Alan's Speech on 'Representing Hull'

Tue, Oct 25, 2011

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One foggy evening in February 1997, driving up Gipsy Hill in South East London I was contacted by the office of Tony Blair – Leader of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition.

At the time I was the General Secretary of the Communication Workers Union, a member of the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party and
I was already late for a birthday dinner for my father-in-law in Crystal Palace. I pulled the car over, picked up the huge contraption that was a late 20th Century mobile phone and took the call.

Tony came on the line. He wanted to assuage my concern that a defecting Tory MP Alan Howarth, would be imposed in the Newport by-election where the CWU were backing one of our officials as a good local candidate.

At the end of the conversation, Tony asked me if I was interested in becoming an MP. I said “no”, I had never had the slightest urge to stand for Parliament.

Three months later I arrived in this City half way through the 6 week general election campaign as the Labour candidate for the new seat of Hull West and Hessle.

There are two conclusions to be drawn from this story. The first is that Tony Blair is a very persuasive man and the second is that I am one of the most fortunate people in British politics.

My colleagues in North and East Hull, Diana Johnson and Karl Turner became Labour candidates through the arduous and nerve wracking process of seeking nominations from local branches of the Party and affiliated trade unions. They went through selection meetings, short listings and a final run off where their eloquence and commitment were tested to the full.

In contrast, I suppose you could say I arrived as part of the Parachute Regiment. That small band of fortunate individuals parachuted into safe seats after their predecessors stepped down at a time that made it impossible to go through the normal selection process.

Stewart Randall had held the seat of Hull West for 14 years. His posters were in the windows of Labour supporters, his name was on our leaflets. There had been a Labour MP for Hull West called Jimmy Johnson in the ‘60s and ‘70s.. Someone still had some “Vote Johnson” posters from that era and suggested we dust them off and display them. No-one in Hull had any idea who I was. But on May 1st 1997 I recorded the biggest majority ever recorded in Hull West, let alone with the addition of Hessle that was predicted to reduce the Labour majority.

Whilst MPs sometimes delude themselves into thinking that they’ve been elected on the basis of their personal qualities; their charm, wisdom and devastating good looks – my election in 1997 demonstrates the fact that MPs in the modern age are almost always elected on the basis of their political party.

History is littered with the political graves of former MPs who thought their votes represented a personal following.

If I was inclined to be self-delusional I’d have to face the fact that since people locally have got to know me better over the ensuing 14 years fewer of them have voted for me, my majority having declined steadily since that glorious sunny May Day of 1997.

This lecture gives me an opportunity to reflect on my time as a Member of Parliament in this amazing city and to look at how representative Parliamentary democracy has changed since some of my illustrious predecessors held office.

The first thing I realised when I became the candidate in 1997 was that anyone fortunate enough to represent Hull in Parliament has an awful lot to live up to.

Andrew Marvell, the MP for Hull from 1659 until his death in 1678 wrote one of the most beautiful poems in English literature with one of the best chat up lines:-
‘To His Coy Mistress’ contains the couplet:-
“The Grave’s a fine and private place,
But none I think do there embrace”
Probably not suitable for Hull students to use on Friday night at the Asylum. But still as subtle in its seductive power as it was when he wrote it “by the tide of Humber.”

Marvell was born in Hull. His father was the Assistant Preacher (or Lecturer) at Holy Trinity. Marvell senior died crossing the Humber when the boat he was in capsized and sank – which probably made Andrew Marvell one of the earliest advocates for a Humber Bridge.

We don’t know how Marvell came to be selected as a candidate in Hull but, given that he’d been Cromwell’s Secretary and that Hull was a Cromwellian bastion in Royalist East Riding (in many ways it’s still Roundheads v Cavaliers around here); it’s easy to see his attraction for the handful of local citizens who decided these things.

Interestingly, Marvell was one of the only MPs to received payment before the creation of the Labour Party led to salaried MPs in the early 20th Century. He was paid 6s.8d. for every day’s attendance. Even more interestingly, he was paid by Hull Corporation with the money being raised through a local tax known as Knight’s Pence.

