MPs in constituencies

 

Visiting the constituency was once an annual affair for some MPs. It was possible to pass nearly all problems to local councillors.  But with the intense media scrutiny and public disenchantment with politicians, MPs’ relationships with their constituents have changed out of all recognition. One  constituency office accumulated over 9,500 cases on the database between 2005 and last month; and a constituent emailed his MP at 2 am asking for help and again at 6 am saying, “why haven’t you answered yet?”

Dame Anne Begg (MP for Aberdeen South) never turns anyone away. She provides a ‘one-stop shop’; she and her staff take action on what is often a complex range of problems facing each individual or family. For those failing to get noticed by impenetrable bureaucracies, she is the last resort. Sometimes there is not much that can be done, but I found endless examples in her files of mistakes by government departments corrected, houses found for the vulnerable and services speeded up. Departments respond to MPs and the helplines provided for MPs’ staff are more efficient and respectful than public ones. But interestingly, it is not just about results. Her letters to constituents are always scrupulously polite and staff are endlessly patient on the phone or in meetings. Talking to constituents last week,  I found that it is kindness and respect that they value as highly as the outcomes in contrast to the rudeness of overworked and underfunded government officials. “When people say MPs are glorified social workers, I embrace it,” Dame Anne told me.

Other MPs' caseworkers also take great pride in being polite and not treating people like numbers. Although constituents are usually grateful, some are abusive. Sometimes MPs are criticised for helping asylum seekers or for not always righting a wrong. One, Anne Keen, was even sued, albeit unsuccessfully on appeal, for failing to sort out a constituent’s problem even though she wrote over 100 emails on his behalf. Stephen Timms (MP) was stabbed by a constituent, while researcher Andrew Pennington was killed when trying to protect the MP employing him.

MPs are not only about defending constituents’ personal interests and wider community priorities but voicing constituents’ views on national and international issues. What should MPs do when they disagree with their constituents; or agree with them but diverge from the party line? Some rebel. In fact the 2010-12 rebellions by government MPs was the highest in the post war era, Phil Cowley reveals. In short, MPs are working harder, are being scrutinised more closely and becoming more rebellious. So why do they still get so much flak?