ill-defined job descriptions allow MPs to abandon their constituents
Voters for former Health Secretary Matt Hancock in West Suffolk have been vocally expressing their anger at his decision to take part in the reality show I’m a Celebrity Get me Out of Here.
The Prime Minister announced Hancock’s departure from the UK while Parliament sits “very disappointing”. The Conservative Party has removed the whip of Hancock, meaning he no longer represents the party in parliament.
However, he still represents his disgruntled constituents, many of whom complain he should be home performing surgeries, sorting out issues and generally tending to their needs. He the reasons that as a backbencher he has “the freedom and the time” to take jobs in the media to raise awareness of the issues. Writing about the show in The Sun, he said his goal in the jungle was to talk about dyslexia – an issue close to his heart following his own diagnosis.
It is certainly true that the audience for I’m a Celebrity is far larger than a Suffolk town hall or the House of Commons. Indeed, the same chamber emptied in December when Hancock introduced a ten minute bill on dyslexia screening.
But Hancock’s televised concert is an opportunity to ponder a surprisingly unresolved question: what is an MP’s main job? Is it to make and change laws in Westminster – campaigning on important issues along the way to facilitate change? Or is it an MP’s main job to solve problems in their constituency and speak on behalf of constituents?
Communes or district?
We cannot pretend that we expect all members to be in the House of Commons all the time. Government ministers often have to travel – as do parliamentarians, in the context of select committee research, for example. The system also authorized certain absences of longer duration. Ministers can now take paid maternity leave . And we may not approve, but backbench MP Boris Johnson has Been away a lot lately. It is therefore obvious that the presence in the room is not always necessary.
However, it is increasingly important to be available to resolve constituency issues. For today’s MPs, it is no longer a pile of letters and a few conversations. The Special Committee on the Modernization of the House of Commons reported in 2007 reported in 2007 that:
In the 1950s and 1960s, MPs received an average of 12 to 15 letters a week. Today, the average is over 300 per week, and then there are emails, faxes and phone calls.
Add to this the advent of organized online campaigns, Twitter and other forms of communication to today’s representatives and their staff and the magnitude of the work becomes apparent.
And for MPs, the question is not just what are they doing, but what do people think they should be doing?
To research published in 2015 explored what MPs and constituents thought about the role of elected members. Both groups ranked “taking up and responding to questions and issues raised by voters” as the primary role. Voters were found to be ‘more focused on constituency activity than MPs’ – but the difference was small.
Thus, according to the interviewees, doing things in the constituency and for the constituents outweighs, for example, participation in committees. This certainly would not have been the case 50 years ago, when MPs often visited the constituency rather than living there.
The need to be available is well recognized, including by Hancock himself, who seems to have negotiated with the producers of I’m a Celebrity to gain privileged access to communications during filming in the event of an emergency in his riding.
As former Labor MP Tony Wright said in a conference 2010:
It’s hard to think of another profession where the nature of the work is so elusive… As an MP, I found a job with no job description, no way of knowing what to do.
Wright classified MPs into six categories. We have to assume a bit of a joke, but these are spitters, loyalists, localists, legislators, loners and loose cannons. Hancock was once a loyalist but is perhaps becoming more of a loose cannon.
According to Wright, Localists “see their role at Westminster as subsidiary to and serving their constituency role”. It is certainly the case today that the ranks of localists are growing. Candidate screening materials and MP biographies are increasingly emphasizing local credentials, for example.
More recently, and less ironically, one commenter has used freedom of information legislation to seek information about MPs’ job descriptions. The answer was simple. The House of Commons did not have the information.
So in a sense, there’s nothing stopping Hancock from deciding that his main role right now is to raise an issue and look at different ways to spread the message about it, like appearing on TV. He has, after all, called on Parliament to legislate to introduce dyslexia screening in primary schools. He now wants to galvanize support for this work.
But that also means giving him airtime to talk about his cause in the jungle. The most famous precedent for a British politician attempting to use reality TV as a platform to raise awareness of an important issue was that of former Respect MP George Galloway. 2014 move to the Big Brother House. All anyone remembers from this appearance is Galloway’s unsettling impression of a cat on camera – not his original focus on talking about Palestine.
Until we have a clearer idea of what an MP is supposed to do, others are sure to follow Hancock down the path of reality TV – whether their “awareness” expectations are realistic or nope. The fact that his party removed the whip shows that there are repercussions for members of Parliament who do not engage in their parliamentary duties. His constituents, on the other hand, seem to be going after him.