What is the role of an MP as a constituency representative in theory and practice?
There is a debate as to the exact role of an MP as a constituency representative and whether that role may differ in theory from practise. This dissertation will explore the differing interpretations of the representative role that MPs perform. There are differing theories as to how that role should be performed and the ways that role is performed in practice. As shall be discussed the theories as to the constituency representative role of an MP have developed over several centuries and the practice has evolved along the same time period. Factors that affected the theory and practice of an MP’s constituency representative role include the development of modern political parties, the extension of the electoral franchise and the influence of the media on the political agenda or the expectations of the electorate. Originally MPs were elected as individual representatives of their constituencies based on very narrow electorates. Some MPs were returned without having to face election whilst others brought their seats or had them brought for them. The rationale of this work is to examine the way that constituency representative role has changed to reach its present theoretical and practical positions. The relative positions of MPs will also be explored; for instance MPs happy to be backbenchers or those that wish to gain ministerial positions.
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From Parliament’s beginning in the mid 13th century an MP would almost exclusively have represented the rich merchants or the land owning classes from which they themselves were nearly always drawn from. They would tend to represent the concerns of their peers within the constituencies as neither the nobility, neither the clergy nor the poor could vote for them. Parliament was subordinate to the monarchy with the House of Lords dominating the House of Commons except in the area of taxation were the Lords did not wish to accept the unpopularity that setting taxes caused (Morgan, 1993, p.172). Attention will be paid to the roles assigned to MPs by tradition, inclination and ideological differences. Over the centuries there have been arguments and debates as to who has the right to choose an MP and who exactly that MP should represent. Finally there is the debate as to the conduct of an MP, do they have the right to do as they wish or do they have to follow the wishes of the people that elected them (Birch, 2001, p. 93). From the start the House of Commons main purposes was to give the king taxes in times of war or when the country was threatened whilst also passing legislation to improve the administration of the country. Although the House of Commons was less important than the House of Lords even then there were the notion that MPs represented their constituencies and raised their constituents concerns in Parliament. Whilst the House of Lords represented the upper strata of feudal England, MPs represented the middle strata of the English nation (Silk and Walters, 1998, p.1).
The development of the constituency representative role
Through evolution, revolution, design and accident Parliament in general and the House of Commons in particular would greatly increase in significance and power making the theory and practice of an MP’s constituency representative role more contentious as well as more important.
The man widely credited with inadvertently making the role of MPs as constituency representatives and the House of Commons more important was Henry VIII. Henry used Parliament to break with Rome and establish the Church of England. His chief minister Thomas Cromwell proved highly skilled at managing the House of Commons and may have understood the consequences of the change more. Even then potential conflicts between an MP being an effective constituency representative or merely there to do the government’s bidding could be detected (Schama, 2000, p.308). The political turmoil caused by the Reformation eventually led to the civil war and the Glorious Revolution. As a result of those events Parliament became politically dominant and the forerunners of modern political parties, the Whigs and the Tories emerged. Prior to the emergence of these parties MPs were elected as independent individuals free to vote or act in any way that they considered apt. They may have represented very small numbers of voters yet that was because the franchise was restricted as well as the criteria for standing as an MP. Even now MPs are elected as individuals even if the vast majority of voters pick who they vote for on the basis of political parties rather than on personal merit or views. MPs have the right to change their party membership after being elected although they cannot expect to be re-elected (Silk & Walters, 1998, p.10).
All MPs had to have their own wealth or have wealthy supporters, as they were not paid for being an MP. Lack of a salary meant there could always be the suspicion that MPs could accept bribes or incentives to represent other people aside from their constituents and thus act against their constituency interests or the national interests. British democracy was tightly restricted, women were completely barred from voting whilst the vast majority of men could neither vote or be elected. So this meant that nearly all MPs were not representing the people in their constituency even if they more representatives of the small number of voters. Britain in fact only obtained full universal adult suffrage in 1928 after more than a century of campaigns for electoral reform (Coxall, Robins & Leach, 2003, p.7). Despite attempts at occasional radical reforms by Liberal and Labour governments changes to democracy have been like the approach preferred by the Conservative party, reform or change by evolution rather than revolution (Comfort, 1993, p. 122).
