Theories of Representation

Theories of representation.mp3

Theories of Representation Podcast

Delegate Model. A representative may be a delegate, in the sense that they act as a conduit conveying the views of others, without expressing their own views or opinions. Examples of delegation include sales representatives and ambassadors, but the notion of delegation has rarely been applied to MPs. 

For example, in a delegate model, if the delegate's constituents want to implement a policy that mandates all houses in their town be painted brown, the delegate must honour this position, regardless of whether the delegate thinks this is a bad idea and would make a formerly picturesque town unsightly and risk lose its appeal to tourists. 

• Trustee Model. A representative may be a trustee, in the sense that they act on behalf of others, using their supposedly superior knowledge, better education or greater experience. This form of representation is sometimes called ‘Burkean representation’, as its classic expression is found in the speech that the Conservative philosopher and historian Edmund Burke (1729–97) gave to the electors of Bristol in 1774. He declared that ‘Your representative owes you, not his industry alone, but his judgement; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion.’ Until the 1950s, it was widely held that MPs should think for themselves, using their own judgement, because ordinary voters did not know their own best interests. 

For example in a trustee model of representation, if the constituents wanted to paint all the houses in their picturesque town brown, then the trustee would then be entrusted to weigh the merit of this proposal and has the autonomy to deny the proposal if they felt it would negatively impact the town's tourism potential.

Damage to the town's tourism industry may hurt the economy of the town the trustee has been elected to represent, so the trustee believes it is in the best interest of the townspeople to deny their request.

•The Mandate Model. This is the most influential theory of representation in modern politics. It is based on the idea that, in winning an election, a party gains a mandate to carry out the policies on which it fought the election, the policies contained in its manifesto. This doctrine implies that it is political parties, rather than individual MPs, that discharge Parliament’s representative function. Such thinking provides a clear justification for party unity and party discipline. However, the idea that people vote according to the contents of party manifestos is difficult to sustain in practice, and the doctrine provides no clear guidance in relation to policies that are dissolved between elections. 

For example, within a mandate model, if you support the Liberal Democrats and their ideals, you may vote a liberal democrat as your constituent representative despite not having looked into this individual at all. 

 The resemblance Model  or Descriptive representation. Sometimes called ‘characteristic representation’, this theory emphasises the importance to representation of people’s social characteristics and the groups to which they belong. It is primarily concerned to improve the representation of groups of people who have been historically under-represented in positions of power and influence in society – women, ethnic minorities, the working class, young people, and so on. It does this both in the belief that the views and interests of such groups will be more effectively represented and on the grounds that having a greater diversity of viewpoints will result in political bodies making better decisions for the common good


There were 220 female MPs elected at the 2019 General Election (34% of all MPs). This was the highest ever number and proportion. In 1979 there were 19 women MPs, 3% of the total.


Since 1979, the average age of MPs has remained around 50 years.  49% of MPs elected in 2019 were aged over 50. Members aged 18-29 and those over 70 each represented 3% of the total. As of March 2020, comprehensive information about age was not available most of the MPs who were newly elected in 2019, see section 3 for details.


In 2019, 65 MPs were from non-white backgrounds, 10% of the total. This was an increase of 25% compared to 52 in 2017. In contrast, there were 4 ethnic minority MPs elected in 1987. Currently, around 15% of the UK population is from a non-white background.


Conservative MPs elected at the 2019 General Election were the most likely to have attended a fee-paying school: 41% compared to 30% Liberal Democrat, 14% Labour and 7% SNP, according to data published by the Sutton Trust.