My link with Esther Rantzen, who has now confirmed her intention to stand as MP for Luton South, is tenuous. Consisting mostly of lace, elastic and a little wire, it’s mostly memorable for being absent. Way back in the early 1970s, she vox popped (if Lynne Truss will forgive the verb) my grandmother about bra-burning. Gran was a feisty old stick, and proudly told the cameras (and thereby approximately 18 million people) she “hadn’t worn one in years, dear”. Once we’ve got back on our chairs – Gran hadn’t mentioned this before it aired – we asked her why she’d admitted it on the telly. Beyond a little devilment (to which she was not adverse), Gran was a proud campaigner: marching on Parliament for pensioners’ rights at an age when a walk to the Co-op was enough exercise. Although, like the century, she was also in her early 70s, she felt women of her age had a say on feminism too. And from their brief conversation, it seems she’d decided Esther was “a reasonably sound sort”.

Sadly, one of these remarkable women is no longer with us, although it would been fascinating to pop round to Gran’s for a cuppa this week. The mother of a mayor of a London Borough, she was a close follower of politics: I remember a long despairing criticism of how a man of Enoch Powell’s education and erudition could oppose capital punishment but still make such comments on immigration. What she’d make of her erstwhile interviewer running for Parliament I can’t guess, although I’d love to know.

I suspect, however, that it might be less knee-jerkingly dismissive than much of the press. With the wisdom of her years and most of a lifetime on or near cameras, Ms Rantzen is probably used to cheap abuse: this is probably just as well, given even the jovial remarks on Guido Fawkes’ Order Order blog run to such hilarious originality as “And if the answer is ‘Esther Rantzen’ lord knows what the question was!”.

Much as I admired my Grandmother, I don’t think I have a ‘thing’ about feisty women of a certain age, but I do wonder if the popular press aren’t under-estimating their target here. “Oxbridge-educated with a long career in investigative journalism” was good enough as background material for Martin Bell, who seemed to largely escape opprobrium in his own principled stand for Westminster. (Bell was also helped by Labour and the Liberal Democrats not standing against him in 1997 in Tatton; in 2001, he failed to win Brentwood and Ongar, drawing more Labour and Liberal votes than Conservative ones.)

Apart from shrapnel wounds received during reporting, these are qualifications Esther Rantzen can match. So what else can she offer as representative for Luton South beyond moral indignation – which you’d imagine the locals can manage without her help?

The first woman to receive a Dimbleby Award from BAFTA for factual presentation, Esther has also received a Lifetime Achievement Award from Women in Film and Television, the Royal Television Society’s Special Judges’ Award for Journalism, their Fellowship, and Membership of their Hall of Fame. Her achievements don’t stop with television and journalism – although her career in those can hardly be judged a flop. Most famously, she helped to establish Childline, which has counselled over a million children since 1986 (and versions of the helpline have been established in over 150 countries): she continues to work almost fulltime for this pioneering charity on a voluntary basis. Her campaigning work has led to changes in the law, including the introduction of rear seat belts for children. She has raised the profile of many social concerns – including organ donations, palliative care, mental health, drug abuse – and been awarded the Snowdon Award for services to disabled people. Nor is she without experience of the workings of Government: she has served on a number of government committees, including the National Consumer Council, the Health Education Authority and the Campaign for Quality Television.

That should amount to the kind of CV that many prospective MPs can only dream of. Yet oddly, little of this background seems to have surfaced in press coverage – including interviews – of her political intentions so far. While it’s admirable that the urge to blow her own trumpet vigorously has been resisted, it’s an impressive trumpet and – in terms of mounting a campaign (something at which she should be experienced enough) – this would seem to be an appropriate time to hear it. A woman who is famous for good reasons in the literal sense of the phrase, a recent Daily Telegraph interview probed her intentions more thoughtfully than most coverage. It seems clear that publicity is not her intention:

 There are people for whom the limelight is addictive, but most of the work I’ve done over the years has been behind the scenes working for ChildLine. That’s who I really am. But of course there is a bit of me that likes showbusiness.” 

