In a few weeks’ time I will have been MP for Berwick for 40 years. We got slightly ahead by celebrating the event with a visit to the constituency by Nick Clegg last week.
The previous evening, Liberal Democrat members gathered to listen to and vote on which of three contenders should be chosen as the Liberal Democrat candidate for the 2015 General Election. The vote went to local campaigner Julie Pörksen, who lives near Morpeth, was brought up in the constituency, and is the daughter of a well known local sheep farmer.
I look forward to working closely with her. Of course, my retirement does not happen until April 2015, and for me it is “business as usual” until then. That includes the regular surgeries which were the first thing I introduced when I was elected in 1973. The previous Conservative MP did not go in for that sort of thing, which he probably regarded with the sort of disapproval which the Downton Abbey butler has for anything which was not done before the war.
As well as surgeries in Berwick, Alnwick, Amble, Lynemouth and other locations, I introduced a summer and autumn “surgery tour” of around 120 villages and hamlets in this huge constituency. Last week I was visiting villages in the Cheviot hills above Rothbury, and it was busier than ever. In one morning I had over 30 people to see me, with subjects varying from income tax to wind farms, from legal issues to planning problems. At the small community of Thrunton, alongside the A697, the issue was the fire which has been burning at a carpet store in the old brickworks.
One of the surprises of the tour was finding a TV crew waiting in one of the villages to get a comment on the fact my neighbour and friend Michael Moore, MP for Berwickshire, had ceased to be Secretary of State for Scotland as a result of the reshuffle. I was disappointed by that decision, although I have every confidence former Liberal Democrat chief whip Alistair Carmichael will do the job well.
But Michael Moore’s quiet firmness and his negotiating skill had out-smarted Alex Salmond on more than one occasion, and he was a persuasive advocate for keeping the United Kingdom together. As Border MPs we both know how interconnected the two sides of the Border are, particularly in business, in farming and in family life: we do not want to see our two nations being pulled apart when we can achieve so much more together. I look forward to continuing to campaign with Michael on cross-Border issues like the A1, rail services and health services, and in challenging the myths that surround the idea of independence.
Another loss in the reshuffle was Liberal Democrat agriculture minister David Heath, who spoke to farmers at Wooler mart and came over as a true countryman who talked sense about farming.
Nowadays there are many ways of contacting your MP, notably by e-mail. The computer has not reduced the number of personal callers: it has added a new dimension because, in addition to those who send me issues by e-mail, there are several hundred people who send me frequent e-mails in support of campaigns on particular issues. Some are organised by a pressure group called 38 Degrees. It provides an efficient vehicle for people to sign up in support of a range of causes, and send their views to their MP.
Their first big impact was in opposition to any sale of state-owned forestry. It did make me look back to the campaigns 50 years ago against the planting of massive state-run conifer forests in the open Northumberland landscapes of the Cheviots, Kielder and Redesdale. If 38 Degrees and e-mails had been around then, they would probably have been campaigning against the very forests which they are now so keen to protect from selling or felling!
The issue raised by 38 Degrees, and widely-known charities like the Royal British Legion, is about a bill known for short as the Lobbying Bill. This Bill is a response to concern some groups are too powerful in their influence on the policy of successive governments and need to be regulated. The Bill provides for a Register of Lobbyists, to make things transparent, and it seeks to limit the role which big money can play in election campaigns, particularly if it is concentrated in a few constituencies so as to defeat candidates who oppose an organisation’s views.
Political parties already face limits of this kind. But some organisations believe that their campaigning activities will be unfairly restricted by the Bill. That is not the intention, but it is always worth looking very carefully at new laws to make sure they do not have unintended effects. So I made clear my support for the Bill would depend on making sure the wording did not produce a new restriction on what counted as campaigning, as opposed to promoting or opposing individual candidates or parties. A Liberal Democrat colleague, John Thurso, proposed an amendment, and the government dealt with the problem by abandoning its wording and going back to the law as it has been through the last two general elections, when charities seem to have had no difficulties.
But I have always supported the principle that, if an organisation does campaign in a way which directly supports or opposes individual parties or candidates, there should be a financial limit like there is for parties themselves.
We do not want American-style campaigns where a single organisation can pour money into promoting or defeating a particular congressman. And few people would want the charities to which they give money to spend large amounts of it on political campaigns, even if they fell within Charity Commission rules. Almost all the campaigning by charities and organisations will be completely unaffected by this Bill, and 38 Degrees can continue, quite properly, to deluge me with e-mails to show that their supporters feel strongly about this cause or that policy.
Mind you, it would have been a better bill if it had included provisions to restrict big donations to political parties and to support and encourage small donations to parties by larger numbers of people, but neither the Conservatives nor the Labour Party have been prepared to come to an agreement on this issue. It is not hard to work out why.