Parliamentary conventions are generally obscure, out of date, and pompous. Pretty much like most MPs some would say. But a Conservative Party attempt to get around one of these conventions threatens a kind of political anarchy, replacing ‘one member, one seat’ with ‘two members, one seat’. Huh? Let me explain.
The convention in question. Successive Speakers have consistently ruled that MPs must limit casework to their own constituency. They are not allowed to act on behalf of people or groups in other constituencies.
The reason is simple enough. If we can all get stuck into to each others' local issues, or local casework, we can use it to help win seats by acting as a proxy MP. Two for the price of one, a free trial offer before you vote next time, try us and see!
In sum, the rule prevents Parliamentary casework being used for party political campaigning by rival MPs acting as proxies for local candidates in target constituencies.
The Conservative Party is attempting to get around this rule by claiming that their MPs undertaking casework in targeted Labour and Lib Dem constituencies is in the role of a ‘Shadow Minister’ for the areas concerned. Not that there is an actual minister to shadow, and not that the Conservative Party plans to appoint such local ministers if in Government.
For example one Conservative MP, operating as ‘Shadow’ of a fictional Minister for Cornwall, is taking up local casework with ministers, presenting petitions in Parliament on local Cornish issues, in fact acting to all intents and purposes as if an elected Cornish MP. Never mind he is actually an MP in Hertfordshire, 250 miles away. Similar appointments have been made for Tory free zones like Liverpool, Manchester and Plymouth
In every case this activity shadowing imaginary “ministers for places the Conservative Party didn’t win last time” mirrors work local MPs are doing already. It is in reality a tool for party political campaigning on behalf of the Conservative Party, nothing to do with shadowing any Government Minister at all. By using membership of the Commons for one constituency to raise issues in another constituency, they are acting as, in effect, a shadow local MP on behalf of the Conservative Party.
It appears the taxpayer may be effectively funding this activity in more ways than just paying the MPs salary. The “Shadow Minister for Cornwall” has repeatedly refused to deny that he claims his travel costs for this party politicking from Commons allowances designed to support genuine Shadow Ministerial visits. It seems likely that every visit, and every press release, is effectively funded by the taxpayer.
So this week I put a simple question to the Speaker. Should all parties now feel free to appoint MPs as ‘Shadow Ministers’ for target constituencies, to act for party political advantage on local issues over the head of the local MP, at taxpayer expense?
The Speaker’s reply? “I do not expect any Hon. Member of this House to take up cases other than those in their own constituency. It is wrong.”
So if the Conservative MPs want to campaign in Cornwall or anywhere else they are free to do so, but they should not misuse their role as an MP elsewhere to take up casework. The Speakers ruling was clear to say the least.
But here’s the funny thing. As a Parliamentary convention it is actually unenforceable. There is no sanction. So the “multi-member” seat may be here to stay. Just a pity the Conservatives don’t support the electoral reform to underpin it.