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Let us help our politicians be better connected with voters

Tom Harris, the Labour MP for Glasgow South, has raised an interesting set of issues by standing down from his party's front bench, claiming that he intends to spend more time with his family.

We've heard that one before, of course, but what makes Mr Harris's departure interesting is that – almost uniquely for political resignations – his reasons seem to be absolutely genuine. The current dissatisfaction and disillusionment with politicians shouldn't blind us to the fact that any diligent MP has a fairly heavy workload, with ridiculous hours (which, because of social and community events in their constituencies, monopolise their leisure time, too).

The public profile of elected officials effectively means that they are always working, or at least always potentially on show. Ministers and their shadows effectively have another job to do on top of that.

No-one, of course, maintains that this is the same sort of hard work as 12 hours down a pit. Nor is politics alone in its excessive working hours – bankers, hospital doctors and those in the media have accepted long and anti-social shifts for years, while the creeping expansion of the working day is increasingly (and inexcusably) affecting all sorts of other jobs as well.

But a good MP has, all the same, a hard schedule and the majority – as a necessary part of the job – one thing which most of us don't: an insane commute. Plenty of people add two or even three hours to their working day just getting to work, but few are, like Mr Harris, 400 miles away from the office. Or, in the case of poor Alistair Carmichael, the MP for Orkney and Shetland, 1000 kilometres – 621 miles – away.

The other thing which this concentration on Westminster – and, to a lesser extent, on Holyrood, since the SNP Government seems to have a rather contrary impulse to centralise – creates is the false perception that physical attendance at Parliament is the MP's main role. In fact, an MP's (or MSP's or MEP's) place of work is not only Westminster, Holyrood or Brussels and Strasbourg, but his or her own constituency.

One of the things which might begin to restore public confidence in our elected representatives is to place more emphasis on the local role of politicians, and to renew their primary and central purpose, which is to work for the people who elect them, rather than the executive, or their party's central machinery.

After his resignation, Mr Harris wrote that, though he didn't object to proposed reforms to make the sitting hours of the Commons more "family-friendly" and rid Parliament of its "gentleman's club" atmosphere, it would only really benefit those members who live close enough to London to get back home quickly.

It's to his credit that he hasn't demanded that the whole structure of political life should be adjusted for his convenience, but it's also a reminder that at the last election, there was talk of reforming Westminster to reconnect parliamentarians with the electorate. Yet, like the radical localisation agenda which I mentioned last week, and with which it shares some impulses, nothing has come of this.

No one big idea is going to persuade voters that their elected representatives, for the most part, do have their interests at heart; still less do the possibly harder job of reminding the representatives that their constituents, rather than the party whip, ought to be their priority. But there are many small changes which could be made to modernise the way in which government operates.

The digital age, as well as providing the curse of emails about work into our pockets well into the late evening, offers an opportunity for politicians to cast their votes on some issues from anywhere there is a broadband connection. The absurd pretence that every debate in the Commons or in Holyrood is of equal interest to every MP or MSP, and that many of their votes are not simply determined by the whip, is pointless. If you are simply lobby fodder, there is very little reason for your physical presence at a division.

It would surely be better for politicians to admit the reality: that they want and need to be in the Chamber only for debates which are genuinely important, or which have a particular impact on their constituents, or which particularly interest them. For routine or procedural votes, or those where they are simply planning to toe the party line, it makes no difference where they are physically located.

Reducing the number of sittings would be another step which would reinforce the notion that a member's work in his or her constituency is of at least equal importance to the time which they spend in the Westminster or Holyrood bubbles. As well as reviving politicians' connection with those they are supposed to represent, this would cut down the amount of legislation – which would be an improvement in itself.

If it comes to that, there are far too many MPs and MSPs for the size of our population; compare, for example, the 535 members of Congress in the United States, which has almost five times as many citizens as the UK, with the 650 members of the Commons and 129 MSPs. More decisions should be taken closer to the people who will be affected by them – something which, if it were to be implemented across the UK, would actually strengthen the case for the Union.

A great deal of the activity at both Westminster and Holyrood is, in any case, a pantomime of democratic accountability and legislative oversight, rather than the real thing. Prime and First Ministers' Questions are too often partisan slanging matches, with the various parties competing to see which witless piece of abuse makes it, as a four-second soundbite, on to the evening news.

Opposition parties should hold Governments to account, but it is more important to remind the Executive that it is principally accountable to the people. In an electronic age, there is no impediment to providing this real accountability much more directly.

All sorts of schemes – referendums on local issues; increased use of email petitions; allowing the public to rate their priorities for legislation; facilitating Q&A sessions with your representatives; placing more parliamentary information (such as fully transparent expenses and outside interests) online; making the recall of elected officials easier – are possible.

Some might not work, but there seems to have been no imagination or ambition by politicians to reconnect with the electorate. There are plenty of ways of allowing MPs to spend time with their constituents, as well as their families. It's a shame that, despite the noises the Coalition made about these issues when it first came to power, nobody's trying to do that.

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Local government

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