For constituency work

What is all this whining about MPs doing constituency work? It seems to be conventional wisdom across the more fogeyish commentators (Simon Jenkins, Vernon Bogdanor etc) that members of the Commons are spending too much time representing the interests of their constituents; no article on the upshot of the great expenses row is complete without a ritual reminder that in the 1950s hardly anyone actually lived in their constituency, with shoutouts to Barbara Castle for some reason (saves research, I suppose).

This is painfully crappy.

Constituency work is great, for a whole range of reasons. For a start, it is very hard to be secretly working for the Sun or the Saudis in chasing down Mrs Miggins’s housing benefit claim.

Secondly, there’s the argument from organisation theory; legislating is the original activity in which you are most affected by the loss of information in a hierarchy, and it is almost proverbial that the Commons is good at passing laws – or repealing them – which then turn out to have some dire consequence down the track, usually to the poor. However, getting stuck into some concrete injustice has every chance of making somebody’s life marginally less awful, and an hour spent on constituency work is an hour not spent passing a dangerous dogs bill.

Thirdly, it keeps them off the streets and out of trouble. You cannot be boozily lying to a journalist about your friends and colleagues – the essential activity underlying all the nostalgic crap about the tearooms, all night sittings, etc – or selling security passes to the Palace of Westminster to passing lobbyists if you are busy harassing the UK Borders Agency to get them to leave some bewildered refugee’s kids alone.

Fourthly, in which other field of activity are the assorted lawyers, poshos, moonlighters, and ruthless expenses hounds that make up the Commons ever going to encounter the facts of ordinary life? Annie’s Bar? I think not. If you’re lucky, a few will be old trade-union hands, but we can all think of examples of those turning rotten. Constituency business is about the only force that keeps the political establishment from adopting my proposal to seal itself in a huge glass box.

Fifthly, you can be a repellent pig-bastard on the floor of the Commons but still do some good in the world if you devote some time every week to constituency work. A truly surprising number of really horrible Tory MPs have been willing to engage in things like anti-deportation campaigns which would shock the piss out of their colleagues and their pet newspapers. It is simply more difficult to be evil at this level.

So why do so many commentators hate it so much? Jenkins (who can stand for the others, as their views do not differ much) tends to argue that the problems that reach MPs should be sorted out by local government, by councillors or mayors. This is ponyism. MPs doing less constituency work will not by itself restore local politics. There is no pony. Unless you have a plan to restore the dignity and power of local politics to go with it, you’re arguing for power to be left alone to do its worst. And constituency work generally involves the confrontation of the forces of authority with the poor.

Further, it is almost always local authorities who are in the wrong; this is why it is called “constituency work”. In a Stafford Beer-influenced (Beer-sodden?) view, problems are resolved within a subsystem until they go beyond its capacity to resolve them, at which point they are escalated into the next recursion level or transferred horizontally into a different decision network. It is both right and natural that problems created by a local authority should be resolved by either a more central one, or else one in a different network. It is also very true that local authorities in the UK are probably more frequently corrupt than central government. John Poulson’s ghost is not yet quiet.

It goes without saying that Simon Jenkins and Vernon Bogdanor opposed, to the best of my knowledge, every proposal to return powers to lower levels of government that has ever been seriously suggested. Jenkins occasionally toys with the idea of an English parliament, but it is far from clear how a body representing 53 million citizens is much less administratively remote than one representing 60 million, so this should be taken as a matter of style rather than content.

If they don’t actually want – and their actions and words show they do not – devolved government, what is the point here? It is surely that they don’t consider the sort of thing covered in constituency work worthy of MPs’ time. Grand legislators don’t do this sort of thing; it is too much like work, it involves working-class people and their problems, and perhaps there is even a hint that it is women’s work? Instead, the debating chamber is a truer life, an idealistic project which keeps the messy, vigorous concerns of democracy well away.


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