What makes politics exciting?


What do MPs do in their work, how and why? At a workshop last Friday hosted by The History of Parliament I tried to address these questions in front of anthropologists, politics scholars and parliamentary officials. Do I have enough here for a book, I asked? “Three books,” replied one. The first may demolish some clichés about MPs. For starters, self-interest on its own is an unconvincing explanation of their behaviour. Like any other group, MPs are motivated by multiple aspirations, interwoven and in flux. Picking only one is a lazy and formulaic approach. MPs work hard in constituencies partly because they aim to get re-elected but since many of those in safe seats work up to 70 hours a week on behalf of those they represent, other motives are clearly at work as well. Solving constituents’ problems is satisfying – it leads to visible, sometimes life or sanity-saving results and forges close relationships between representative and represented. It also informs MPs about the impact of laws, policy and societal change on real people in their everyday lives.

Anthropology can be useful for challenging assumptions and solving puzzles in human behaviour. At the workshop Insa Koch (LSE) explained how residents on a council estate in Oxford feel let down by the state, and rarely vote in elections because they see politicians in general as all the same, but regularly engage with their own elected representatives. In contrast to the state, which they experience through impenetrable bureaucracies, their MP and local councillors are accessible. Mukulika Banerjee (LSE) explained how the electorate does the opposite in India. They don’t think much of politicians but vote in huge numbers because they see their own role as citizens discharging the duty of political participation as an important part of the democratic process. People dress up to vote and meet friends and relatives in a carnival atmosphere. Voters say that in this hierarchical society an election is one of the few occasions when they are all equals, voting acts as a fleeting leveller. And it is also a way of reinforcing their citizenship of the country. She reveals more in her book Why India Votes which will be out next year.

In Britain sport and Monarchy inspire more participation in national rituals more than elections ever do. I wonder whether Britons would be drawn into politics if the press portrayed more of the subtlety and self-sacrifice of MPs?