Richard Holden is MP for North West Durham.
The Baa, Edmundbyers, Co Durham
In Edmundbyers they came en masse – well, en masse for a small village. It was the 30th or so stop out of 50 on my constituency summer surgery tour of the communities of North West Durham. Fifteen or so constituents were gathered, questions and comments at the ready, on village green.
As at other stops, some came to raise specific local issues. Some came to mention national policy. Many just came to meet their MP; put a face to the name, or to get the measure of someone they sometimes see on local telly or in the paper, who they elected last year. And, of course, many constituents just wanted to get a couple of things off their chest.
The interactions reminded me of visiting The Grey Horse, Consett for my “ask the candidate” session back in November. That “ask the candidate” was an interesting event because I came under very heavy questioning from the start.
What I learnt from the interrogation I got then, aside from a couple of Labour activists who’d been sent along, was that the toughness wasn’t really directed at me; I was just the person stood there who was taking years of pent up frustration. A deep frustration that came from years of resentment, not with me or even the Conservative Party, but with politics generally; at not having had any opportunity to speak to and question their elected representatives, or those seeking election, before.
This was rammed home time and again on my summer tour and, perhaps more tellingly still, when I attended a parish council meeting and was informed by those present, including by a Parish Councillor who’d been on for the best part of half a century, that no previous MP had ever reached out them, let alone attended one of their council meetings.
In many of the villages I visited in the last fortnight people said things like “I’ve never seen or heard of my councillor, never mind my MP in my village before.” Speaking to so many people in my constituency over the summer has reminded me of the deep sense of detachment many have felt from those they elected to represent them over many years, but also the impact an active local MP or councillor can make to people’s feeling of dislocation.
That initial reaction, as I found at The Grey Horse, is just that – a reaction. It’s the first thing that happens when presented with someone who you’re then able to ask a question of. What it isn’t is a response to you or a guide in any way to how people might vote or how they necessarily really feel.
I learnt several weeks after my grilling at The Grey Horse that people had been impressed by my clarity, honesty and the fact that I’d turned up in a heavily Labour part of my constituency without a massive entourage; that I had stood my ground and given as good, if not better, than I’d got. In fact, a good number of those present had their vote tipped in my direction on the strength of that session when compared with the other candidates they saw.
As MPs leave their constituencies at the end of the summer recess and head back to Parliament, it will serve us well to remember the difference between the initial reaction and the response, especially to those who seek to discern what the public want from polling them.
There is frustration out there at everything relating to the global Coronavirus pandemic. There is an acknowledgment that the support the Government has provided to the economy has been substantial and will need to be paid for. There is still, rightly, a lot of fear out there about the virus, but also a desire that we don’t let it unnecessarily continue to impinge on our lives more than is necessary.
The next few months in politics in the run up to Christmas and though the new year are going to be challenging. There are major issues on the table. Our future relationship with the EU negotiations, which are likely to go down to the wire. There are also multiple complex international trade negotiations with Japan, the US, Australia and others.
There’ll be a very difficult budget for our Chancellor. And a Fisheries Bill that’ll set out our post-EU fishing regime as well as other contentious legislation. These will all be set in the context of the ongoing impact of the global Coronavirus pandemic on jobs and the economy.
Internationally, the situation with China and Russia is increasingly charged. The United States faces what is set to be a potentially both bruising and close Presidential election. Even normally calm Japan, an increasingly crucial international partner and ally, is in the midst of a change, following the departure of their respected Prime Minister.
As all these things play-out, we Conservatives must not get distracted too by the initial reaction because things will be choppy. We’re in a political battle for the long-term future of our country. What’s important is the leadership we show as we look to where we want the country to be in the years ahead. In early 2016, who’d have imagined we’d be where we are now? In fact, at the general election eight months ago who’d have imagined we’d be where we are now?
What we’re crafting together in Parliament is a response to the question at the next general election: “who do you want to be governing the country for the next four or five years?” to the people in The Grey Horse in Consett and on the village green at Edmundbyers. There are many staging posts as we slowly make our way there, and through the first anniversary of the general election.
In the tumult of the next few months, the adage that a week is a long time in politics will be seen again to be all too true, but we’ve got to hold firm to delivering a very clear response to the only question that matters – one that will be answered way down the line in the ballot box.