The practice wasn’t widespread and only lasted until the end of the 17th Century.

In a parliamentary career spanning 17 years, Marvell received a total of £525. He made just 14 speeches, was appointed to 120 committees and acted as a teller in 8 divisions.

By the standards of the time he was a Parliamentary workaholic.

Whilst Parliament in its methods and procedures has changed remarkably little over the centuries the role of Parliamentarians has altered dramatically.

Were Andrew Marvell to walk into the House of Commons this evening he would immediately be familiar with the rules. Indeed he could again be asked to be a teller in a division (ie to count the number of Members recording their vote, by walking through the ‘Aye’ or ‘No’ Lobby).

He would see Parliamentary Bills published in almost exactly the same form as the 17th Century with the same process of First Reading, Second Reading, Committee Stage and Report.

When he was a Member of Parliament 340 odd years ago he would have had to place an ancient Top Hat on his head in order to raise a point of order. That archaic, silly practice has of course ended – just 12 years ago.

The procedures would have been even more familiar to my other illustrious predecessor, William Wilberforce who became MP for the City of his birth almost exactly 100 years after Marvell died in situ.

If anyone considers that my arrival with the Parachute Regiment was strange or even reprehensible, Wilberforce’s election was much stranger and by today’s standards reprehensible, but in 1780 not at all unusual.

Wilberforce was 20 years of age when he sought nomination. Three years earlier he had left his home in the High Street to study at Cambridge and recorded the following experience:-

“I was introduced on the very first night of my arrival to as licentious a set of men as well can be conceived. They drank hard and their conversation was even worse than their lives….

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I was horror struck by their conduct.”

Then, as now, Cambridge failed to live up to the high moral standards of Hull.

As the son of a wealthy merchant, Wilberforce could have simply purchased a Parliamentary seat. Half of the 558 Parliamentary constituencies were in so-called Rotten Boroughs controlled by a small number of men and sometimes literally purchased by Her Majesty’s Treasury.

Wilberforce could have easily afforded the £4,000 necessary for what were officially described as Pocket Boroughs but idealistically decided to represent Hull where he spent much, much more than £4,000 to get elected.

Hull had two MPs elected by 1,500 voters who qualified by virtue of their status as Freemen of the Town. This designation was hereditary. Many Freemen no longer lived in Hull, the majority residing in London.

Each voter expected to be paid for their vote, the going rate being two guineas for one of their two votes and four guineas for what was known as a “plumper” – an agreement to vote for only one candidate and no-one else. Those in London also expected at least £10 to travel to Hull to cast their vote.

William Wilberforce began with an advantage. Not because he came from Hull but because he became the third candidate, thus necessitating an election for the two seats. This made him very popular. Understandably, given the remuneration involved, the electorate hated nothing more than an uncontested election.

The election was called just as Wilberforce reached the age of 21 – the age of candidacy then and for the following 230 years until last year’s General election when it was reduced to 18.

To celebrate his 21st and to impress the electorate, he held an ox-roast in the High Street that cost him £9,000 – the equivalent of £1 million today.

There was no such thing as secret voting and Wilberforce won with 1,126 votes and knew who those voters were. It would have cost him a minimum of £2,300 but much more with plumpers and travel costs – not to mention the money he spent in the taverns of Wapping wining and dining his cockney electorate.

There is one fascinating aspect of Wilberforce’s election concerning the beaten candidate, a man called David Hartley who had been the MP for Hull since 1774 and was to be re-elected in a by-election for the second seat two years after losing to Wilberforce.

One of the reasons why Hartley lost was because he was an outspoken opponent of slavery and a critic of the American War. He was also incidentally the talented inventor of fireproofing for buildings and ships.

He was the first MP to put the case for the abolition of the slave trade before the House of Commons, moving a resolution in 1776 that “the slave trade is contrary to the laws of God and the rights of men.”

Because of his stance on slavery and the war he was disowned by Hull Corporation who expected him to speak in the interests of the merchants of the City.

His conqueror, the young, precocious Wilberforce had never been known to express a political opinion on anything up to that point, let alone the issue of the slave trade which was as important to British commerce as financial services are today.

