Models of Representation
It is widely acknowledged as a great strength of the UK political system that every MP represents the interests of his or her constituency. This is a neutral, non-partisan role in that an MP is expected to take care of the interests of all constituents, no matter for whom they voted. It may involve lobbying a minister whose department might be proposing something that is unpopular in the constituency, it might involve raising the matter on the floor of the House of Commons where it will receive considerable publicity and it might involve joining a local campaign of some kind.
The Commons has a representative function since it is the elected house. The Lords is representative only in the sense that it contains people with a wide range of professional backgrounds, but this aspect is not organised systematically. By long-standing tradition, MPs are not delegates of their constituencies — they use their judgement on how to vote, rather than taking instructions from those who elect them. The first-past-the-post system means that there is a strong link between an MP and his or her constituency. MPs are expected to respond to issues raised by individual constituents and to stand up for local interests at Westminster. For example a number of the 44 MPs who voted against plans for the London to Birmingham High Speed Rail link (H52) in March 2016 represented constituencies that would be affected by the planned route.
If an MP does not fulfil the expectations of the local electorate, the voters have a right to choose a different representative at the next general election.
How effectively does Parliament perform its representative function?
· One concern is that an MP's loyalty to his or her party, reinforced by the desire to win promotion to the government, may come into conflict with the need to represent a constituency. However, skilful MPs are good at reconciling the two roles. The ministerial code, which regulates the conduct of ministers, advises them to take care to avoid conflicts of interest. But they are allowed to make representations to colleagues in government, as long as they make it clear that they are acting as their constituents' representative and not as a minister.
Sometimes the interests of a constituency may run counter to government policy. This presents a dilemma for MPs from the governing party. What are they to do if a government policy may cause strong dissent in the constituency? This has occurred, for example, with the fracking debate. The Conservative government supports fracking but many constituencies with a Conservative MP representing them feel threatened by fracking.
Another issue is that, although there has been considerable improvement since the 19805, the Commons is still not truly representative of society as a whole. 29 per cent of MPs elected in May 2015 were female — an increase on the 2010 figure, which was 23 per cent — compared to 51 per cent of the UK population. Similarly ethnic minority MPs make up 6 per cent of the Commons, compared to 13 per cent of the population. A pattern has also been developing in recent decades in terms of the class and occupational background of MPs. Descriptive representation occurs when a legislature mirrors the society it represents. In this perspective, parliament should be a microcosm of society with all major social groups included in numbers proportional to their size in the electorate. In the UK, attention has focused on the under-representation of women in the House of Commons. The number of women MPs has risen in recent decades, reaching 208 in 2017, but women make up only 32% of the Commons compared to 51% of the UK population. As of June 2020 there are 220 women in the House of Commons, the highest ever. This is a new all-time high at 34% and is the first time that female representation in the House of Commons is at more than a third.
Other areas of under-representation in the House of Commons include:
■ Ethnic diversity. The number of black and minority ethnic (BAME) MPs rose from 41 to 52 at the 2017 general election, but this is only 8% of the house, compared to 14% of the population.
■ Age. Young and older people are under-represented in the Commons, with most MPs being in the 35 to 55 age range. The SNP’s Mhairi Black was only 20 when first elected in 2015 – the youngest MP to be elected since 1832. Sexual orientation. 45 MPs elected in 2017 define themselves as lesbian, gay or bisexual, the highest number in the world.
■ Education. 29% of MPs elected in 2017 attended a fee-paying school, compared to 7% of voters, but the number is in long-term decline. Nine out of ten MPs are university graduates.
■ Social class. The number of MPs who previously had manual occupations has been falling. MPs who worked in business are more likely to be Conservatives, and those who worked in the public sector (e.g. teachers) Labour.
Individual constituents approach their MP for help if they are in dispute with a public body such as the HMRC over tax, or the Benefits Agency over welfare payments. Indeed, constituency work of this kind takes up much of the average MP’s time. Most MPs hold regular ‘surgeries’ when constituents can bring their problems to his or her attention. If MPs feel their constituents have a good case, they will try to put things right on their behalf. This function is often described as the redress of grievances.
MPs do not only represent the concerns of their constituents, they often also pursue the interests of a section of society or a particular cause. This is often the result of their background or personal interests before they became MPs. For example, members of trade unions will tend to support their former fellow workers, while former business leaders will support their former industry. All pressure groups try to recruit MPs to their cause as it gives them exposure in Parliament. Organisations such as the Countryside Alliance, Friends of the Earth and Age UK all enjoy the support of groups of MPs.
MPs have also formed themselves into groups to pursue a particular interest or cause. Among these have been all-party parliamentary groups on these subjects:
ageing and older people
betting and gaming
motor neurone disease
race and community