MPs - heroes or villains?

I have been trying to cure my addiction to parliament and writing a book about the work of MPs for the last few months. In a rare visit to Westminster, I went to Millbank to be interviewed by Carolyn Quinn. She was so brilliant at listening that I got completely carried away. The interview went out on  BBC Radio 4 Sunday 7th April at 10.35 pm http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p017d610. Despite my waffle, I still failed to say so much. I was going to say that after working as an anthropologist for aid charities in Africa and Asia and watching the UK parliament, I view charity  workers and MPs as morally equivalent. Motives are never singular, but they all aspire to make the world a better place. In contrast to public perception, international charity workers are more arrogant than many realise, while many MPs make harsh sacrifices and face continual demands, exposure and scrutiny.

I was going to talk about law-making. It involves far more than the adversarial tribal politics that the public see/hear on PMQs or Any Questions. Behind the scenes in the scrutiny of the family justice parts of the Children and Families Bill – for instance by the Justice Select Committee and the APPG on child protection – there were MPs and civil servants listening to judges, lawyers, social workers, charity workers and children thrashing out issues that may fundamentally re-order family relationships post-separation. There is more agreement than disagreement between the three main parties in this bill.

I meant to say that the quiet revolution in the relationship between MPs and their constituents has been neglected by both academics and journalists. In addition to representing their constituents’ interests in law and policy-making, the vast majority deal with a huge ‘caseload’ of individual and family enquiries. The issues often entail a bundle of socio-economic problems – housing, debt, benefits, noisy neighbours or health – and the challenge of grappling with a bureaucracy. While all MPs do policy work, the few who avoid ‘surgeries’ tend to be men. Women excel at this side of constituency work – with its mix of advice on who locally or nationally can solve problems, advocacy and brokerage – possibly to the cost of their own careers? Why do MPs pour time into this even in safe seats? I would suggest because it is hugely satisfying getting results for constituents who tend to view MPs far more favourably than the public en masse.

My general point was, while scrutiny and criticism of government is vital to democracy, should academics not do more to champion the work of parliament and those MPs who are busting a gut to represent us?