Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The role of the modern MP

The parliament Modernisation Committee is about to publish its report Revitalising the Chamber: the role of the back bench Member which offers to make parliament more media friendly, interesting and to shift emphasis away from the front bench according to a BBC summary. One line that seems somewhat curious is that there are concerns that "MPs were spending too much time doing constituency work, at the expense of their duties to scrutinise the government". The question thus is, what is the role of modern British MP?

The work of Michael Rush has documented the increased prominence of the constituency role over the last two decades, and there are two reasons for this: the increased demand for good service by constituents and the increased number of marginal seats where an incumbent needs to build themselves a profile. However, there is another side to this story. The increased power of the PM and Cabinet leaves MPs with little room to scrutinise but they are expected to rubber stamp bills. The latter should be reviewed, but the constituency link is an important one that should be retained.

Thus perhaps Jack Straw should, in announcing his proposals, be considering what the role of the MP is. Should they be representatives for the area that elected them primarily or not? Or what balance of time should be spent on the various duties? Work on professionalism argues the modern MP must be both a good servant of the constituency, in order to secure re-election, but also a good servant of the party in order to climb the greasy pole. It is a moot point whether these expectations are even compatible!

When I was collecting data for my PhD one aspect involved trawling Hansard for statements by Labour's radical left. It was often the case that an MP who ostensibly appeared to be solely interest in British foreign policy actually spent more time raising issues or contributing to debates in a way relevant to their constituency unless it was specifically a foreign policy issue. This is true today, though it is less reported. But are the proposals for modernisation intending to change that?

One MP who served 1955-1989 argued, in an interview, "my first duty is to the people who actually elected me, my second to the country I serve, I have no duty to party it has a duty to me". Is this the ideal? Perhaps the committee should find out what the country thinks an MP should do. If they are to be lobby fodder no longer in whose interests should MPs work?

No comments: