the years. My first MP was Keith Bradley – now Baron Bradley of Withington, but then a backbench Labour MP defending his seat (so technically not an MP, but you know what I mean!) I was still a mere sixth former when I got the opportunity to hear him speak at a debate at my school in the run up to the 1992 election. I was doing A level Politics at the time, and was rather hoping for a well crafted debate from the candidates, but what ensued was not a high-quality debate by any means. I can remember nothing of note being said by the candidate for the Lib Dems, or the other fringe party (was there a Natural Law candidate? – I seem to think there was but can’t be sure) The Conservative candidate was the single most unimpressive speaker I have ever heard – again I can’t remember any detail, but I am left with the impression of a man who was at least three levels out of his depth, and who was only standing to keep up appearances, Didsbury and Withington being a Labour safe-seat at the time.

Which brings us on to Keith Bradley. He was clearly a cut above the others – he could string a sentence together for a start, he had a rather nice suit on, and some glasses that really rather suited him – but the thing that marked him out as a serious political animal is that he had utterly mastered the art of crafting those sentences that sound like they have content and meaning but ultimately have neither. I was impressed for a while, until it suddenly occurred to me that as beguiling as the sounds coming from his mouth were, they didn’t convey any information whatsoever. Having listened to him make this mouth music for about 10 minutes in answer to the question ‘Do you think cannabis should be legalised?’ (did I mention it was a sixth form debate?) I got the opportunity to ask a question.

I was nervous – I hate public speaking, and the question I was about to ask might have made me look an idiot in front of the whole sixth form – and most importantly, the girls in the sixth form. Maybe it was just me who couldn’t pick out any sense from the noise?

The adrenaline made my legs shake as Mr Shanahan, in his role as Sir Robin Day, indicated that I could ask a question.

“Can I ask Keith Bradley if that was a yes, or a no?”

I can’t remember what he said – I know he didn’t say which one it was, and I know he started speaking again for a good five minutes – I just know three things – firstly that I got a small ripple of applause from my peers, secondly that his failure to answer the question diminished my respect for Keith Bradley, and thirdly that a man who I presume was the agent for the comically bad Conservative candidate had sidled over to me.

That one question – or more accurately that exchange in which a perfectly simple and valid question was avoided by a man seeking to represent me – has set the tone for my annoyance at politicians who seek to avoid explaining their decision making to their constituents. It also led, via an invitation from the Tory agent,  to the rather surreal experience of me getting to shake the hand of John Major at Manchester Airport whilst he was electioneering. Goodness knows what my dad made of dropping his son off at the Conservative Club, or of seeing him on the news shaking the hand of a Tory Prime Minister – I’ve never dared ask.

My second MP was Andrew Robothan, the Tory MP for Blaby (or South Leicestershire as it is to become). I didn’t expect to agree with him on much, being as he not only a Tory, but an ‘old school’ Tory, and I can’t even remember what I wrote to him about now, but the answers were much as I expected to be – they weren’t Keith Bradley-esque ‘I’m going to talk and hope you think I’ve answered’ type responses, but more robust statements of policies that I largely disagreed with, and which conveyed a sense that he was rather irritated to have to deal with that most curious of things, someone broadly left wing with the temerity to live in his constituency.

Which brings us, eventually, to my current MP, Mr Kevin Barron, reader of this blog and MP for Rother Valley. I first wrote to Kevin Barron about two years ago with an idea I had had to improve road safety and reduce pollution. At the time I had a car with a slow puncture in one of its rather expensive tyres. At the time I was unemployed, so rather than replace the tyre I had taken to topping it up with air every week. Having not really used air-lines much before, I was surprised you have to pay to use them at most places. Knowing that having correctly inflated tyres not only reduces fuel consumption but also makes the car handle better and stop quicker, I wrote to Kevin Barron asking if he thought there was any way having a free air-line could be made a condition of having a licence to operate a petrol station. Not a controversial idea, nor a brilliant or interesting one – but a good one I think.

The response I got back surprised me. I didn’t keep it, but it was fairly unhelpful – I think the gist was ‘it’s nothing to do with me’ but the tone was just awful – dismissive and patronising.

I left it at that for a while, but over time I began to get more annoyed with the policies of the government – the government seemed to becoming less interested in the views of the country over issues such as Iraq and ID cards – and so I began to wonder what Kevin Barron thought about such issues – was the man who represents me ‘old Labour’ or ‘New Labour’? I began to write to him to ask his views on policies.

What struck me the most about Kevin Barron’s replies was that he never seemed to answer my questions. He usually replied, but never answered. I’ve asked him why he is in favour of ID cards. He hasn’t said. I’ve asked him why he thinks the self-employed don’t qualify for maternity and paternity pay. He hasn’t said. I asked him what he thought of the proposals for a scrappage scheme for old cars. He hasn’t said. I’ve asked him what he thinks about proposals to reduce the speed limit on A roads. He won’t say.

This simply isn’t good enough – it isn’t how I understand the relationship between an MP and a constituent to work. I should know what my MP believes, and be able to get answers when I ask why he votes in certain ways – Mr Barron though clearly doesn’t believe that is the case. How else can one explain him describing my views as ‘irrelevant’ as he has done in writing?

Hence this blog – I got to thinking that if my MP isn’t prepared to respond to his constituents by answering their questions then that is important. He is supposed to represent us all, so he needs to communicate with us. I looked for a website for him – and although he seems to have three ‘domains’ there is no content on any of them. I am rather hoping that the site serve as a means of making Mr Barron more accountable, as my experience of writing to him is that he doesn’t feel he needs to be.

It is interesting to note that the tone of the last letter from Kevin Barron – in which he mentions this blog – goes further than any letter I have received from him so far to answering the questions I asked him. That said he also says he won’t answer my letters anymore unless I tell him what my purposes are for the weblog “especially as the weblog has a direct reference and link to the website of the Conservative Candidate for Rother Valley in Westminster” (see – he has been reading).

I don’t know if you’ve noticed Kevin, but there are links to the party websites for everyone who either represents me, or who seeks to. That includes the Conservative Party, the Labour Party and the BNP. I have even linked to the three websites which seem to be yours, even though they have no content. As and when other parties announce their candidates for this seat I’ll link to them.

I do, however, find it interesting that you are reluctant to communicate with me on the basis that my blog has a (not very complimentary) link to the website of another politician. Hopefully this post has addressed your concerns as to the purpose of the blog, and you will continue to answer my questions as you have done since you discovered it? Or are you trying to tell me that you only wish to represent those of your constituents who you think will vote for you?

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