Constituents come first, but MPs should be concerned about national and international issues too

August 15, 2012 12:11 pm

Last week I paid a very brief visit to Moscow, at my own expense, to observe a high profile court which raises serious questions about human rights. I’ve already blogged about this – the Pussy Riot trial – for LabourList.

This trip, on the back of a few opportunistic comments from political opponents (a former Lib Dem councillor and wannabe MP presenting himself as a “local resident” and a tweeting Tory troll from miles away) sparked a bit of a debate in my local paper about whether MPs should be concerning themselves with such things. I would argue that yes, they should.

Of course my constituents in Bristol East come first. They are the people who elected me and the people who have put their trust in me to fight their corner. But I don’t see that as just fighting their corner on local issues. I deal frequently with very local issues, such as parking or cycling on pavements, planning applications, people not having big enough wheelie bins, no issue is too small for my office to swing into action, and more often than not we get good results. I have four excellent full-time members of staff in my constituency office who do a brilliant job in following up on cases for me.

I also deal with issues that are very important to individual constituents but have wider policy implications too. And that’s why the constituency link is so important. It’s by meeting local people – whether it’s at surgeries, on the doorstep or out in the community – and talking about the problems they face that MPs get a real feel for what impact Governent policy is having, and what needs to change.

The best example I can give of this is the treatment disabled people are receiving at the hands of Atos, the body that carries out Work Capability Assessments to see if they are fit to work. I have seen some appalling examples of poor decision-making, and some very distressed constituents as a result. My first response is always to try to sort out that particular constituent’s plight, going into battle with the powers that be at the DWP. But it’s also important, as a national politician that I take this up in Westminster too. Anyone who checks my record will see that I speak in more debates than most MPs and ask more questions than most MPs. I also write lots of letters to Ministers and government agencies. These days, with the advent of ‘pavement politics’ some people don’t seem to understand why MPs have to go to London each week when parliament is sitting, but that’s why we do it.

There are also big issues – at the moment it’s the South West Health Consortium (which is trying to renegotiate NHS employment on a regional level), the renewal of the Great Western Rail franchise, plans for more free schools in Bristol, the City Deal for an elected Bristol mayor, and the failings of the Government’s Work Programme – which take up a lot of my time, locally and nationally.

And there’s dealing with policy matters, whether it be scrutinising government legislation or initiating debates on important topics. I recently had a debate on protecting the oceans and marine eco-systems, for example. And no, that’s not directly relevant to my constituency, but I know from my postbag that many constituents care a great deal about the environment and want someone to speak up about it in Parliament.

And finally, there’s the international element of an MP’s work, which in my case is linked to my role as a shadow foreign office minister. What goes on in the wider world – the battle for human rights, an end to the arms trade, aid and trade for development – is important too, and if MPs aren’t taking these issues up, then who will?

Caring about what’s happening in other parts of the world shouldn’t – and doesn’t – mean an MP doesn’t care about the poor, the downtrodden, the sick, the oppressed or those who are simply having a bit of a hard time at the moment in their own patch. I know that my Liberal Democrat neighbour, Stephen Williams, has been taking an interest in Palestine recently and has been out there to visit. I would never attack him for this. It’s a very important issue. MPs should take an interest in local, national AND international affairs. We’re not local councillors; we’re national politicians. It’s a lot to take on, but it’s what we were elected to do.

Kerry McCarthy is the Labour MP for Bristol East

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  • Heinrich Deichman

    One of the problems in our politics today is the electorate expect MPs to be social workers rather than Members of Parliament. 30 or 40 years ago, MPs focused solely on the big national and international issues of the day. I don’t know what the problem with that is. We have local councillors who deal with the parking, the planning and the licencing. An MP should be focusing on far more important issues to the national debate than whether or not their constituency’s pavements are wobbly.

    • brianbarder

       Absolutely right! 

