Richard Heller reflects on the changing relationship between the people and politicians; writing to ministers has become worthless.

In periods of enforced extra idleness during lockdowns and flowing tiers, it is tempting to give the government a piece of one's mind. It passes a fair bit of time and forms a conscionable excuse to avoid housework or filling out one's VAT return or running the unmatched socks Lonely Hearts Club "Sock, pale grey woollen-cotton-mix, GSOH (Good Support Over Heel) WLTM similar. Interests cricket and walking."

Tempting but futile: writing to ministers about anything is about as useful as calling spirits from the vasty deep.

Departments and official bodies simply do not know, or more likely do not even care, how to deal with correspondence from the public. They used to. When I was an underling in the civil service in the 1970s I spent much of my time answering letters personally. I had to read them and give thought to the reply. A good one would silence the correspondent, an unsatisfactory one would have him/her writing back to me, or worse still, be quoted in the House of Commons by a zealous MP. The ultimate nightmare was to be cited there in minute detail by the legendary basso Tam Dalyell, who would later become nationally famous for harrying Mrs Thatcher during the Falklands War.  "I have a letter to my constituent, Mr Grievance, from a Mr Heller of the Department of Bubbleblowing. It is typed on Crown Watermark paper in single-spacing on one side only. The letter F is slightly out of alignment?"

Now it is exceptional to get a signed letter from a Department. If one gets a reply at all, it is cranked out by anonymous Central Correspondence Units, I suspect without human agency, since I cannot believe that any sentient being would actually want to work there. Does anyone get promoted from such a Unit? Certainly not for reading the letters from the public. A dead giveaway in official replies is the sentence: "It may be helpful to explain the background to the government's decision to?" No, it is not, and was never meant to be. The true meaning is "we don't care what you think about the government's decision to… and we are even less interested in your suggestion for a better alternative."

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It is equally useless to write to the Opposition. It should not be. The opposition are, after all, the opposition, in need of more votes. Like a well-known car rental firm, they should be trying harder. Opposition politician have become shockingly bad at replying at all. I thought at first that I might be on some sort of blacklist because I once compared Jeremy Corbyn unfavourably to a dead gerbil.

Then I thought his successor might have ordered me onto another blacklist, because in my new book I mention his secret past as Cheeky Keir, a saucy seaside entertainer, and he failed to recognize this as literary persiflage. But it made no difference when I wrote letters of cringing sycophancy to both leaders under a pseudonym. These too were completely ignored.

Again, things have changed. After leaving the civil service, I became chief of staff to two senior Labour politicians in opposition, first Denis Healey and then Gerald Kaufman. One of my main tasks was to make sure that every correspondent got a reply, other than those totally hostile or clearly deranged (often the same people). I sent many replies in my name. In my Healey days, this led to a wonderful correspondence with an anarchist group called Peace Through Alcohol. They wanted to replace all of Nato's defences in 1983 with a continuous chain of alcohol warehouses. The Red hordes would stop to loot them and become too paralytic to overrun the West. They cited a fair bit of military history in their support, notably the Germans' Ludendorff offensive in 1918 which was fatally delayed when they drank through the cellars of some notable conquered chateaux.

In government or opposition, politicians are amazingly foolish to short-change correspondents. They are a rare group in the population, but almost by definition the one which is most interested in politics. They influence the behaviour of other voters, especially in their family and close circle. They are potential party members and donors. They are a free source of information, opinion, talent and ideas, who might save politicians a good part of the eye-watering sums they now spend on opinion research or consultants.

I could tell our politicians how to use this great resource, but not now. Donald Trump has conceded after a fashion, and I must give Joe Biden a few tips for his first hundred days.

Richard Heller's latest book The Prisoner Of Rubato Towers, a crazed account of his life in lockdown, is out now. 

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