MPs need to use the time to rebuild relations with their constituents
T he summer break for Westminster Parliamentarians lasts 82 days this year. No doubt the new media fixation will be the length of this ‘holiday'. The Parliamentary estate will be hushed; left to the maintenance workers, re-applying gold leaf with great care and precision, and to tourists taking the opportunity to walk the floor of both Houses. This year the summer recess is hugely anticipated. Parliament and the body politic badly require pause for breath, and reflection.
Recess is often billed in the media as a ridiculously long holiday, with headlines fuelling anger among the electorate. The suggestion is that politicians leave their desk, slip into a T-shirt and shorts, and sit on a tropical beach for the entire period, doing nothing more energetic than reading Marian Keyes or John Grisham novels. However, there will be a particularly sour taste left in MPs' mouths if journalists pontificate this year about their ‘very long summer vocation '.
Stop the presses! Recess, billed at 82 days (the Daily Mail is desperate for us to know that's one week longer than last year), really isn't quite the leave it's made out to be. But that wouldn't make a great story.
In reality, politicians use the time to focus on their constituents. The post doesn't stop. It's sent on, and of course emails still flood in. There is total access. It is also an opportunity for an MP to give quality time to industry and pressure groups within his or her constituency.
MPs snatch holiday, little bits here and there, but they're not comfortable being away for too long. For any sensible and diligent MP the gravitational pull is to be near the constituency. Spending time in the constituency, catching up with voters and addressing local politics gives them enormous satisfaction. It gives them the best possible opportunity to address the erroneous claim that they are out of touch.
Given that politicians' stock stands just above career criminals and below estate agents, it will be no surprise if the ‘public mood' is that the summer recess is further evidence of how lazy and venal they have become. However, during this recess they have the unenviable task of rebuilding their completely broken relationship with voters. As a result, this will be a different summer. While the idea of confrontation will evoke feelings ranging from queasiness to downright physical fear, the public must be engaged in a very immediate sense.
A public meeting doesn't need to replicate the ugly and humiliating scenes from Andrew Mackay's in Bracknell. Any such event shouldn't be seen as a free for all, an excuse for the public to come and throw eggs (even metaphorical ones) at members, to abuse or bully them into saying things they might regret. It is not a court of public opinion.
It should be billed as an opportunity for a mature and serious debate about some very grave issues and concerns, away from the media frenzy. Careful management by MPs and their teams can ensure it achieves that goal.
While they might not feel they have any fight left, MPs must be robust and insist that any public meeting will be constructive. Otherwise there is no hope to move this forward.
And there is a real possibility that reconciliation could be achieved. Individual MPs are respected, but as a collective they are not. Some 80 per cent of people do not just blame MPs, but think the parliamentary system is to blame, according to a BBC survey carried out last month. Asked whether they trusted MPs to tell the truth, only 20 per cent said they did, while 76 per cent said they did not. However, the disapproval figure was much lower, at 44 per cent, when people were asked about their own MP.
MPs should take some comfort from these figures. They should give them courage to go to their constituencies as individuals and talk to their voters.
And politicians still deserve their two week holiday in these hair-shirt times.