I guess it's hardly surprising that the Committee for Standards in Public Life has found in its biennial survey that people have lost faith in politicians. Apparently the trustworthiness of an MP is, now at 26%, only 10% above a tabloid journalist, and that can't be right.
I've now been involved in politics for 28 years and, hand on heart, I can say that most MPs I've come across, from all parties, have been decent human beings who are genuinely in it to improve the quality of people's lives. We may have wildly differing ideas about how to do that, but I'd say that they are generally good people.
So why do people have such a low opinion of them?
Well, the Expenses scandal is being widely blamed, given that this was the first survey since that time. Even when the reports weren't accurate, people saw the original report, but they might not have seen any subsequent apology and if they did it was subsumed amongst more tales of fiddling and greed. I don't think that things were particularly helped by MPs like Tom Harris whinging about the new, independent arrangements. I'm not saying IPSA got it right, but the level of vitriol from some was not helpful in rehabilitating MPs' standing.
And when do most people see MPs? In passing, on the tv news. It's only people who seriously need help (like me) who watch BBC Parliament and see the many sensible debates and the careful scrutiny of legislation and other good work that goes on in the House of Commons and Holyrood and the Welsh Assembly. Unfortunately, the braying, childish pantomime atmosphere of PMQs and other febrile parliamentary occasions are the only times most people get to see MPs. And what do they see? Mostly men of a certain age in suits behaving like they would be better off in a kindergarten.
I remember when Willie Rennie introduced his Ten Minute Rule Bill to allow the suspension of driving instructors who had been convicted of serious offences. This was serious stuff. While he was doing all the ceremonial bits - so many steps forward, a bow and repeat - I saw a Jacqui Smith the then Home Secretary smirk. What was making her laugh was the Tories, then in opposition, having a go at Willie and calling him names like "Scottish git" and getting away with it. I haven't noticed an improvement in behaviour since that time so maybe it's time Speaker John Bercow started getting tough with people and chucking them out if they start with those sorts of antics. They'd soon learn.
There are times when Holyrood does get a bit civilised. Most often, First Minister's Questions is a punchbag affair, with the First Minister doing most of the punching to be fair. Occasionally, though, a bit of sense seeps in when they devote the last few minutes to a particular theme, like domestic violence and people start to ask some proper questions that are designed to further a debate rather than score a point.
The press aren't there to fluff up MPs' egos - and nor should they be. But perhaps they might want to think about being a bit more balanced in their approach. I don't know any politicians who work less than 70 or so hours per week, from the early morning starts to travel to their Parliament to late at night when they're answering e-mails from their constituents. Even my MP, Labour's Graeme Morrice, who annoys the hell out of me almost every time he gets up to speak in the Commons, takes the time to reply courteously when I ask him stuff. Elected parliamentarians spend most of their time out in their communities (or at least should be) talking to people, finding out what's going on and how people feel, taking up issues of local concern.
That community engagement is really important - and so is actually getting out there and knocking on doors. Most of our lot already do lots of that. I made the point at my training session on social networking the other week that the people who use it best, like Jo Swinson, are also those who are always knocking on doors.
How do we up the impression of politicians as a breed, though? People having a good idea of their local MP being a hard working community politician isn't going to necessarily make them think that they're all pretty decent. The UK Parliament Education people recently launched a game, My UK, for young people to try their hand at running the country to understand what being PM was like. Do we need something similar for MPs so people understand their jobs?
I think it's healthy that people have a questioning approach to what politicians, and all other authority figures for that matter, say, but it's not healthy that their very competence and integrity is held in such low esteem. That shows a systemic problem and disconnect. Changing behaviour and information about what MPs do is a small part of the solution. I'd be interested to hear your ideas on how politicians can win people's faith.