As already mentioned prior to the emergence of a party system and the extension of the electoral franchise, MPs that in theory if not always in practice had more freedom in their parliamentary actions or voting. Although free to act in any way they saw fit MPs would often form groups with like-minded colleagues. Governments would also try to manage the House of Commons so the monarch could get the legislation or the taxes they needed approved. Loose parties or groups were often formed of those MPs that supported or opposed the government. Kings such as Edward I regarded MPs as two-way representatives. As well as representing their constituency they represented the government and the king in their constituency. Should any conflict arise between an MP’s role as a constituency representative and their position as a servant of the crown then the crown usually took precedence. If an MP had any doubts about that the government would force or persuade them to conform to its wishes (Birch, 2001, p. 102). Governments were at that point still run by the monarch in fact as well as in name. A strong monarch equated to strong government with Parliament used as or when it was needed. Whilst MPs did not have the same social, economic and religious status of the nobility, abbots and bishops that sat in the House of Lords they were part of the elite within society and were supposed to be representing that groups interests. At no point were they supposed to represent the common people. Henry VIII may have used parliament to increase his own power yet his policies altered the role and importance of parliament. The dissolution of the monasteries not only removed abbots from the House of Lords it was also the largest redistribution of wealth and land in English history that most benefited MPs, their relatives and friends yet sowing the seeds of future conflict between monarch and parliament (Morgan, 1993, p.284).
The legislation associated with the reformation greatly increased the power of the monarch and even today any legislation that increases government power significantly or without just cause are still referred to as ‘Henry VIII powers’ (Silk & Walters, 1998, p.152). Governments still needed majorities in parliament to pass legislation and the Tudors would resort to bribery, cajoling, making concessions and personal appeals to get what they wanted. Whilst the Tudors avoided serious conflicts with Parliament Charles I and his policies would lead to civil war and his overthrow. The commonwealth witnessed written constitutions military rule and a purely nominated parliament. In the end it was decided that a constitutional monarchy offered the best means of stable government. The 17th Century saw the start of political groups that would develop into parties, it also saw the failure of democratic movements, personal rule by the monarch and military rule (Morgan, 1993, p.374).
The 18th Century saw the further emergence of the party system and a new position that of Prime Minister. With Prime Ministerial government came an increase in the number of MPs that were government ministers. Taking up a ministerial position reduced the amount of time that an MP could spend representing their constituents with however the gaining of power and prestige as an incentive to accept office. Parliament remained unreformed and the electoral franchise was actually narrower than it had been under the Tudors. No government made any attempt to reform the Pocket Boroughs were MPs happened to be picked by the rich and powerful to represent them or do exactly as they told. There were at least 300 such Pocket Boroughs in the general election of 1807. MPs elected by such means were not in a hurry to reform the House of Commons as this would more than likely lead to them losing their seats (Gardiner and Wenborn, 1995, p. 604). Rotten Boroughs were even more notorious for their corruption, the majority of them having no voters at all, only having voters on election days or voters bribed to vote for a certain candidate. Such practices meant some MPs had reality no constituents to represent and could act without restraint or fear of losing their seat. If the government happened to control the Pocket and Rotten Boroughs it meant they could not lose its parliamentary democracy (Gardiner and Wenborn, 1995, p. 664).
