The changing constituency roles of the MP

There is no job description for an MP.  Each represents a constituency and how they do so isvoting shaped by their own interpretation as well as by the expectations of constituents.  There is no one constituency role, but rather several.  In earlier research, I identified seven:

  • A safety valve, enabling citizen to express their views via their Member of Parliament; just writing can be a benefit to the citizen in getting something off their chest.
  • Information provider, giving information or advice to constituents, be it in response to a letter or call or being proactive in sending information to constituents, for example through a newsletter.
  • Local dignitary, being seen at local events and attending civic gatherings.
  • Advocate, giving support to a particular cause, by lending one’s name to a campaign or promoting it in speeches or other activities.
  • Benefactor, providing benefits to constituents or local bodies who seek them, be it the needy or greedy, through helping with subscriptions or material resources.
  • Powerful friend, intervening with Government or other agencies to achieve a redress of grievances or other assistance.
  • Promoter of constituency interests, advancing and defending interests within the constituency, such as intervening to try to save a local firm or concern, such as a dockyard, threatened with closure.

The extent to which these roles are fulfilled effectively will vary from MP to MP.  Some MPs are more constituency focused than others.  For some, being elected as an MP is the necessary first step to ministerial office.  For others, it is a means for achieving policy goals.  Donald Searing’s study of Westminster roles found that a good proportion of MPs served primarily as policy advocates.  Others see their role primarily as constituency Members.  We know from surveys of MPs that, though they are more likely to see their primary role in terms of scrutinizing legislation and government, they nonetheless get job satisfaction from helping constituents. 

How well the roles are fulfilled will also vary not only according to the inclination of MPs, but also their skills.  Some Members are more adept than others in working to achieve a redress or grievance or putting pressure on ministers to ensure a local industry is not closed.  On occasion, a Government backbencher has threatened to resign and force a by-election, which helps concentrate the minds of ministers and whips.

What is expected of the MP will also vary from constituency to constituency.  Some MPs will be heavily engaged on immigration cases.  Some will have a much lighter load than others.  The significance of the roles has also changed over time.  Until well into the 20th Century, the benefactor role was prominent.  Being an MP was not something that brought financial reward – until 1912, there was no salary – but rather was a drain on a candidate’s wealth.  On the Conservative side, the local MP was expected to help fund the local association and the election campaign.  As one politician recalled, he was identified in 1879 as a likely successor to an MP of advanced age, but ‘A contest would have cost £10,000.  I consequently refused the offer, being quite unable to pay my share’ (The Earl of Midleton MP, Records and Reactions 1856-1939, 1939, p. 55).  MPs were expected to pay an annual amount to the local party.  However, it was the benefactor role, serving a range of interests in the constituency, that was pervasive.  Sir Gervais Rentoul, elected as MP for Lowestoft in 1922, summed up the financial demands of both supporting the local party and local bodies:

‘I know as a fact of many constituencies where the prospective candidate has been required to promise an annual contribution to his Association of £1,500 or £2,000, in addition to paying the whole of his election expenses, and subscribing ad lib. to every hospital charity, cricket club, bowls club, football club, tennis club, and similar institutions throughout the division.  Indeed, something of this kind, though a smaller scale, I admit is the rule rather than the exception’ (Gervais Rentoul, This Is My Case, 1944, p. 82). 

In the case of Max Aitken (later Lord Beaverbrook), elected as MP for Ashton-under-Lyne in 1910, he received regular pleadings from constituents: ‘Nearly always a donation or subscription was involved… There was also a stream of begging letters from individuals.  All were looked into…  Often he would ask his agents to give a needy family food or clothes rather than cash’ (A. Chisholm and M. Davie, Beaverbrook: A Life, 1993, p. 85).

MPs may have spent money on securing their seats, but were not expected (or prepared) to spend much time in the constituency.  Some visited infrequently and saw having to be at constituency as a chore.  It was not unknown for Members to spend months out of the country travelling. 

That changed as the century progressed.  More MPs were elected, especially on the Labour benches, who were not financially wealthy.  In post-war years, the House became more middle-class.  On the Conservative side, the Maxwell-Fyfe reforms limited what Members could contribute to the local party.  In post-war years, the state in large measure took over the benefactor role.   Instead, the focus shifted to the other constituency roles.  MPs now devoted not money, but their time and energy to the other roles.  Constituents wrote in greater numbers than before to their local MP – ‘Before 1939, unless there was some controversy afoot, I rarely received more than ten or twenty letters a week…  But after the election of 1945, everything was changed’ (Sir Charles Ponsonby, Ponsonby Remembers, 1965, p.111).

In post-war years, demands on MPs increased as constituents had more interaction with public bodies as a result of the development of the welfare state and as citizens became more educated and wanted to pursue causes.  Party competition, and growing electoral dealignment, encouraged MP to be responsive to constituents’ demands.   MPs who were not constituency active could lose support, not least from the local party.  In the 1980s, when several Labour MPs were de-selected, their opponents used the argument that they had neglected the constituency.

The result has been a change of emphasis in constituency roles and a growing constituency workload.  New MPs after recent elections have estimated that most of their time when the House is sitting is taken up with constituency work.  One MP recorded 3,423 constituency cases in the 2015-17 session.  Another in 2016-17 dealt with 1,000 cases and an estimated 40,000 casework e-mails.  Over the past year, as a result of the pandemic, the MP’s workload has increased massively. 

MPs now work for the benefit of their constituencies, but in a very different way to that which prevailed at the start of the last century.

About Lord Norton

Professor of Government at Hull University, and Member of the House of Lords
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