That her past work was in showbusiness is also hardly the main point she makes in describing her motivation to stand:

I did street interviews in Luton and I didn’t hear a good word about Moran. People said she was inaccessible, invisible. I was angry that she showed contempt for her constituents.” […] “The more I listened to people, the more I realised it was hitting a nerve, which was the That’s Life! bit of me, which was there for 21 years, when people wrote to me about their real lives and real problems, and I got hooked. And the more I went to Luton, the more hooked I got.”

So far, so laudable. An MP is a representative after all. An absence of main party affiliation also gives an MP greater freedom, spared the three line whip and the pressures of the party apparatus. And that track record does include a huge amount of responding to issues raised at grass roots levels and campaigning for social and legal change on the behalf of ‘the ordinary person’. But there’s a different concern here too. On August 2, Esther answered readers’ questions in The Independent. Look at the following four questions and answers:

If you get in, what do you hope to achieve in Parliament? I would like to represent the constituents in Luton South. At the moment they are completely unrepresented in Parliament. In addition, there are causes I would like to support, and reforms I would like to take forward. Protecting children, and enhancing their lives would be a priority. At the moment the law can be remarkably abusive. Did you see how the four-year-old rape victim of Baby P’s “stepfather” was cross-examined and asked to define “truth”? Is that really a process that creates justice for children? And promoting opportunities and care for older people, and disabled people. And attacking political correctness.

So, Esther, what are you going to do for the people of Luton that an MP belonging to a political party can’t do? I am not an opponent of the party system. However, the reason I am standing as an independent is that I want to be able to make my mind up having listened to debates; deciding on the issues, rather than obeying a party whip. And like all MPs I can rely on my professional experience, working as an investigative journalist and a campaigner for 40 years.

Who have you voted for in past general elections? The three main parties. I have always been a floating voter. It’s my right. And a responsibility that I treasure.

If you have the casting vote in a hung Parliament, would you go into government with David Cameron or Gordon Brown? And what are the issues that would help you decide? In a hung Parliament, I would cast my vote with whichever party could convince me by argument and evidence. I would go into government with whichever party offered me a role in improving the lives of children, especially vulnerable children. “

While this is laudable, these issues won’t be only ones facing her constituents (for a snapshot profile, visit Upmystreet.com): employment and the economy, the future of the airport and air travel (a key employer), housing and the issues facing ethnic communities may outweigh vulnerable children for them. And a clutch of good causes – although you’d criticise none of them – don’t make a manifesto. Waiting to be convinced by argument and evidence is similarly laudable, but Esther should remember that – if elected – she would be voting on her constituents’ behalf, not her own. While we have had independent MPs elected on a single initial issue in the past who have won re-election – the most recent is sitting MP Richard Taylor, albeit again with the Liberal Democrats not standing against him – she will need to be an excellent constituency MP to retain support. And she may need to decide exactly where she stands on issues where her constituents feel they most need representation – jobs, poverty, crime – in order to create a sense of mandate. Plaid Cymru and the SNP are not single issue parties, after all.

A lack of pre-set opinions can be an advantage – a politician has to respond to a vast range of issues as they arise – but there’s a difference between being flexible and being rudderless, at least in perception. A good leader also knows where her talents lie. The Daily Telegraph interview headline – ‘I need to keep doing things’ – may be ultimately telling: the point of becoming MP for Luton South would not be to give a greater sense of purpose to Esther Rantzen, but to those she would represent. Despite 20 years of proud work – and Esther’s on-going hard work on its behalf – Childline still struggles to raise the voluntary support it would take to answer every child’s call. The question she might best ask herself is where she can achieve the most for the causes that matter most to her, and where she can most effectively influence and inspire others to make a positive social contribution.

If Gran where still around and felt that Esther hadn’t thought that one through, I suspect she’d have something else to get off her chest.

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