"I think Owen Jones has more influence on politics nowadays than any other Labour frontbencher. He’s everywhere".
So tweeted Iain Dale the other day in a conspicuously non-partisan piece of commentary. Now, Iain was referring to the ubiquity of Owen and his ability to pop up anywhere, anytime. But I was reminded of this tweet when I was reading Bagehot in the Economist this week, who opines on the inability of a typical backbench MP (let alone frontbench spokesperson) to have any affect on policy, or indeed on government. Bagehot cited the Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston as a fairly typical example of the issue.
"In an effort to mollify Dr Wollaston, party bosses offered her a junior, unpaid job in the government, which she huffily rebuffed. In an institution that prizes loyalty above usefulness, this was a serious blot. When she then criticized the government’s complicated NHS reforms and rebelled in a vote on Europe, the stain became ineradicable. Three years into her political career, she finds herself more or less written off by her bosses. She will never be allowed anywhere near health policy. 'Maybe I was naïve', she laments. 'But I thought the whole point of being an MP was to scrutinise legislation and improve it'.”
And so it seems to have come to pass that if you really want to be out there, agenda setting and driving policy, you’d be better off campaigning on issues and popping up in the media at every conceivable opportunity, rather than being an elected representative of the people. In the Lib Dems, for example, Julian Huppert (MP for Cambridge) has been consistently fighting for and voting for Lib Dem policy on justice and security (on which he is an acknowledged expert), tuition fees and NHS reform. Yet Julian has been on the losing side on every one of those issues. Contrast that with another unelected Lib Dem who finds himself at the heart of policy making, not just in our own party or even in the coalition government, but even plonked in the leader of the opposition's office dictating legislation. Step forward Hacked Off’s Evan Harris.
Of course there are exceptions to the influence wielded by backbenchers – witness the much tweeted- piece on welfare reform by Labour MP Simon Danczuk, or the select committee work of Andrew Tyrie or Margaret Hodge. But the former seems very much the exception – and the latter about marking others homework more than anything else.
Now, I don’t decry Owen Jones and Evan Harris for furthering their beliefs from outside parliament – far from it, I take my hat off to them as they force parties to adapt to their tune, rather than vice versa.
But when elected politicians are seen as having little or no influence on policy – and you can make more headway pushing your agenda from the TV studios in Millbank than the green benches over the road – it’s little wonder that folk outside the bubble may still be interested in politics, but have little time for Westminster.