It is almost certainly the case that the outspoken and rebellious Hartley exposed Wilberforce to the arguments against slavery for the first time and thus in losing his Hull seat bequeathed Wilberforce his place in history.

If it hadn’t been for that ox-roast in the High Street it may well be the statue of David Hartley standing a few yards away outside Hull College today.

I would ask those who believe that politics is more confrontational and ruthless today than it’s ever been to ponder the fact that in the years Wilberforce spent in Parliament, one Prime Minister, Pitt, fought a duel on Putney Common after a fellow MP took offence at a comment he’d made during a debate on the funding of the army and another Prime Minister, Spencer Percival, was shot dead as he walked into the House of Commons by a man he owed money to.

Indeed, during the election campaign in 1780 Wilberforce had a stone thrown at him. A local butcher called Johnny Bell approached him to say “I have found out who threw a stone at you and I’ll kill him tonight”. To which Wilberforce responded magnanimously by saying he must be frightened, not killed.

It puts Prescott’s punch into perspective.

Organised political parties had their genesis during Wilberforce’s time in Parliament. Indeed he’s sometimes described today as a Tory although he would never have used that description of himself, at least in his early years.

David Hartley was labelled a Rockingham Whig.

By the early 19th Century the era of party politics had begun.

Wilberforce’s achievement in stopping Britain’s involvement in the slave trade was immense. It helped that he was a close friend of the Prime Minister, Pitt The Younger, who agreed with his argument but it’s unlikely that he could have pursued a modern equivalent of that issue if it was against the policy of his party.

As the example of David Hartley showed, an MP then as now, needs the broad support of his or her electorate for the political issues they’ve decided to pursue.

When Wilberforce succeeded in his mission to stop Britain trading in slavery he was MP for the County Seat of Yorkshire rather than Hull. This City’s proud boast that not a single slave was traded through the Port of Hull probably had more to do with our geographical position on the East Coast rather than any local consensus against the practice.

This brings me onto the question of whether representing Hull means reflecting the views of the electorate in Parliament and, perhaps more importantly, being prepared to suppress a personal view in favour of that which is perceived as being the collective view of constituents.

I don’t have time to get into the issue of the Party Whips and their cruel and unusual punishments except to say that their power and control is overstated.

My Party has put a 3 line whip on tonight’s vote on Europe (which means that the piece of paper we received telling Labour MPs when votes will take place has the time of the vote underlined 3 times) but some of my colleagues will vote against and nothing nasty or sinister will happen to them.

Conservative MPs are also being whipped to vote against the Motion and any Government Minister breaking that Whip would be sacked and those hoping to be Government Ministers can probably forget about it for a while.

On major issues the whip is pretty irrelevant. It primarily exists to make sure that the programme a governing party was elected on is implemented or to ensure that there’s a disciplined and collective approach to opposition.

On many important tissues such as abortion or stem cell research a free vote is traditional.

The better question for all elected representatives, whether it be in Parliament, the local authority or the Council of Hull University is whether they are the conduit of the views of others or they consider themselves elected to exercise their judgement.

I come down in favour of the latter although there is always an element of the former and MPs have an obligation to listen to the views of their constituents before casting their vote.

Nobody has responded to this dilemma better than Wilberforce’s contemporary, Edmund Burke, in his “Letter to the Electors of Bristol” in 1774.

“Your representative owes you not his industry only, but his judgement: and he betrays instead of serving you if he sacrifices it to your opinion.”

Whilst modern technology has empowered the electorate in a way unimaginable to Burke, as would be the extension of the franchise to both genders and all social classes, I don’t think that basic principle has been diminished in any way.

E-petitions are in my view an entirely beneficial development so long as they trigger debate rather than mandate a decision.

But if that basic principle of representation hasn’t changed – what has in respect of the relationship between MP and constituent?

First of all, MPs are now expected to spend much more time in their constituencies and to meet and engage with their constituents on a level which was unheard of even 40 years ago.

Winston Churchill was MP for Dundee for 14 years and visited the City once a year – for a few days every autumn.

