What does representation look like?

LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 09: Conservative Member ...
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There have been a range of responses to the news that Louise Mensch is going to be appointed to a position in the Chiltern Hundreds, some considerably more generous and forgiving than others.

It is an interesting story in a number of ways, and has been used to open up a debate on: the job of an MP and whether it’s compatible with a modern family; the job of an MP and whether it’s compatible with other roles; whether the commons is a place for people with a back story and a bit of ‘celebrity’; whether local political parties want candidates who may not stay for very long in the position… etc. etc.

Are you noticing a theme?

It’s not really about Corby or the people who live there.

One could then choose to get very agitated about this, and blame politicians and the media for making this about the horse race and not real people. “No wonder people are disengaged from politics,” you could exclaim (in a slightly pompous fashion).

But then the final thought that occurs when you dwell a little longer, is do the people of Corby care? Does it make their life in any way worse because their MP is about to move overseas to be with her family, and that on the 15th of November they are going to have the opportunity to elect a new MP?

If the answer to that is no, then we have a problem; because we pretend that it does matter.

This is not a piece to suggest that there are no MPs that would not be a loss to their areas if they stepped down.  There are incredibly hard-working MPs who campaign tirelessly for the issues that matter to local people. But if the exiting of an MP just over two years into their term is not creating some kind of problems for local democracy and representation, then there is a strong possibility that they are doing the representation part of their role wrong.  A comparison that springs to mind is a senior manager of a company going on a long holiday, only for everybody else within the company to realise that things work just fine when they are not around.  We all have roles that we do in our lives that are mixed, some more visible to our colleagues and peers than others. To continue to use the Louise Mensch example, she was seen by many as a very parliamentary sub-committee member.  Other MPs are known for their skill at pushing bills through the House. Some make excellent ministers. If the constituents that the MP in question is representing don’t notice her going, however, then that part of the role is clearly being missed.

There is a recent comparison at local government level.  Thomas Neumark, councillor for Primrose Hill with Camden Town ward in the London Borough of Camden, made the tough decision to resign his position (is there a local government equivalent of the Chiltern Hundreds?) and move to Washington to be with his wife who is working there after around two years into his term.  Thomas was replaced by another Labour councillor in a by-election, and in some ways local democracy carried on as before.  But Thomas was seen as an effective local politician. He ran the planning committee and was well liked.  The local paper, upon reporting his resignation, stated that he was seen by some as a potential future MP and that it was a shame he was leaving.  Despite all of this, and in no way a criticism of Thomas, did the people of that ward notice him going? (NB. A conversation with Thomas helped shape some of the thoughts towards the end of this piece).

In response to the news of Louise Mensch’s resignation, Tom suggested that:

Part of the problem is how weak the parties are. If parties were stronger the actual personality of the politician wouldn’t be so important,

and that:

Constituency services, accessibility, transparency, petitioning parliament etc. should be the joint responsibility of local parties

That proposal would create very different roles for our local parties and our politicians.  It would be strongly resisted by some, but when you think about it, it could also open up the time for politicians to advocate more clearly for their areas.

To take an even more local example again, in the National Lottery funded and now independently run Big Local Trust programme, 100 neighbourhoods around the country are starting the process of considering what they want to do as an area and how they want to use the £1million that has been allocated to them over the next ten year.  The small areas are working with quite a community development approach, and the search for and working with committed local residents is in some places provoking questions of mandate.  Anybody involved in the New Deal for Communities programmes will know such discussions of mandate once money becomes available to a place.

All of these examples highlight the tensions inherent within representation.  As this question is only going to get harder to answer, there may be an opportunity to try to think differently about what we think we want MPs (or councillors) to do, and then make sure we believe they are the right people to do it.

  • Who should raise issues in Parliament for us? That’s a clear role for an MP.
  • Who should be the public face of a community at different times? Sometimes an MP, but sometime a civic or business leader, or even a local celebrity.
  • Who should run campaigns to save local amenities and services? Perhaps more a role for councillors, but actually local interest groups and political parties may be more effective as the places to sustain this.
  • Who should ensure transparency and good governance? Organisations like MySociety have already started to change our preconceptions around that.
  • Who can pull people together around the issues that affect an area? Could this convening responsibility be seen more clearly a politician’s role rather than a local authority’s.

There are hundreds of further examples on top of the five above. Whatever the question, or the answer to these questions, an opportunity is there for politicians to think differently about their local role, and shape it.  But they have to embrace it in terms of a set of principles that reflect what they think they should be doing, and we have to judge them more on that.  Politicians do have a democratic mandate. It is the only truly powerful thing they have. But that doesn’t mean they should arbiter all that goes on.  Perhaps we should start to judge MPs for how they encourage others to campaign rather than lead every campaign themselves; how they pull people together rather than spearhead contentious campaigns; how they promote and sell the area they represent and not have to see it as a case-load of problems on their return from Westminster.

The job could then be one that allows more groups, whether local political parties or community groups, to do much more of the process, developmental and engagement roles.  That leaves representatives with the time to represent, advocate and build networks within their areas.  And yes, be part of the engagement at the right time.

That approach may mean that if they were to suddenly have to leave, then they may well be missed by their community.

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