26 June 2014
Just when it seemed almost impossible, there has been a new twist in the Donghua Liu saga. No, I am not referring to his amended statement about the nature of his relationships with and contributions to the Labour Party. Nor am I referring to the apparent amnesia of the man who granted him permanent residence in the first place.
Rather, the latest developments reveal something far more worrying about the relationship of the citizenry to its elected representatives. As I feared, the antics of Mr Liu and others like him appear to be leading to a loss of confidence amongst members of the public about the traditional role of MPs as the constituents’ advocate when they have issues to pursue with the government or one of its agencies.
A widely respected constituent of mine, whom I have been privileged to know for many years, contacted me last week about some issues he was facing. He said it was the first time he had ever felt the need to contact an MP, and then he added this chilling statement: “In light of current difficulties experienced by MPs trying to assist constituents, I certainly do not expect you to become directly involved, but merely advise who I should be contacting, or have them contact me.”
This is an appalling state of affairs if good, decent constituents feel unable to seek the assistance of their MPs, because of fears of perceptions of undue influence, brought on by the improper actions of the few who have tried to exert such influence – usually through the lure of financial support – to achieve their ends. MPs helping constituents, without fear, favour or recompense has been at the heart of our system forever, and it is extremely worrying if constituents now feel constrained from seeking that help.
So, what to do? In part, the answer lies with considering whether there ought to be limits placed on the amounts individuals can donate to political parties within specified time periods to blunt the influence of wealthy individuals. But MPs have to accept some responsibility as well. A new sense of wariness needs to be inculcated amongst them, especially where the attraction of the big dollar is concerned.
It is a truism that MPs have a duty to represent all their constituents, regardless of political allegiance, which most MPs honour. But it will become a serious problem if constituents begin to feel that they can no longer solicit their MPs’ assistance when they need it, because of fears of perceived undue influence. Yet, if my constituent’s concerns are widespread, as I suspect they may be from other conversations, that will be the unintended consequence of the Liu saga. People may well choose to just suffer injustice in silence. And when people lose confidence in the system that way, and the capacity of their MPs to represent them when they need it, the premise on which our representative democracy has been founded will really begin to totter quite sharply.