Sunday, 17 May 2009

What are MPs for?

What are MPs for? Easy. To represent their constituents, to scrutinise legislation, and to hold the government of the day to account. That's the theory, at least. And even the theory is complicated by the fact that some MPs are also ministers, and that far from holding the executive to account, they are the executive; and some MPs are whips, whose job is to hold not the government accountable to MPs, but MPs accountable to their party - which may actually be the government. For most MPs, most of the time, "scrutinising legislation" means voting in the way they are instructed to vote, usually without having read the bill, sometimes having only the very vaguest idea about what it contains. Such ignorance can extend even to ministers, who outside their own particular brief have will no time to consider the laws they pass, yet are bound by collective responsibility to vote for them on pain of resignation.

All this would be true even if the majority of new laws were still passed by Parliament, rather than agreed between ministers in closed meetings in Brussels and then foisted on the people of Europe, often with no democratic scrutiny at all. Ministers and civil servants love that, of course, since they get to implement things they hanker after yet would never get through a national parliament (even one that works as imperfectly as ours) and which they can blame on "Brussels bureaucrats" as though it were nothing to do with them.

It's hardly surprising, then, that in recent years the constituency aspect of the job has come to be stressed, almost to the exclusion of all else. An MP becomes a superior sort of social worker, better-paid and with a much higher position in society, but with no training and, in many cases, less actual power (no MP, after all, is empowered to take children away from their parents). To be a "good MP", it is widely believed - by the public as well as by most MPs themselves - is to be a good constituency MP, the man or woman who spends as much time as possible in the region that returned them, who acts as a conduit between the ordinary citizen and the government, who raises particular concerns with ministers and who spends a lot of time hosting surgeries, visiting local schools, and getting his or her name in the papers. Quite a lot of that, needless to say, involves sending press releases written for the MP by party communications officers, promoting this or that benefit of government policy, or campaigning against this or that aspect of government policy, as may be appropriate.

Such a view of an MP's role is essentially feudal, or perhaps might be compared to the Roman system of clientela (or, for that matter, the Roman Catholic doctrine of the intercession of saints). The MP is the powerful courtier who will have a word with the king on your behalf, thus demonstrating both his influence and prestige and the king's essential benevolence. The basic problem with the concept, from a democratic point of view, is that deference is directed upwards. The first loyalty of the courtier is to the king (the senator's to the emperor, the saint's to God). As well interceding with the mighty, the go-between's duty is to represent the mighty to the powerless. An MP is in theory a representative of the people who elected them, but in practice a representative of their party to their voters. It is thus an uneasy position, suffused with contradictions. To be an MP is to have a basic conflict of interest. And everyone knows it. I suggest that this is the main reason people no longer trust their elected representatives.

The "good constituency MP", however honest, loyal and hard-working, can never adequately represent their constituents, for the simple reason that it is impossible to serve two masters, unless they are the type of independent-minded "maverick" who will never get (or seek) preferment within the party or government. In the narrow sense they may represent individual constituents who come to them with problems. But they will not be representing their constituents "as a whole". They will not even be representing themselves. The classic formulation of the MP's duty was, of course, that delivered by Edmund Burke in his address to the electors of Bristol in 1774, a passage much quoted but often misinterpreted. Burke said:

Certainly, gentlemen, it ought to be the happiness and glory of a representative to live in the strictest union, the closest correspondence, and the most unreserved communication with his constituents. Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention. It is his duty to sacrifice his repose, his pleasures, his satisfactions, to theirs; and above all, ever, and in all cases, to prefer their interest to his own. But his unbiassed opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. These he does not derive from your pleasure; no, nor from the law and the constitution. They are a trust from Providence, for the abuse of which he is deeply answerable. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.

Burke says that the MP's first duty is to his conscience, and that by properly exercising his conscience he will best serve the voters. He is not a deligate, mandated to exercise his vote a particular way, like a member of the US electoral college. He should not blindly follow his constituents - but nor should he blindly follow "the law and the constitution". And it's striking that Burke doesn't mention party at all. Political parties were, it is true, more shifting, informal affairs in the 18th century than they are today. They were not institutions. But they did exist, and they did make claims upon the loyalty of members of Parliament.

In support of his contention that the will of the MP should not be "subservient" to the electors, Burke placed great store by the proper scrutiny of legislation. "Government and legislation are matters of reason and judgment, and not of inclination," he said. "What sort of reason is that, in which the determination precedes the discussion; in which one set of men deliberate, and another decide?" He was dismissing the claim that the electorate who might be "three hundred miles distant" from the debate in Parliament should tie their member's hands in advance. But he might, equally, have been talking of the system we now have, in which MPs troop, like sheep, through the lobbies on the instruction of the party machines, usually without having participated in the debate.

