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Why Politics Works

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Richard Chew, a recent graduate of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, gives an insight into why British politics isn't as broken as one might think:

In May this year Nick Clegg described the British Establishment as "broken". He linked phone hacking and police corruption to banking and MPs' expenses. At the height of the phone hacking story, he criticised the "rot" at the heart of British politics.

This lament for the state of British politics can be found elsewhere. From the pages of the Guardian to the posters of Occupy London, politics is broken. On this issue, I for one do not agree with Nick. Since I started work in Parliament, I have seen numerous examples of how politics does work. Fortunately for us voters, not all politicians are the venal pole-climbers of The Thick of It.

Politicians are very often described as "out of touch". This is a claim I have always been slightly suspicious of. By the very fact of being elected, it is politicians' job to be in touch. In my experience, constituents come to their MPs with the widest imaginable range of problems.
Some have problems with benefits, or accessing housing. Others' immigration status is unclear. Many just write to express their opinion on issues important to them - from gay marriage to Post Offices. Charities or interest groups have their own particular issues to campaign for.

All of these people who write a letter, send an email or meet their MP in person at a constituency surgery will receive a response. Benefit problems can be solved, policies are explained and Ministers are questioned. I cannot imagine how many MPs could be more in touch with the different groups of people that make up the country - or at least the constituency they represent. Indeed, working in Parliament has exposed me to a far greater range of circumstances than I would otherwise have encountered. I can now tell the difference between Income Support, JSA, ESA, DLA and explain public subsidies for public transport. None of these are things I have any reason to know, except for their importance to the public.

Another common criticism is that MPs are deaf to ordinary people. A vivid example of this sentiment came at a debate I attended on the Work Capability Assessment. This is a test designed to show what disabled people are able to do to get them back into work. However, its implementation has been roundly criticised.

At this debate, dozens of MPs came to represent the experiences of their disabled constituents and question the Minister responsible, Chris Grayling. After over an hour of these MPs explaining their constituents' complaints, the Minister began to reply. He was greeted by a barrage of heckles from the public gallery ("Shame!", "Tories kill people!" etc.). However, the shout which stood out the most came from a disabled man in a wheelchair: "We don't have a voice."

It is clear that there have been and are serious problems with the WCA. Still, sat in the Palace of Westminster, with numerous MPs voicing their constituents' complaints and questioning the man ultimately responsible for the policy, this accusation seemed incongruous. If that does not count as having a voice, what would?

My final demonstration of how politics works is what goes on in the House of Commons. The only action many people ever see is Prime Minister's Questions. This is a weekly routine of David Cameron turning red, Ed Balls gesticulating wildly and Ed Miliband occasionally standing up to speak. It is often criticised as Punch and Judy politics, testosterone fuelled antagonism, or otherwise unworthy behaviour from the supposedly sensible people making important judgements for the country.

These criticisms may have some value, if they were at all representative of most of what happens in the chamber. Only since working in Parliament have I seen what goes on beyond half an hour on Wednesday lunch times. MPs debate - with patience, good humour and wit rarely ascribed to them - various issues of importance. Most often this is Government legislation.

However, there is a surprising amount of time given for backbenchers to debate what matters to them and their constituents, from the price of fuel to how to care for carers. The debates themselves, even though they rarely lead to laws being made, can affect issues for the better. It seems like this is the very side of Parliament critics of PMQs are calling for. It is there if you know where to look - the BBC Parliament channel.

Of course there are problems in politics, as the expenses scandal showed. However, these are not so widespread or pernicious as some people seem to think. Compared with almost any country in the world, we elect representatives we can be proud of.

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