The future of the left since 1884

Restoring Trust

Michael Shanks MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West and shadow Scottish minister reflects on his first six months as an MP and why he believes politics can still make a difference.



Michael Shanks MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton West and shadow Scottish minister reflects on his first six months as an MP and why he believes politics can still make a difference.

We all know a week is a long time in politics, but the six months since I was elected have flashed by. In that time, we have welcomed four new colleagues in a series of by-elections rounding off the 21 held in this parliament so far. The now traditional group photograph welcoming a new member to the parliamentary Labour party is becoming something of a monthly tradition. Perhaps we won’t need a general election to form the next government after all.


Many of these by-elections have been caused by misconduct, rule-breaking, illegality and failure to live up to the standards the public rightly expect of their MPs. It is little wonder trust in politicians and in politics itself is at an all-time low. Just nine per cent of the British public say they trust politicians to tell the truth, making us the most mistrusted profession.


That should worry us all – no matter our politics. However debased our political culture has become in recent years, parliament remains the best way for the voices of the marginalised to be heard and the battle towards social justice to be fought. A discredited political class does none of us any good.


In my maiden speech in the Commons, I spoke about the lack of nuance in our political discourse, that complexity has somehow become a negative, something to be hushed up in favour of simplified, focus-grouped slogans. Take Back Control. Long-Term Economic Plan. Strong and Stable. Like the government that coined these phrases, they crumble under the slightest analysis. What we need is a return to serious, credible government, recognising that there are no quick fixes for the incredibly challenging and complex issues facing our country today.


What I detected during my by-election campaign was a sense not of voter apathy – which would suggest voters have given up caring altogether – but rather voter frustration. To use a good Scottish word, they are scunnered at being let down time and time again by distracted and divided governments right when they need government on their side most.


Donald Dewar is a political hero of mine. I met him when I was 11 years old, when the Scottish Parliament opened its doors for the first time on the Mound in Edinburgh. His speech that day still makes me sit up and think afresh on the incredible opportunity we who are elected have. He spoke of the mace with its four interwoven values – wisdom, justice, compassion, integrity. Most powerfully of all, he spoke of the fallibility of politicians. We will make mistakes, he said, but we will never lose sight of what brought us into politics – to strive to do well by the people and to contribute to the common weal.


That is our mission: a collective mission above party and above narrow self-interest. Above everything else, a mission to restore faith in politics as a means to achieving improved lives for all. To recommit ourselves to the march towards social justice which is at best faltering and, for a growing number of people, in reverse.


Before I was elected, I had the privilege of teaching young people. Given the state of the world we are asking them to inherit, the very least we can offer is a world-class education. However, we now have a generation of young people who have only ever known an SNP government in Holyrood. After 17 years, education standards in a country once heralded as having the best schools system in the world are in decline. The attainment gap – the measure Nicola Sturgeon staked her entire political reputation on closing – remains stubbornly wide. Your postcode and your family’s wealth continue to decide far too much of your life chances.


The young people I taught are full of potential. The young people I worked with in youth justice – trapped in a cycle of poverty, chaotic homelife and criminality – are full of potential too. But they are being held back by two governments that are in disarray – distracted and debilitated by division instead of focusing on the challenges of the future.


This is where politicians need to stand up and be counted. We must display those values Donald Dewar spoke about 25 years ago: we must be compassionate, act with integrity, fight for justice and not be afraid of complexity. Wrestle with the difficult stuff. Argue about it – passionately, but genuinely. Disagree without being disagreeable. Work to find the common-sense solutions that actually change people’s lives. We cannot think ‘systems’ are unchangeable, or write people off as hard to reach – rather, we must change our services to be more in reach of those who need them.


It has become fashionable for people – perhaps even a majority of people – to denigrate politics. During my short time in Westminster, it has become clearer than ever to me why people view our deliberations as being removed from their daily lives. But I have also seen some of the best our democracy has to offer – MPs from all sides fighting for the victims of the Post Office scandal, the infected blood scandal and for any number of causes that may only affect a small number of people, but affect them greatly.


As I used to tell my pupils when I was encouraging them to turn out and vote (regardless of who they voted for) – politics changes our lives for good or ill, and it is our responsibility to engage with it meaningfully and use it to push for meaningful change. We owe it to everyone on these islands to raise our game and show that politics can deliver the change people so desperately need.


Michael Shanks is the Labour MP for Rutherglen and Hamilton Wes

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