Authoritative instructions; mandates issued, which the member is bound blindly and implicitly to obey, to vote, and to argue for, though contrary to the clearest conviction of his judgment and conscience, these are things utterly unknown to the laws of this land, and which arise from a fundamental mistake of the whole order and tenor of our constitution.

Well, it was a long time ago. A hundred years later, WS Gilbert was satirising the careerist MP who "always voted at my party's call/ and never thought of thinking for myself at all". The party system had insinuated itself into the body politic, but the ideal of the independent representative was still strong enough for the line to have bite.

The current expenses imbroglio is in many ways overdone. Yet this is not an affair that has been "got up by the press", as some people appear to believe. The anger out there in the country is real. It is anger at the particular abuses that have been exposed, but it is also anger at a system that is increasingly perceived as unaccountable. The power of any individual citizen, or even a group of individual citizens (a local community or an organisation) over the government is negligible; that has always been the case. What is new is that the claims of the state to pry into and regiment every aspect of life are increasingly absolute, and increasingly hard to avoid.

Everywhere, it seems, "the government" is doing something: passing a new law, issuing new regulations, hectoring, lecturing, wagging its finger, claiming to have the solution to any problem that might arise. The state and its agents increasingly seem omnipresent and all-knowing, rather as God was or is supposed to be, but at least as inefficient as the deity when it comes to fulfilling individual requests. Moreover, the state's instinct is to impose strict liability. Individuals know that if they (even accidentally) put the wrong figure in a tax return, fail to declare the smallest alteration in their personal circumstances, park in the wrong place, or for a minute too long, drop a chocolate wrapper, look askance at a police officer, hop on a train that is leaving the station before they've had a chance to buy a ticket, say something that someone else interprets as "offensive", or even do something entirely legal that a computer didn't predict, then they stand a good chance of being hammered by the system. Yet they see members of Parliament, most of whom come across as uninspiring party drones, merrily scamming the tax system and claiming giant TV screens as a "necessary" expense to do their job. Of course they're angry.

I suspect that if the system enjoyed greater popular legitimacy (which it would, if it worked properly, if it managed to stop bad laws in their tracks and rein in the overmighty executive, if MPs represented their constituents rather than the parasitical party machines) then there would be less anger over these expenses claims. Yes, some of what has been unearthed has been unacceptable, and several MPs should go. Why are Hazel Blears, Tony McNulty and Jacqui Smith, to name but three, still ministers? Some degree of anger is justified and healthy. But what we are seeing is not the anger of people who see a good system being abused by crooks, but of people who have lost faith in the system, because the system has failed.


Anonymous said...

Hear Hear!

opps, must check my expense claim.

Brian Brown said...


The political ruling elite must be absolutely furious that their nice little earner has been brought to the attention of the public. With regard to any significant reform as usual they'll just trott out the old bollocks that "if it ain't broke don't fix it".

What I think will happen is Brown will say he's furious about what's happend and will announce the formation of an "independent" panel to review the debacle, he might even shuffle some of the worst high profile offenders out of the cabinet but then pray that it blows overs and gets forgotten come next years General Election.

Matt said...

A fair critique of the bigger picture.

From what I observe, most people only tend to feel the emotion of a situation when it somehow connects with, or relates to, their own lives; which is perhaps why newspaper stories about personal crime, sex scandals and abused personal expense claims sell better than those about big business, arms deals and unimaginable suffering in distant lands.

Hmmm. Perhaps there's some use to EastEnders-style outrage, if it can eventually bring to the fore the festering discontent that most people seem to genuinely feel about how we are governed.

Anton Howes said...

An excellent post.

Perhaps the principle of standing as something more than just a glorified social worker could be used as a platform?

You'd have thought that members of parties would more often than not actually agree with what their party is doing though - it merely illustrates that the old party machinery is a vote-winning careerist machine rather than a coalition of aligned interests, no matter how much they'll claim to merely be an "inclusive, broad church".

Makes me all the more convinced that the Social Liberalist Party is on the right tracks (that's by the way).

Anonymous said...

W.S. Gilbert had quite a few goes at the party system.

His views on the House of Lords (then entirely dominated by hereditary peers) were even more biting.

valdemar squelch said...

An excellent, thoughtful post. At some point the idea of genuine political reform was lost in this country - or became the province of the amiable/irrelevant fringe. Perhaps this farrago will shake things up.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Much of the problem stems from the fact that there are over 650 MPs at Westminster when the optimum size for an efficient effective legislature is said to be 150 - 200. Thus 500 out of 650, around 75%, of the MPs have no useful work to do and so work has been invented to keep them busy. Many of them are terribly busy and work long hours plus weekends, certainly the MPs I know are like that and I expect they are pretty typical in this regard.