After 1688 Britain had been dominated by Whig governments with a Tory opposition yet neither party wished to make the country more democratic. However there were radicals such as Thomas Paine that wanted democracy and therefore electoral reform plus an overhaul of parliament. Although Paine could not bring about reform in Britain he did influence the ideas of the American and French Revolution. Those who were opposed to reform contended that Britain had its own revolutions in 1642 and 1688 with Parliament dominating the constitutional monarchy and effectively representing the nation further revolution was not needed (Hobsbawm, 1962, p. 54). Prior to the French Revolution, the Tories sometimes argued the case for parliamentary reform and extending the franchise. Such reforms would not have changed the theory and practice of an MP role as a constituency representative but it offered pragmatic advantages for the Tories. Reforms were suggested both as a means to make elections fairer with elections less corrupt and as a means of breaking the Whig domination of government. Some considered the reforming of seat boundaries just as important for representative government as extending the franchise. After all the last redrawing of boundaries had taken place during the Commonwealth and had been abandoned with the Restoration (Gardiner and Wenborn, 1995, p.584).
The French Revolution increased the divisions between the Whigs and the Tories with the former being more liberal and the latter more conservative. However both parties had a fear of Parliamentary reform leading to radicals taking over the country, better to have a well balanced responsible government elected by the few rather than a radical irresponsible government influenced if not directly controlled by the masses. The French Revolution gave an impetus to demands for democratic reform. The reformers arguing that MPs could hardly be effective constituency representatives when the majority of people could not vote for or against them. Reformers also pointed out that the archaic boundaries made a mockery of the claim that MPs were representatives of their constituents when some represented hundreds or thousands of voters and other MPs represented a handful of voters. In reality both parties were opposed to and feared radical democratic reforms as they did not believe that Britain should become fully democratic. Democratic reforms were not enacted with enthusiasm but when Parliament believed there was no other option, it was better to adopt piecemeal controllable reform than suffer revolution (Eatwell & Wright, 2003, p.54).
The political elite in Britain especially the Whigs were more interested in protecting property rights and laissez faire economics than political reform or actually representing the poor and the working classes. The Tories were not keen on altering British society and economy either yet would gain greater benefit from electoral reform and extensions of the franchise than their liberal counterparts. That explains the reluctance of both parties to extending the franchise and making MPs more representative of the population as a whole and more willing to represent the interests of all or most of the people in their constituencies. As far as they were concerned MPs best served the nation’s interests by serving the interests of its social and elite to which they either belonged or aspired to join. For liberals governments were solely there to allow the capitalist market and system to function unhindered. Individuals were responsible for their own success or failure; they did not need or deserve the right to vote if they failed. MPs should only represent the successful (Eatwell & Wright, 2003, p.27). Some Liberals along with Conservatives were afraid that universal suffrage would lead to the majority of the masses ruling over the minority, if that minority knew better (Coxall, Robins and Leach, 2003, p. 228). Such attitudes were similar to those of Edmund Burke who believed that MPs should be left to govern or be in opposition to the government in the House of Commons, representing but not subservient to their constituents (Held, 1991, p.185).
The extension of the franchise would eventually lead to changes in the theory and practice of an MP’s constituency representative role. Parliament was able to resist demands for its reforms and an extension to the electoral franchise until 1832. The political establishment had managed to avoid reform following the French Revolution in 1789. Yet the Great Reform Act of 1832 was enacted following the reform movements that sprang up after the 1830 revolution in Paris that threatened the establishment. Three years earlier, Catholic Emancipation allowed Roman Catholics to vote and stand for parliamentary election provided they met the monetary and property criteria for doing so (Hobsbawm, 1962, p.110). The 1832 Act also started the process of reforming the constituency boundaries to increase the number of MPs for expanding towns such as Birmingham and Manchester as well as London. The emerging and expanding towns were still represented by only two MPs whilst some of the old constituencies had retained their two seats even if they now had only a tiny number of voters. Increasing the number of urban constituencies meant that winning those seats became more important to any political party wishing to gain and maintain political power. As towns expanded into cities their populations had increasing expectations of what their MPs should do for them. Urban expansion and industrialisation meant that the nature of the constituency and its population changed meaning practical if not theoretical changes to the constituency representative role of an MP.
