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Can a backbencher make a difference?

The article below was written as a pull out feature for 14-16 year olds for 'Citizenship Politics Association' a journal concerned with the teaching of citizenship in schools.

The rebellion by 122 Labour MPs over the war in Iraq, rocked the Labour Government proving that, even with its enormous majority, it is not invincible.   Only with Tory votes did Britain’s involvement in the war go ahead.  Our rebellion continues to lend weight to questions about whether the war was just or legal.   My view that it was not was supported by hundreds of constituents’ letters which gave me courage to stand out against the policy of the leadership of my Party.

I put my message of dissent to the Government in different ways.   I forwarded every communication that I received to relevant ministers, added my name to Parliamentary motions, spoke at meetings and posted information on my website.   I was lucky in the oral questions ‘lottery’ that MPs enter every week and my questions to the Prime Minister received publicity on the TV and radio.  I am still asking written questions about the war and its aftermath, making it harder for the Government to join another pre-emptive war.

Backbenchers often come across injustice through helping constituents with problems.  We are in a unique position to know what is happening at the grass-roots and then lobby ministers to try and change the policy causing the problems.  This often requires perseverance.  A meeting at one of my surgeries in 1994 led to the creation of the Parliamentary Forum on Transsexualism (transsexualism is a recognised medical condition for which treatment is available on the NHS,  not to be confused with transvestitism or something to do with sexuality).  Most trans-people wish to remain anonymous to avoid discrimination – it is easy to imagine the hurtful jokes about ‘sex changes’ when in reality people are just struggling to feel normal and be accepted in their correct gender. Unfortunately, anonymity is easily denied because changes of gender are not legally recognised.  However, after 10 years of campaigning, we have succeeded in forcing the Government to change the law to allow a trans-person to ask for a corrected birth certificate (often required to prove identity).   It has been a struggle but at last the 4000 or so trans people in the UK will soon get legal recognition in their correct gender so they can get on with their lives in private and hopefully without discrimination or abuse.

Whether the issue is local (for example anti-social behaviour) or of international concern like climate change or debt relief, when there is a principle of social justice at stake, I refuse to be fobbed off with a weak response from those in power.  Backbenchers have little direct power, only the ability to hold those in power to account by use of parliamentary procedures and the media.  We are more effective when we work with the people we are trying to represent.  Constituents help me formulate my ideas and campaigns, so go on - let your MP know your point of view!


Labour MP for Birmingham Selly Oak


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