I was doing my weekly fruit & veg shop at Lewisham market yesterday. Between picking up two sizeable butternut squashes for the bargain price of a pound, and getting three punnets of cherry tomatoes for 50p, it struck me that politics would do well to build a closer relationship with food.
Let me explain. I’m not suggesting food has any particular relevance to politics, only that food is a necessity to stay alive – and engaging with politics is not. So while Lewisham market is bustling with locals picking up fruit & veg bargains on a Saturday, the same can hardly be said of council meetings, MPs surgeries or, indeed, voting booths.
The best and easiest way to change this is by holding public surgeries in places where people naturally congregate, preferably in local markets or on the high street but even in supermarkets if need be. I’m no great fan of the latter but if that’s where people are that’s where MPs should be.
This idea is not new. Several MPs are holding these types of public surgery; Graham Stuart, Conservative MP for Beverly & Holderness in Yorkshire holds a ‘street surgery’ on his local high street most Saturdays; Alan Campbell, Labour MP for Tynemouth uses his local Tesco for a ‘supermarket surgery’, while Conservative MP for Norwich, Chloe Smith, prefers the Co-Op; and Labour and Co-Operative MP for Walthamstow, Stella Creasy, goes on a ‘walkabout’ in her constituency every Saturday.
Hansard research shows that only 38% of people could name their local MP. While there of course remains a need for private surgery appointments, for obvious reasons, going public would at the very least increase recognition of MPs. And trust tends to follow from familiarity.
Those out doing the fruit & veg shop in Lewisham yesterday were a diverse mix of demographics – Afro-Caribbeans, Africans, Indians, Pakistanis, Chinese, South Asians and British. Many migrants – and British people for that matter – may not only be unfamiliar with the name of their MP but even of the fact ‘surgeries’ exist.
If Joan Ruddock (MP for Deptford and Lewisham) had been standing amongst the stalls yesterday, many, perhaps most would not have stopped to talk to her. But almost all would have glanced and put a face to the name. And if she stood there every week some might even start to say hello.
The important point is that when an issue did crop up – be it to do with schools, planning permission, a neighbourly dispute, or whatever – for somebody who usually would not make an appointment to meet their MP, there is a good chance they would see Joan Ruddock and head over for a chat. Why? Because the effort to do so would be minimal.
No more so than sticking a butternut squash in your bag…
image via diamond geezer