In February of last year, Ipsos-Mori carried out a poll that found that 77% of the public "do not generally trust politicians" and that only 18% trust politicians to tell the truth. Indeed, the British public trust politicians to tell the truth less than they do estate agents, bankers and journalists. So in attempting to sell a book called Commons People: MPs Are Human Too, the author, Tony Russell, has a hero's task.
But it is a book well worth reading. Russell is also founder and head of Reflections Art in Health, a national charity (based in Barnsley) that is dedicated to promoting the visual and performing arts as an aid to recovery for those, like Russell himself, who have suffered with mental health issues. Russell writes with the same infectious passion that marks the man himself. There is no side to Tony Russell and the book he has produced is deeply personal, refreshingly honest and thoroughly optimistic.
With all his years as a tireless charity campaigner, Russell has met with ministers and MPs from across the political spectrum. Commons People is based on a series of interviews the author conducted with a cross section of today's Members of Parliament. There are the rising stars (like Esther McVey and Nicky Morgan from the Conservatives, or Dan Jarvis and Liz Kendall from Labour). Russell interviewed some of the old hands (like Stephen Dorrell and Sir Peter Bottomley). He spoke to some of Parliament's real characters (like Stephen Pound and Jacob Rees Mogg) and also to some of the most high profile campaigners in the Commons (like Gloria De Piero from Labour or Charles Walker from Tories).
Altogether, Russell was 'in conversation' with some 40 MPs from all parties so it's impossible to mention everyone. Speaking to BBC Radio Sheffield yesterday, Russell said that 39 MPs out of the 40 he interviewed were "not boring". He wouldn't divulge who the one boring MP was - I sincerely hope it wasn't me!
Russell asks all sorts of questions. Some are obvious - like asking the MPs to list their inspirations, their expectations, their highs and their lows. Others included: "What keeps you awake at night?" Or: "If you were prime minister, what would be the one thing you would do?" With regard to the latter, Stephen Pound MP replied: "If I was elected as prime minister I'd demand a recount".
Reading Russell's book, it is striking that all of the MPs he interviewed argued that they went into politics for the right reasons - to change things and to make life better for people. Most said that they valued their work in the constituency the most. Of course you'd expect us MPs to say that, but it also happens to be true. Politics at its best is a vocation and a public service. And Russell wants the reader to see the best in people. As he himself states:
"In writing this book I am hoping that I can, in my own small way, create a better understanding of the people that make the decisions that affect all our lives, and maybe even encourage the great British public to take a much greater interest in the work of our elected representatives".
It was revealing that when Russell asked the MPs to discuss their hobbies, interests and passions, the replies we gave were perfectly ordinary. Kevin Brennan has his guitar, Greg Mulholland MP likes to go running, Phil Wilson MP loves Jazz, and Ann Coffey MP has her photography. Most also talked about spending time with their families, enjoying a glass of wine or watching sport. These things may be a little boring, but they are certainly 'human'.
But in an era of continued cynicism about politicians, whose reputations nose-dived further after the MPs' expenses scandal of the last parliament, and at a time of falling participation in our democracy, Russell's book has a bigger objective than just trying to show politicians in a 'human' light. As the Tory Andrew Bridgen MP said: "Parliamentary democracy is not perfect, but it is better than any of the alternatives".
Commons People is unlikely to make much headway in getting politicians to be more trusted by the public. As my Labour colleague Gloria De Piero has been asking the public, with her characteristic, no-nonsense approach: "It's like I'm an axe murderer - why do you hate me?!" At the end of the day it is only us MPs, with all of our faults and frailties, that can try and earn greater trust from the public by how we work and how we behave.
Russell's attempt to try and single-handedly turn around public opinion may be a hero's task. But it is a task for which he should be thoroughly commended. In the process, he's also managed to produce a book about politics that is both extremely well-written and genuinely engaging
Michael Dugher is MP for Barnsley East and Vice Chair of the Labour Party. He is one of the MPs interviewed in 'Commons People: MPs Are Human Too'Suggest a correction