The role of an MP as a constituency representative therefore developed further as Britain’s society and economy developed and progressed. An MP particularly of an urban or industrialised constituency became involved with different issues than one represented a rural or rural constituency even if they belonged to the same party. Those opposed to radical reforms would stress that an MP not only represented his constituents he used his greater intellect and judgement to make the best decisions for them. Edmund Burke whose ideas strongly influenced modern conservatism stated that a bad or weak MP was one that sacrificed his views for those of his constituents that lacked his political knowledge or sound judgement. Burke who lived in an age when the party system was less developed would no doubt felt that MPs had the right if not a duty to go against their party if they believed that is the best course of action (Comfort, 1993, p.66).
It became harder to ignore the working classes and the poor within any given constituency even if an MP did not have to gain their support as they had no voting rights for much of the 19th century. An MP would have to represent more of the people within their constituency than before. Industrial and economic development made the practice of an MP as a constituency representative altered as they wished to promote prosperity, employment and health amongst their constituents. The industrial revolution may have made the capitalist classes richer yet it also promoted political unrest, epidemics such as cholera, slum housing and industrial strife. In effect it made the business of government and representation more complex. These economic and social changes led to MPs and governments taking a greater role in monitoring or industrial safety. Even before the advent of the welfare state governments became increasingly keen on improving public health, housing and education provision. Constituents would increasingly encourage their MPs to use their representative role to grab bigger slices of government spending to improve their constituencies. From a cynical point of view it could be argued that an MP would happily take part in such measures as part of their role as a constituency representative. Promoting the prosperity and well being of their constituency is just doing their job and if they do it well it improves their chances of re-election at the next general election.
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Limits to the constituency representative role
On the other hand it could be argued that an MP should be a constituency representative to everybody in that constituency whether or not they voted for that MP or even if they voted against them. At the end of the day MPs are there to improve the lives of their constituents as well as to represent them. In theory an MP should stand up for their constituency’s best interests and represent them as strongly as possible in Parliament. MPs are generally supposed to follow their official party line when debating or voting in Parliament. Some MPs believe that they should be able to vote anyway they believe to be right and they should not be forced to vote for measures or acts that are contrary to their conscience or the interests of their constituency. Left wing Labour MPs referred to such defiance of the party whip as the ‘conscience clause’ when defying or considering defying the party leadership. Defiance was usually against plans to cut public spending, changes to the National Health Service or Britain having nuclear weapons (Comfort, 1993, p. 121).
In practice how well they look after their constituency interests on whether they are part of the governing part and how much influence they can have on policy formation. In practice the government’s budget is finite and hard choices or bargaining can determine whether a constituency gets a new hospital, better schools or no public help when a local factory or business closes down. Governments will often look after the interests of the constituencies represented by their MPs first even if they proclaim that they are serving the whole country’s interests. MPs from the governing party can be highly susceptible to a government being unpopularity so it is in their best interests (Birch, 2001, p. 102).
For present day MPs it is a serious decision as to whether to vote against the party line when a party whip is in operation. Not only are MPs subject to internal party discipline they have been elected by their constituents to be their representative as a Labour or Conservative MP for example. Constituents can therefore regard their MP as being not only disloyal to his or her party they may regard it as a betrayal of their loyalty too. MPs have voted against their party line when their conscience could not support party policy. Some MPs will even be prepared to oppose or vote against party policies that contradict the perceived interests of the constituencies that they represent. Often in such a situation MPs will seek a workable compromise so that they have represented their constituents best interests as best they could whilst remaining loyal to their party. Labour MPs in the past for instance have voted against or frequently disputed the leadership’s decision to keep Britain’s nuclear deterrent contending that it was not needed, it is too expensive with the additional problem of making Britain and not just their constituencies a target. The internal disputes over unilateral nuclear disarmament when combined with other divisions contributed to the party spending 18 years in opposition after 1979. The minority status of the 1976-79 Labour government made it particularly vulnerable to back bench revolt or dissent although it its failure to keep its promise over changing the electoral system and introduce devolution in Scotland and Wales that lost the parliamentary support of the Liberals and Scottish Nationalists. Its downfall came after public spending brought about the public sector strikes dubbed the ‘winter of Discontent’. Perhaps if Labour had introduced a system of proportional representation it would not have spent so many years in opposition or then go on to win three consecutive terms in office (Coxall, Robins and Leach, 2003, p.41). Ironically enough the Labour leadership suffered its worst back- bench revolt when it was in opposition. If all the Labour, MPs had voted against during the EEC treaty debate then the Heath government would have been defeated. For Benn alongside other MPs joining the EEC was a mistake as it reduced the sovereignty of Parliament and meant that MPs would see their influence decline (Benn, 1988, p.313).
