In praise of backbench MPs

February 3, 2011 10:33 am

parliament front benchThe Paul Richards column

This is a truly terrible, reputation-wrecking, friendship-ending thing to admit on LabourList, but I have a secret admiration for Gyles Brandreth. I know, I know. Well do I understand your mounting sense of opprobrium and distaste, your reluctance to read another syllable. Bear with me. It’s not the silly jumpers, scrabble-playing, teddy-bear museum stuff. Nor of course, the high Tory politics. It is simply that when he was the Member of Parliament for Chester (a career cut short, thankfully, by Labour’s landslide in 1997) he introduced a bill which became a law, and did something helpful for tens of thousands of people.

If you’ve got married, or witnessed a marriage, at your local football club, stately home, town hall or five-star hotel, you have Mr Brandreth to thank. That’s because as a backbench MP in 1994, he introduced the private members’ bill which amended the 1949 Marriage Act to allow venues other than churches or register offices to gain a licence to host weddings. I doubt many wedding guests at Claridges or Chelsea FC raise a glass to Gyles Brandreth, but they should. They have him to thank for being allowed through the door.

It may not be a cure for cancer or an end to domestic violence, but it represents a small, civilising improvement in the condition of the country, one which has brought happiness to thousands of couples and their loved ones. As William Blake said ‘he who would do good must do so in minute particulars.’

I’ve always believed that if you are a backbench MP, especially a Labour one, and fail to use the incredible opportunity to do some good for others, you don’t deserve to be there. If you can’t use the system to make a small difference, to right a minor injustice, or make things a little better for some deserving group, then you should hang up your boots.

So many MPs, and ministers for that matter, come and go without leaving any discernable trace. I’m reminded of the exchange in Yes Prime Minister when Hacker is asked by a student journalist what he’s achieved. He reels off the list of titles, positions and committee memberships he’s accrued. ‘No’, says the student, ‘I mean what have you achieved for other people.’

Andrew MacKinlay used his platform as MP for Thurrock between 1992 and 2010 to campaign for those executed for desertion and cowardice in the First World War. John Major refused a pardon, but eventually a Labour secretary of state for defence Des Browne, and his minister Tom Watson agreed with Mr MacKinlay and issued a state pardon to all 300 ‘shot at dawn’, many of whom have living relatives.

Leo Abse campaigned for the decriminalisation of sex between consenting gay adults, following the publication of the Wolfenden Report in 1957 which stated that ‘homosexual behaviour between consenting adults in private should no longer be a criminal offence’. The report made clear for the first time that the state no longer considered homosexuality a ‘disease’. Abse persuaded the home secretary Roy Jenkins to make government time available for a private members’ bill, and gay relationships were decriminalised.

There are lots of other example of MPs making a difference in some practical way, from William Wilberforce and his abolition of the slave trade bill, to Anthony Wedgewood Benn and the Peerage Act of 1963 which allows peers to renounce their peerages thus giving us Tony Benn (and also Douglas Home).

That’s why today we should applaud the efforts of Stella Creasy, MP for Walthamstow, in her efforts to end ‘legal loan sharking’ by placing a cap on the total amount lenders can lend at exorbitant rates to the poorest and most desperate people. For example Wonga.com charge interest at an APR of 4214% (no, that’s not a typo). A loan of £400 today is a loan of £525 in 30 days. If you’re poor and desperate today, the chances are you’ll be poor and desperate this time next month. Thanks to firms such as Wonga.com, and the others advertised during the day on television, you’ll be poor, desperate, and with debts that magnify like topsy. I hope that Stella succeeds, which will depend on the government having the sense to make time available. If she does, she will join the pantheon of MPs who used the power and platform loaned to them by the people to make our lives a little better. And yes, that includes Gyles Brandreth.

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