HC 1370 Sittings of the House and the Parliamentary Calendar

Written evidence submitted by Dr Philip Giddings and Professor Michael Rush

(P 122, 2010–12)

The Role of the Member of Parliament


1. This memorandum draws on research material in our forthcoming book, Parliamentary Socialisation: Learning the Ropes or Determining Behaviour (to be published by Palgrave Macmillan in August 2011), which is a long-term study of the socialisation of Members of Parliament covering the 1992–97 and 1997– 2001 Parliaments, [1] with addi tional data drawn from the 2001– 05 Parliament gathered by the Hansard Society.

We have focused on two aspects of our research. First, using survey material from three studies, including our own, [2] we examine MPs’ views on the role of the Member of Parliament. Second, drawing on our own surveys and on surveys of newly-elected MPs conducted by the Hansard Society in 2005 and 2006, [3] we set out of Members’ views of different aspects of the role and job of the MP. The appendix to the memorandum consists o f edited extracts from our book.

The role of the Member of Parliament

3. Our analysis of the survey data led us to conclude that, within the their overall function of providing democratic legitimacy to government, backbench MPs fulfil three major roles, which we have termed the partisan, constituency and scrutiny roles.

The three roles of the Member of Parliament



The partisan role

Supporting the party in debates, the asking of parliamentary Questions and signing of motions, committee work and, above all, in the division lobbies.

The constituency role

Helping constituents with individual problems e.g. access to welfare, housing and other local council issues, and immigration cases. Dealing with the collective interests of the constituency e.g. promoting local business, seeking funds for the constituency, environmental issues.

The scrutiny role

Assessing government policy proposals; examining primary and secondary legislation; evaluating expenditure and taxation; checking on the implementation and administration of government policy.

4. We, of course, accept that the House of Commons is the major recruitment pool for ministerial posts and that MPs belonging to opposition parties fulfil roles as frontbench spokespersons, but our focus is essentially on backbenchers. We also accept that Members perform other roles but argue that these are subsumed under the three major roles we have delineated.

5. We argue that, although the role of the Member of Parliament is multi-faceted, all MPs perform the partisan, constituency and scrutiny roles and that these roles are not mutually exclusive. However, we also argue that the balance between these roles varies between Members and over time, especially during the course of a Member’s parliamentary career.

The job of the Member of Parliament

6. In the 1992–97 and 1997– 2001 Parliaments questionnaires were sent to newly-elected MPs and to a control group of longer-serving backbench Members. We asked Members four questions relevant to their role: first, whether they thought MPs should be full-time or part-time; second, who they saw themselves as representing; third, what were the most important parts of their job as an MP; and, fourth, who influenced them in their work in Parliament. These questions were replicated in the 2005/2006 Hansard Society surveys.

Full-time v. part-time

7. All Labour and Liberal Democrat respondents thought the job of being an MP should be full-time, in contrast to 28 % of Conservatives in 1994 and 40 % in 1999. However, most Conservatives who thought it should be part-time acknowledged that the demands of the job rendered it full-time in terms of the number of hours per week needed to meet those demands. This reflected the view, widely expressed in comments made in responses to the questionnaires, that they needed to keep in touch with 'the real world' and that occupations outside politics were the most effective way of achieving this.

The Member of Parliament as a representative

8. Members were asked to place in rank order representing their constituents, the nation as a whole, and their party. First and foremost, our respondent MPs clearly saw themselves as representing their constituents (64% in 1994 and 68% in 199 9), then the nation (22% in 1994 and 16% in 1999), and, a long way b ehind, their parties (8% in 1994 and 10% in 1999). There were, however, significant differences between members of different parties, with Conservatives more likely to place the nation second and Labour MPs their party second.

The most important parts of the job

9. MPs were asked to place in rank order d ifferent aspects of their job- scrutinising the government and civil service, supporting their party, influencing party policy, and helping c onstituents. Again constituents came first overall, though more strongly among Labour than Conservative MPs. The most significant finding was the difference made by whether a party was in government or opposition. When in government, in 1994, Conservatives ranked scrutiny fourth, but in opposition, in 1999, they ranked it first. This emerged more starkly if the proportion of MPs ranking scrutiny first or second in the two Parli aments is compared. In 1994, 38% of Conservatives did so; in 1997 the proportion had jumped to 82%. Conversely, in 1994, 46% of Labour MPs ranked scrutin y first, compared with 35% in 1999. There were also differences in attitude towards supporting their party: as with the representative role, Labour MPs were stronger on party in both Parliaments.

Influencing MPs

10. MPs were asked who strongly influenced them in their parliamentary activity – the party leadership, their personal opinions, constituency opinion, and representations from pressure groups. The latter were by far the least influential. In contrast to the emphasis on constituents in whom they represent and in the most important part of the job, when it came to sources of influence constituency opinion came some way behind their personal opinions and the party. In short, the party leadership was the most important. In short, the partly leadership was the most important.

The rol e of the Member of Parliament- an overview

11. MPs regard themselves primarily as representing their constituents. This is reflected in other data we collected showing that most MPs spend more time on constituency work than any other part of their job. However, they say that party, not constituency is the most important influence on their parliamentary behaviour . That is not very surprising since their parliamentary activity―tabling Questions and motions and participating in debates and committee work―takes place within the context of party. ‘Party’ here means not the narrow context of the party whips, but the wider context of MPs being members of parties with which more often than not they agree.

Michael Rush,
University of Exeter.

Philip Giddings,

University of Reading

April 2011

[1] This research was supported by an award from the Nuffield Foundation Small Grant Scheme during the 1992–97 Parliament and an ESRC grant (R000222470) during the 1997–2001 Parliament

[2] The other two studies are Donald D. Searing, Westminster’s World: Understanding Political Roles , Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1994 and Hansard Society, Report of the Hansard Society Commission on Parliamentary Scrutiny: The Challenge for Parliament – Making Government Accountable , Vacher Dod Publishing, London, 2001.

[3] Gemma Rosenblatt, A Year in the Life: From Member of Public to Member of Parliament, Hansard Society, London. 2006. Subsequently cited as ‘Hansard dataset.

Prepared 6th July 2011