Labour MPs have tended to stress their commitment to being constituency representatives and helping as many of their constituents as possible. As originally set up the Labour Party believed it represented the people in Parliament. The Labour Party was there to run the country for the people and make it a better place for all. The Labour Party was founded in 1900 from the Independent Labour Party, the Fabian Society and the Social Democratic Federation with funding from the Trades Union Congress (Rodgers & Donoughue, 1966, p.46).
The aim of the Labour Party was to fully represent the working class in Parliament. Not all working class men had received the vote after the latest reform of 1884. The Representation of the People Act of 1918 gave all working class men and women aged over 30 the vote. Universal adult suffrage was not achieved until 1928 by which time the Labour Party was well on the way to replacing the Liberals as the second party in British politics. The first Labour government of 1923-24 was a minority government and too weak to attempt any socialist measures. The Labour government elected in 1929 had to deal with the effects of the Wall Street Crash which made the chances of even the modest socialist measures impossible. Prime Minister Ramsey McDonald split the party by forming the National Government and cutting unemployment benefit during the worst recession anybody had ever seen. The majority of Labour MPs, members and voters felt bitterly betrayed. As far as they were concerned Ramsey McDonald had gone against everything Labour meant to its members and to its constituents. The 1931 general election saw the party reduced to a rump of 51 MPs, the dreams of the ‘People’s Party’ seemed to be in tatters (Morgan, 1993, p.610).
Yet for many years of the modern era the most successful political party has been the Conservative Party. The basic instinct of the party may have been to conserve the best of the country and make everything else better through evolutionary change. The Conservatives to a certain extent saw themselves as a caring parent representing the best interests of the people. The Conservatives also seemed to be remarkably successful in winning power when it might have been assumed that first the Liberals and then Labour would have been the natural party of government. Despite massive electoral defeats in 1906, 1945 and 1966 the Conservatives were able to regain power within relatively short periods of time. Following in the traditional view of Edmund Burke. Conservative MPs were happy to represent their constituents yet unwilling to be told by the electors what to say or do in Parliament. The Conservatives had not actually lost out with the extension of the franchise to all adults attracting enough votes from women and working class men to be able to win general elections. The Conservatives were noted for their pragmatism rather than their ideological outlook. Unlike the Liberal and the Labour parties they always seemed to be a united party with MPs that constituents knew would work for stability and evolutionary progress. The Conservatives did not overturn the reforms of the Liberals of 1906-14 or Labour governments of 1945-51. The Liberals introduced the first unemployment benefit and pensions whilst Labour brought in the welfare state plus the NHS (Gardiner &Wenborn, 1995, p.193). All this changed when Margaret Thatcher became party leader and then Prime Minister. Far from pragmatism she advocated neo-liberal policies that broke the post-war consensus.
The radical policies pursued by the Thatcher governments raised questions about how the electoral system allowed such large majorities to governments supported by a minority of the electorate. This system is not represented at all and has had critics since the 19th century (Held, 1991, p.186).