He went to Dundee having lost a by-election in Manchester when he was appointed to his first Cabinet position in 1908. In those days and up until 1926 if an MP was appointed to the Cabinet they had to seek a further mandate from their electorate.

Churchill’s loss of Manchester had nothing to do with his infrequent visits (he was only marginally more visible in Manchester than he was to be in Dundee) – Constituents simply did not expect to see their MP. Constituency surgeries didn’t exist at all before the 1960s and were rare until comparatively recent times.

Churchill would have declared grandly that his job was to represent Dundee in Westminster, not Westminster in Dundee.

That distinguished graduate of Hull University, Roy Hattersley tells how as a young radical in Sheffield after the war he colluded in eliciting from the Labour candidate for Sheffield Hillsborough the promise that, if elected, he would return to the constituency every three months and, during the Saturday of his visitation, make himself available for advice and assistance.

The candidate, a man called George Darling was duly elected but when he was made a PPS (a Parliamentary Private Secretary – the lowest rung on the ministerial ladder which virtually involves carrying the bags of a proper minister) – the local party felt guilty about the exacting undertaking which they’d imposed. So the resolution of congratulations was amended to include the following sentence.

“Furthermore, whilst expressing our full support for the Member’s wish to serve this constituency to the best of his ability, we appreciate that the office to which he has been appointed may make it impossible for him to fulfil the onerous obligation of continual visits.”

As for constituency correspondence, Denis Healey describes in his splendid autobiography “The Time of My Life” how he replied to every letter from a constituent by hand up until the time he first entered the Cabinet as Defence Secretary.

It wasn’t so much that he had no staff and no office (another recent innovation – Healey wrote his letters sitting in the House of Commons Library) – he had very little correspondence from the good citizens of East Leeds.

MPs today probably receive as much correspondence a day as their predecessors in the 1960s received in a year.

Surgeries, case work, the pursuance of local issues sometimes leads to the accusation that MPs are now little more than glorified Social Workers.

I disagree. To represent a constituency effectively an MP must be aware of the issues that the constituency is facing and the problems their constituents are encountering.

Backbench MPs have influence rather than power. They can be a voice for the dispossessed, an advocate for the inarticulate. They can pursue past injustices as well as helping to shape a response to the challenges of the future.

Most often they’re an important and influential ally in pursuit of a common goal.

This work is every bit as important as the MP’s role as legislator, either holding the government to account or, as I was for eleven of my fourteen years being part of the government, being held to account.

I’m often asked how I could do my job as an MP whilst holding a Cabinet position. Unlike Roy Hattersley’s MP when he became a PPS, I’ve never been released from the onerous obligation of actually doing my job as an MP whilst holding a Cabinet position.

Hull has a very healthy insouciance about these things.

I lost count of the number of times constituents asked me to take an issue up with, for instance, the Health Secretary without realising that I actually was the Health Secretary.

I found that being a Minister made it more important to remain hands on with constituency work – not so much for the constituent’s benefit as my own.

The busier a politician is with national or international affairs the more important is his or her constituency casework. It is that above all which keeps an MP in touch with the problems of those we represent and it demonstrates how legislation in Westminster affects the electorate who send us there.

I don’t of course come from Hull. Indeed Karl Turner, who was elected to succeed John Prescott in Hull East at last year’s election is the first Hull MP to be born in the City since William Wilberforce 231 years ago.

My knowledge of Hull before I came here consisted of my love of Larkin’s poetry, Kingston Communications and my Aunty Dolly who lived in East Hull and had 9 children – all potential voters except that only one lives in my constituency.

I know, thanks to Larkin, that before the collapse of the fishing industry Hull had “ships up streets” and that it is “untalkative. Out of reach.”

That great daughter of Hull, Maureen Lipman taught me about the accent telling me that in Hull a pearl is someone who comes from Poland.

And of course I knew about this fabulous University and the Politics Department which Philip Norton has done so much to instil in the national conscience.

I could have gone almost anywhere with the Parachute Regiment. I had the good fortune to come here.

Whatever I have managed to do for the people of Hull is as nothing compared to what they’ve done for me.

And of course this is the only City with a Railway Station that tells its MPs what status they need to acquire in the community – Paragon.

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