I don't see a way out of this mess. Taking away the local MP is about as politically popular as closing the local hospital no matter how much of a death-trap the failing institution and demoralised staff might be.

The Heresiarch said...

Having fewer MPs would certainly save money. However, I'm not really persuaded by the argument that they have no useful work to do. The fact is, they are not actually doing useful work. But that doesn't mean the work doesn't exist, merely that other kinds of displacement activity - constituency surgeries and the like - have been (as you say, Woolly) invented to keep them busy.

What should they be doing? Properly scrutinising legislation. There is too much legislation which simply goes through on the nod. Fully and adequately debating what is proposed would easily fill up MPs time, many times over. I'd like to see three parallel parliaments, each with 200 MPs, dividing the legislative business between them.

By the way, I don't like your use of the word "efficiency". I don't really care about efficiency. It implies speed; an efficient parliament would presumably pass even more laws, when what we need is far fewer laws. Efficiency and democracy don't really mix, either: dictatorships are an efficient form of government. An inefficient parliament does at least hold up bad laws for long enough for them to be noticed by the country at large before it's too late.

Neuroskeptic said...

"But what we are seeing is not the anger of people who see a good system being abused by crooks, but of people who have lost faith in the system, because the system has failed."Quite, but it failed because the people of this country allowed it to -

We have the parliament we deserve.

And if people are angry at the present parliament, and at the behaviour of the present government, that's all very well and good, but the seeds of all this were planted when people stopped caring about what politicians actually do and settled for spin and image.

This is what political apathy has got us.

The Heresiarch said...

I'm not sure that's entirely fair. People didn't "settle for" spin and image: it's what they were presented with, what modern politics was turned into, and the broad mass of people didn't have any choice in the matter.

I don't think people ever really "stopped caring" about what politicians did. But over a period of time politics became assimilated to marketing; politicians started treating the public like customers to whom they were selling a product, rather than as fellow citizens. It used to be the case that parties fought elections so that they could govern the country. In recent years, and especially since the coming of New Labour, the idea has been to govern the country in order to win elections.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

But why were people presented with spin and image in the first place? It cost time, effort and money to perfect the images and master the art of spin. It looks like an evolutionary response by political parties to an ecosystem that rewarded it. If people didn't want it then why the blazes did they go out and vote for it? Why did they sit there in focus groups and tell the marketing people they wanted it? So no, they didn't "settle" for it they pretty much insisted upon it and ruthlessly voted out anybody who didn't bow to their demands.

Why is oily smooth PR bozo Cameron the leader of the Tories rather than two-brains David Willetts or David Davis? Why are the Lib Dems not led by elder statesman Campbell or the bright but dimuntive Vince Cable? Why did Blair become Labour leader rather than Robin Cook or Charles Clarke?

We live in a democracy and the bad news is that we have absolutely nobody to blame for the politicians other than ourselves. People don't engage, they are lazy and apathetic - the press give them what they really want which are excuses for their laziness and apathy.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

Displacement activity is pretty much all there is for most MPs. They have invented Select Committees which are actually rather a Good Thing (as 1066 and all that might have put it) to give themselves something to do. The executive has to maximise its payroll vote of ministers with hordes of underemployed junior ministers and unpaid bag carriers so that the government can get its business through. Does any other country have such a crazy system? We don't have one minister when we can have a team of them instead!

Matt said...

WML: "But why were people presented with spin and image in the first place?"

The more cynical, like myself, would argue that it's because the government almost indistinguishable from the big business world that finance them.

It's the same people who are doing the same spinning for the same reasons: to deceive the public into thinking they are working for the benefit of the many (Low Prices! Special Offers! / Tough On Crime! For The People!), when in reality the very system itself guarantees that they working only for the benefit of the few.

Matt said...

Heresiarch: "But over a period of time politics became assimilated to marketing; politicians started treating the public like customers to whom they were selling a product, rather than as fellow citizens."

And if my comment above has any credence, that's exactly what you'd expect.

WoollyMindedLiberal said...

How sweet, an unreformed socialist who sees the entire world as a plot by the Greedy Capitalists in their Top Hats and their big evil moustaches against the honest flat-capped working man.

If the present government really do intend to serve only a few at the expense of the many then they are amazingly inept in this regard. Presumably they raise taxes, brought in minimum wages, poured money into schools and benefits all as a cunning smoke screen to hide their evil machinations!

Matt said...

A socialist? Hmmmm. Never really thought about it, politics doesn't really interest me outside of the history books. Nor do societies for that matter.

RavingMad said...

MPs are for burning - simple!