Some of the theoretical and practical theories of how an MP should represent their constituents has evolved over the centuries. The evolution of theory and practice has meant the representative role of an MP has developed into some contradictory directions. The ideals of an MP being in a constituency representative can be traced back to the first Parliament of 1265. MPs had a dual representative role, to the constituents that elected them and to the country they assisted in governing. Whilst MPs were independent elected individuals there was no real conflict or contradiction or roles or interests. For the MPs elected by pocket or rotten boroughs there was little conflict on interests as they did the bidding of those that had got them into Parliament. The contradiction of representing both constituencies and the country was further complicated by loyalty to political parties and positions within the government. MPs have essentially always been elected by a simple plural system, the candidate with the most votes win, they don’t need a majority of votes, just a single vote more than their nearest rival. Therefore a political party that receives a majority of the votes nationally due to the vagaries of the system end up losing the election. That happened to Labour in 1951 and the Conservatives in February 1974 (Held, 1991, p.174).
One drawback with the way that the theory and practice of an MPs constituency representative role has developed was that they can have little ability to stop governments introducing unpopular or ill considered policies. For instance MPs did not stop and only a minority protested against the poll tax or Britain’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq. However MPs could argue that most political parties only enact that they have promised in their election manifestos and if the people don’t want such policies then they should not vote for that party in the first place. Other events are reactions to incidences outside of the government’s control such as the Margaret Thatcher’s reaction to the invasion of the Falklands Islands, the response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait or Britain’s involvement with the war on terror. Such events have a tendency to happen between elections leaving the electorate without the chance to approve or protest against government actions. Governments would counter claims that they were ignoring public protests or opinion by saying that sometimes they need to make important decisions quickly and do what they believe is best for the country rather than what they think is best for winning elections. Thus Margaret Thatcher’s decision to re-invade the Falkland Islands contributed to her general election victory in 1983 whilst for Tony Blair the decision to invade Iraq was blamed for the loss of more than 100 seats in the 2005 general election (Coxall, Robins and Leach, 2003, p.200).
A method of ensuring that general election results would be fairer would be to switch from the first past the post system to a form of proportional representation. Using a proportional representation system would tend to make the governments more moderate as they would be coalition governments and radical policies would be less likely to be adopted. However, such a move could have a great impact on the theory and practice of an MP’s constituency representative role. Depending on which system of proportional representation was adopted there might not even be a link between MPs and constituents at all. If the Additional Member System used in Germany were adopted then a strong link would be retained with a weaker link if the Single Transferable Vote as used in the Republic of Ireland were used. PR was first considered for adoption with the Liberals not keen on it. However once they had been reduced to a small third party they were much keener (Madgwick, 1994, p. 280). The general election results of 1974 and 1983 showed the unfairness of first past the post. With greater levels of tactical voting, the Liberal Democrats actually gained more seats in the general election of 1997, 2001,and 2005 with fewer votes that the Liberal / SDP Alliance received in 1983. Unless there is a hung Parliament similar to 1974 than it is unlikely that Proportional Representation will be introduced as both Labour and Conservatives always believe they can win an overall majority. Should Proportional Representation ever be adopted that some MPs would have greater influence than others would, mainly those in the smaller coalition parties could in theory and practice hold the largest parties to ransom (Coxall, Robins and Leach, 2003, p. 90).
To conclude the theory of an MP being a constituency representative has changed very little over the centuries. The theory of the constituency representative role is fairly straightforward. An MP is simply elected by a majority of their constituents and is the constituency representative for the term of the whole parliament. Once elected an MP is in theory bound to represent their constituency interests to the best of their ability and to participate with or oppose the government depending of whether they belong to the governing party or the opposition. In theory whether they belong to the governing party or the opposition they should scrutinise government policy and legislation. In theory MPs are still elected to Parliament as constituency representatives as if they were independent individuals rather than as members of political parties. An MP is free to switch political party they belong to whilst still sitting in the House of Commons. In reality MPs are primarily elected because of the political party they belong to and that they are the candidates for. In other words they are elected to represent their constituency as the Labour, Conservative or Liberal Democrat etc MP rather than as an individual. Once they have b
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