It’s known as the Mick Jagger rule. “Never go on stage and shout ‘Hello, Seattle!’ until you’re sure you’re in Seattle.”
At the weekend, a well-intentioned Labour MP, Helen Goodman, got up in the little village of Ingleton in her constituency in County Durham andbegan to sing the praises of Ingleton, a rather larger village in North Yorkshire 70 miles away. As the shadow culture spokesperson burbled on mellifluously about the beauty of the local caves and waterfalls and the community’s notable literary heritage, it became clear to all but her that she was saying very much the right things but about entirely the wrong place.
As a former MP myself, I have every sympathy with Ms Goodman. At least she’d done some homework, albeit the wrong homework. We should cut her some slack. She has only been an MP since 2005. She was eager to impress her constituents with her local knowledge. We MPs are, especially when we represent constituencies we don’t actually hail from. Hapless Helen was born in Nottingham and brought up in Derbyshire. What’s more, her mother is Danish by birth. That will worry some of her constituents and Helen knows it.
I was MP for Chester and, though my father was born in Cheshire, I was brought up in London and the locals did not like it one little bit. “Where’s your real home?” they would ask, eyes narrowing. “Where do you actually come from? Where do your children go to school?”
No matter that an MP’s work is done at Westminster (and that you might like to see your children before and after work), your constituents want you to be local and you become desperate to prove that you are. When I arrived in Chester in 1992, I discovered a Brandreth listed in the local telephone directory and – joy of joys! – she lived at the heart of the city’s largest council estate. I called her up and persuaded her to give me tea and take part in a photo opportunity. When I turned up with the local media in tow, somehow I managed to give the impression that this total stranger – who had once been, but was no longer, married to someone with the same surname as mine – was at least a first cousin, if not my elder sister. Luckily for me, my ploy wasn’t rumbled.