Visitors to my office in the House of Commons can see framed copies of the ballot papers from the general elections of 2001 and 2005. They are not, of course, proper ballot papers but copies of the large specimen papers that are displayed in polling stations. I keep them for a number of reasons, mostly because I am a kind of sad collector of memorabilia but also because it is useful to have a permanent reminder in the office and for those who work for or visit me that I am there as a result of a democratic process.
The ballot papers do not tell you much about the candidates. They list merely the names, addresses and party affiliations of the candidates. At the next election they will not even do that.
On Monday night of this week the House of Commons amended electoral law to remove the address of parliamentary candidates from the ballot paper. It was done in a way that was highly unusual procedurally. It was also done in the name of MPs’ security. It was, I think, a step too far.
There has been a debate for some time now about whether the London addresses of MPs should be published on the internet as part of the disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act. That is a completely different issue.
Removing the addresses of parliamentary candidates from the ballot paper is just another step to put distance between politicians (and parliamentarians in particular) and the electorate.
For my part I don’t think it makes a massive difference. You would not need to be a particularly determined terrorist to find out that the MP for Orkney and Shetland lives at the Old Manse in Evie. Whether you would find anyone at home when you got there is a different matter.
The point is that as MP I am part of this community and I have no wish to be insulated from it. Until Monday night I would have believed the same about the bulk of my parliamentary colleagues. Today I am no longer so sure.
As I write this we are in the middle of Fair Trade Fortnight. Some of those who were always less than keen on the idea of fair trade and giving the developing world a hand up are now beginning to grumble at a low level that in a recession this is the sort of luxury we can no longer afford. I take the opposite view. I think in fact it is even important. As global trade slows, people in developing countries are more vulnerable than ever.
It should not be that difficult for governments across the world to understand. It was something that the children of Flotta Primary had clearly grasped easily enough when I went to visit them last week. They were well informed, understanding and could see that fair trade was not just about giving a hand up to people in the developing world but about building the more secure future in which they would want to live. Perhaps in their generation MPs will not feel the need to hide their home addresses from their electors.
Alistair Carmichael MP