Will envelopes die in vain?

Observations on the general election

You can tell there's an election coming - because it's getting harder to find some MPs at Westminster. In the run-up to the 2001 election, the number of MPs in marginal seats who took part in Commons votes fell by as much as 21 per cent as they went back to their constituencies to campaign. Among those in safe seats, voting fell by just 2 per cent.

Something similar is happening again. The average turnout in votes held in January 2004 was 499; the figure for January 2005 was 419, down 16 per cent. The story is told of the MP who arrived at his constituency in 1945 to be asked by the top-hatted stationmaster if that would always be the date of his annual visit. Few MPs, of any party, would now take such a detached view of constituency work.

Most of the hoo-ha about MPs' "expenses" - which showed that the average claim is just under £119,000 - missed the real story. The money is not being trousered or blown on yachts or dancing girls. Much of it is spent on supporting constituency work. This is a level of resource that challengers cannot match. The increase in financial support for MPs gives incumbents an advantage they have never enjoyed before - and they are using it to the full. Of the 25 MPs who spent more than £10,000 in 2003-2004 on postage (it is likely to be even more in 2004-2005), 21 had been elected in 1997 or 2001, mostly for the sort of marginal seats that will determine the next election.

But will the hard work pay off or will all those envelopes have died in vain? The conventional wisdom was that an MP's personal vote is small - 500 votes, according to some estimates; roughly 1,000, according to others. But in 2001, Labour did best where new MPs were defending seats, worst where an incumbent MP had stood down. The difference between the two was just over five percentage points. This is not to be sniffed at, and was one of the reasons why, despite its vote falling nationally, Labour lost so few seats.

My own constituency, Broxtowe, on the outskirts of Nottingham, is an example. A former Tory seat captured against expectations in 1997 by Nick Palmer, it returned him again in 2001, with a majority 2.4 per cent up, against a national fall of 2.5 per cent. But Palmer's lead over the Tories is still under 6,000, and vulnerable to defections from Labour to the Lib Dems. What might save him - and others like him - is his work rate in the constituency. Aside from the £8,000 on postage in 2003-2004, Palmer sends out regular e-mails to roughly 1,500 constituents. I have calculated that in the past year alone, he has sent me almost 80,000 words - enough to get him another PhD. No one in Broxtowe can complain that Palmer doesn't tell them what he is doing or why he thinks what he thinks.

But before the 1997 election, many Conservative MPs had a touching belief in their ability to hold out against the swing. Come the election, they were all wiped out. The swing was too great - regardless of how many constituency surgeries they had held. The same might be true this time, but Labour will be hoping that all those evenings MPs spent stuck in cold town halls listening to the moans of their constituents will pay off.