Iain might be surprised to discover that one of the reasons so many colleagues of both parties supported this is that many of us have young families who remain in the constituency home while we’re in London. You may recall an incident recorded in Paul Flynn’s book, “Commons Knowledge”, when a young woman, accompanied by her boyfriend, turns up at Paul’s home while his wife and children are alone. The woman wants her MP’s help in clearing her boyfriend of the charge of rape.
Without wishing to break any confidences, I can tell you that many colleagues have reported such incidents in the years since. In the weeks following the 2005 general election, Carolyn answered the door on two occasions to male constituents who were looking for me. They weren’t at all threatening, but she didn’t feel comfortable having to explain that at that moment, I was 400 miles away and she was alone with the babies.
The issue has become more worrying for MPs in recent years, because ballot papers are now posted in greater numbers to voters’ homes; there is a far greater opportunity to take note of the information contained in them now than there ever was when the only time you got the chance to peruse the ballot paper was for a few seconds in the polling booth.
Later on, Tom's wife Carolyn was driven to comment on Tom's blog, having taken great exception to what I wrote...
@Iain Dale – “shameful vote”? Oh, shame on you. As the wife of a politician who usually tries at all costs to stay out of politics herself, I feel so strongly about what you wrote I feel I have to comment, especially when your blog is the only (other) political blog I read every day. This vote was never about MPs trying to have one rule for themselves and another rule for others, it was about a genuine concern over safety, for themselves, but primarily their families. The vote to remove MPs addresses from ballot papers (although not the name of the constituency in which they live) was not to prevent a terrorist attack as you say it was – I think there may be more high profile targets than a 3-bedroom semi in suburbia. Rather, the security issue is about no longer making it so easy to find out the home address of someone who you know will be in London all week, while their family – usually a wife and children – are at home alone. Already the comments are predictable – this vote proves all politicians are vile, dishonest, corrupt; if you don’t like it, don’t become a politician etc.. How much easier it is to stand on the sidelines shouting about everything that is wrong, instead of being the person who actually steps up to the plate and tries to make a difference. You say that one of your favourite books is ‘In The Arena’ by Richard Nixon. I was genuinely sad to read the vitriol you extended over this vote. When even thoughtful political commentators like you now make the automatic assumption that everything politicians do is dishonest, God only knows why anyone still wants to go into politics. Being alone all week with small children is far from my ideal, but I chose to marry my husband, and his job was part of the deal. I’m not looking for sympathy or special treatment, but at the same time why should my children and I be made vulnerable because people despise him and his job? As a man, and as a man who has no children, I can only assume you haven’t tried to imagine how intimidating it is for a woman to answer the door to strangers and admit that you and your young children are home alone, as I have had to do. One man has already left a comment saying that if he knew where we lived he would come round and shit in our garden. Well, I’ll sleep easy tonight then. Wanting to protect your family does not make you a bad person – even if you are an MP.
As readers know, I like Tom, We're around the same age, have a similar outlook on a lot of things and both have a sense of the ridiculous. I've never met Carolyn, but I follow her Twitter feed and feel I know enough about her to think that if I ever did meet her we'd get on famously. So I take her comments very seriously. So let me respond in the form of an open letter...
You're right. using the word 'shameful' was a bit OTT. But that's what headlines are for I suppose. So, first point to you. But I am afraid that is where our agreement will end. I totally understand the desire for privacy. I also understand the desire to protect loved ones. Being in the public eye can be a nightmare and those who choose public service sacrifice a lot, and yes, their families often sacrifice more. It's not fair, but that is the way it is. The experiences you and Tom relate are unpleasant in the extreme, but think about the alternative - where politicians are so remote from people that in the end people rebel against it. Politicians can be their own worst enemies. They may not intend to pass laws that are seen as creating one rule for most but a different one for them - but it happens too often.
Political candidates' addresses have appeared on ballot papers for ever. There needs to be a very good reason indeed to change the system. Is it really any different from the public being able to access my address from Companies House? Why should MPs be treated any different from company directors? I can think of no good reason. Why should Sir Fred Goodwin's personal address be public when an MP's isn't. I suspect Lady Goodwin might have similar thoughts to yourself at the moment. I wouldn't blame her, but nor would I expect Companies House to change the rules.
You say that I "make the automatic assumption that everything politicians do is dishonest, God only knows why anyone still wants to go into politics" I do no such thing, and if you do indeed read my blog every day you will know that I constantly come under fire from my readers for defending politicians and politics as a profession. I think MPs deserve to be paid more, are entitled to a second home allowance and enough resources to run a properly resourced office. Most of my readers think they should be paid very little, should live in London in a £20 a night b&b and should type their own letters - and still have change out of a farthing.
You ask plaintively why on earth anyone should want to go into politics. I ask myself that question too. And increasingly, the wrong sort of people are going into politics - people with no experience, no hinterland, but an insatiable desire to be someone rather than believe in something. That is the system we have created. What we now have to do is deconstruct that system and improve the body politic. We won't do that by changing the rules to make the system even less transparent than it already is.
I have never been an MP, but I have worked for MPs and know exactly what they have to contend with. I have also been a candidate - an openly gay candidate in a very conservative area. I don't need anyone to tell me about abuse from the electorate. The silent phone calls. The threats pushed through a letter box. The anonymous green ink letters. It shouldn't come with the territory but it does. Yes, why would anyone go into politics? I've been 'In the Arena'. Much of me would like to be in it again. But I too have seen the effect it has on people close to you. My partner is like you - more comfortable out of the public eye. My mother uses every opportunity to urge me not to do it again. But I'm like Tom. I can't get rid of the political virus. We both see things which make us angry and we want to change. And that can only be done at the sharp end - not by writing, not by blogging, not by broadcasting. But by being 'in the arena'.
MPs' families have a rough deal in many ways, especially where there are young children. I appreciate that. And I would not wish to do anything to make their lives even tougher. But if someone wants to 'have a go' they will find out their address no matter if it is publicly available or not. The change in the rules voted on last night will make no difference to the nutters. All it does is give further grist to the mill of those who think that MPs are already featherbedded and remote from the very people they are supposed to represent.
Someone on my blog, or maybe it was Tom's, expressed the doubt that if I were an MP I would have voted against this change. I can assure them I would have. At the last election, I could see which way the wind was blowing and I issued a ten point (rather pompously titled) Pledge of Integrity. I thought the electorate deserved to know how I would conduct myself if I were elected. I'll list it here...
* never to solicit or accept a company directorship while serving as an MPA fat lot of good it did me. But if I ever stood again, I'd do something similar. But what an indictment of our politics that a candidate should have to do such a thing. If our politics worked, most of that would be taken as read.
* to publish in detail any expense I reclaim while in the pursuit of my parliamentary duties
* to tell people my real views even when I know they will disagree with me
* never knowingly to claim credit for something when the credit is not mine
* never to employ any member of my family in my parliamentary office
* to live in the constituency (as I do now) and make my main home among the community I serve
* never to promise what I know I cannot deliver
* never to waste taxpayers' money by tabling pointless Early Day Motions or asking Parliamentary Questions for the sake of it
* never to use taxpayers' money via the Parliamentary Office Cost Allowance to promote party political activity
So, Carolyn, I am sorry if you felt my words were too strong, but I care deeply about transparency in politics and can't pretend that I think that last night's vote was a step in the right direction, because I don't.