  • Franwhi

    …  And you get very well paid for it and have generous pensions, extensive holidays during recess, very little accountability to voters between elections and some autonomy over your own workload. And don’t even mention your 4 full time staff – I know local schools with 1500 children on the school roll and 100 teaching staff who don’t have 4 full time admin staff. You’re having a laugh – the disconnect between MPs and their electorates has never been wider. The Tory posh boys are only the tip of the iceberg and IMO the contrast between all MPs and most citizens lived reality is huge and growing. The expenses scandal was surely the ultimate evidence of this.  

    • Lee Butcher

      As you said, those 4 admin staff in a school have 1500 students, plus staff, to adminster. A vitally important job they do as well. However, an MPs office have (on average) 70,000 people to look out for. Nor it is limited to admin, but often involves quasi-social work, advanced policy research, liaising with local and national and national government bodies and much more. Your dislike for politicians seems to be clouding your judgement. 

      • Franwhi

        I dont dislike them – as a taxpayer I just want much better value out of them and for them to be more accountable like all public servants. Tney should publish data on their constituency caseloads. Yes 70 000 POTENTIAL cases but who do you think has that workload ? We don’t even know if ONE constituent contacts them in a month. More monitoring of MPs is needed and maybe that will encourage a better. more ethical and efficient role for MPs. That’s surely something worth fighting for.  

  • Billsilver

    it’s a shame many ‘national’ politicians as you describe them are inexperienced special adviser hangers-on who have weaselled their way into a constituency.

  • brianbarder

    Personally I believe that an MP’s first priority should be his or her duties in parliament, primarily concerned with national and international affairs.  It’s deeply regrettable that the spectre of deselection forces so many MPs to spend far too much time cultivating their local constituency officers and activists, and holding surgeries in their constituencies in which they try to act as social workers and members of a citizens advice bureau for which most of them have neither aptitude, nor training, nor inclination.  The vast majority of case-work activity to which MPs have to devote disproportionate time ought to be done by local councillors and indeed even by local council officials:  MPs are elected to a national institution, not a local one.  In parliament, they should exercise their own best judgement, not obediently speaking and acting in accordance with instructions issued in resolutions by the local party — Burke’s address to the electors of (ironically) Bristol should be their Bible.  Of course they should keep in touch with their local electorates, including those who didn’t vote for them, promoting their interests at Westminster, taking their various opinions seriously into account, but remembering always that they are not mandated but independent members of the supreme national legislative body.

    They shouldn’t blindly obey the party whips, either.  But that’s another story.

    It’s a real problem that any MP, unless elected by a massive majority and a huge personal following, who tried to act as I suggest would probably be deselected after a single term, either by his affronted local party or by the enraged whips.  No wonder our parliamentary politics are so tame and unadventurous.  Half the MPs spend three-quarters of their time trying to get a tax rebate for some indigent widow in their constituencies, and the rest of it trooping obediently through the lobbies in obedience to the whips’ daily instructions.  That’s the way to ensure many undisturbed decades as a Member, no doubt.  But it makes for lousy politics and a near-total failure of parliament to hold the government to account.  No, I don’t have a solution.

    • markfergusonuk

      Very few MPs get deselected Brian as far as I can see – despite some seeming to care little for their responsibilities. I know few MPs who genuinely fear the wrath of their GC or EC once they are safely in Parliament.
      As for casework I’m afraid I have to disagree – I think it helps keep MPs grounded in the lives of those they are there to represent. –
      Mark Ferguson
      Editor – LabourList
      Email: mark@labourlist.org
      Mobile: 07545312954
      Twitter: @markfergusonuk
      Skype: markandrewferguson

      • brianbarder

         Mark, points taken: but isn’t it possible that so few MPs get deselected because most of them spend so much time cultivating their local parties and holding constituency surgeries with all the follow-up work that they entail — time that would be better spent on committees scrutinising draft legislation or on select committees interrogating ministers, researching their chosen special subjects, reading, discussing and developing policy, and just thinking?

        • markfergusonuk

          I think there’s a real debate to be had about what MPs are for – the strains and constraints put upon most would try the patience of a saint, but you’ll hear few people say that.

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