4 What is an MP, and how do you become
81. An MP has a number of responsibilities. The main
a legislator, debating, making and reviewing laws and government
policy within Parliament; and
· as an advocate
for the constituency he or she represents. The MP can speak for
the interests and concerns of constituents in Parliamentary debates
and, if appropriate, intercede with Ministers on their behalf.
The MP can speak either on behalf of the constituency as a whole,
or to help individual constituents who are in difficulty (an
MP represents all their constituents, whether or not the individual
voted for them). Within the constituency an MP and his or her
staff will seek to support individual constituents by getting
information for them or working to resolve a problem.
82. In addition some MPs will:
on an additional role as a Government Minister;
· Take on a formal
role within Parliament, supporting the Speaker by chairing committees
or debates; or
· Have a formal
role to play within their political party, for example, being
a spokesperson, co-ordinating a campaign or advising the party
leadership on a particular area of policy.
83. A good MP will make a positive difference to
the community he or she represents. An MP can express the concerns
of their community to Parliament and ensure people's experiences
are recorded and understood. He or she can press for changes which
will increase the community's wellbeing and prosperity. An MP
has the authority to bring different people and agencies together
to address an awkward problem. When someone has to take on 'the
system'perhaps to secure the right care package for a relative,
or to correct a miscarriage of justicean MP can often support
them and help them through. An MP will bring their knowledge and
understanding of their constituents' lives, concerns and interests,
as well as their own life experience, to bear on their work.
84. It is important to recognise that a Member's
responsibilities rest jointly and concurrently at Westminster
and in the constituency. It is a modern requirement of the job
that a Member has an office in both places and there is a strong
public expectation that when not required at Westminster, Members
will actively participate in the life of the constituency, including
at weekends. Hence it is important to recognise that both Westminster
and their constituency are places of work for MPs.
A job description
85. There is no formally accepted job description
for the work of an MP, although there have been various attempts
to define the range of tasks an MP carries out.
We have been told, and we recognise, that the lack of transparency
about what an MP does is not helpful to the public's understanding
of Parliament. It is also a barrier to the aspirations of those
who have not participated extensively in electoral politics. It
can lead to misunderstanding and unrealistic expectations on the
part of voters in the constituency and members of political parties.
86. There needs also to be more clarity about the
employment status of MPs. An MP is held to be self-employed for
tax and other legal reasons. He or she receives a salary from
the state and directly employs his or her own office staff. The
employment status of an MP is not widely understood, yet it impacts
upon certain of the concerns which we have heard, such as the
question of whether, and if so, how, Members should be provided
with maternity leave. We shall discuss this in chapter 7 of the
87. A description of the main functions of a Member
of Parliament should be drawn up, agreed between the parties and
published. The description should not remove the scope for MPs
to approach the job of representing their constituency in various
ways; it should contain general principles and main objectives
and tasks, rather than highly detailed prescriptions. Greater
transparency about the terms and conditions under which MPs work
has been achieved since the mid-1990s but the process has not
been completed; nor has it been matched by a clearer explanation
of the role of Members. More is needed. This information should
be consolidated, published (on the internet and in hard copy)
and made widely available to the general public.
Being a candidate
88. Many of the people we met in Manchester, Cheltenham
and Leeds told us that there should also be greater clarity and
wider knowledge about how someone would become an MP.
89. The process of becoming an MP has several stages,
and political parties play an essential role in almost every case.
An individual who is interested in or willing to stand for election
as a Member of Parliament representing a political party must
first join, and be selected as the official candidate (the Prospective
Parliamentary Candidate) for, a local branch of a political party.
The parties then provide campaigning support for the chosen candidates
at a general election or, where relevant, at a by-election. All
local people who are registered to vote may vote for one of the
candidates on polling day. When the votes are counted, the candidate
who has been given the most votes becomes the local MP. A Member
of Parliament can only participate in Parliamentary debates and
hearings, however, once they have sworn or affirmed their allegiance
to the Crown.
The Ideal CandidateWhat
do political parties look for?
90. In recent years all of the main political parties
have sought to make their selection procedures more objective
and professional. Part of this process has been to list formally
the competencies which benefit MPs. Some of these competencies
are skills which every MP will need individually; others are skills
which are needed within the wider group of MPs if they are to
work together effectively to form a Government or to call Government
to account. While each of the parties looks for slightly different
things, when these are put together the overall list includes
but is not limited to (in no particular order):
skills: being able to communicate effectively; being able to
communicate a message to an audience in different ways;
being able to plan and carry out an effective campaign;
being able to lead a team of people and work collaboratively
with people and organisations from a wide range of backgrounds
skills: being able to manage staff, budgets, premises and other
resources; being able to manage time and the requirements of working
in two places and in two offices (in the constituency and Westminster);
people and problem solving: being able to take up a problem on
behalf of another person, finding out the options for solving
the problem, working with the person and keeping them informed;
· Strategic thinking:
being able to plan an effective course of action;
· Values and
knowledge: being able to provide a record of experience in, or
commitment to, the political party and/or the community; and
· Life experience:
being able to provide evidence of experience outside the political
party (for example in voluntary organisations, in the public sector,
in a caring role, in paid employment); demonstrating how this
experience helps to prepare the candidate for being an MP.
91. Motivation is also highly important. People who
stand for election do so, we were told, "because they want
to 'serve their community', they want to make a difference".
These motivations are far more frequently expressed by MPs than
ideas such as an interest in politics for its own sake, or a desire
for power. Some people, like independent MP Dr Richard Taylor,
are drawn into politics because of a single issue such as a campaign
for a local hospital, while others may get involved because of
an event or series of events. Research into the backgrounds of
local councillors, which we believe also broadly reflects the
experience of Members of Parliament, indicates that a key factor
for many people in deciding to stand for election is whether they
have been asked to do so.
Women councillors in particular were likely to give as their reason
for involvement that they had been asked.
92. We believe passionately in the value of an MP's
work, and consider ourselves fortunate that we have had the opportunity
to serve as Members. Yet there are many more people who have the
essential qualities and capabilities required of an MP but who
have been denied this opportunity; or, who have been unable to
pursue an opportunity which should have been open to them. In
many cases this lost or denied opportunity will relate in some
way to the fact that the person is a woman, or disabled, or comes
from a minority ethnic community; that they are young, working
class or living on a low income; that they are an open member
of the lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgendered communities; or
they are a mental health service user. None of these factors has
an automatic impact upon a person's ability to do a job, but they
can still create barriers to the person's success in life in general
and in politics in particular.
The Reality of Candidacy
93. The reality of candidacy often seems very different
from the ideals and aspirations we have just discussed. In particular,
selection processes and the culture of parties can make it harderor
mean it is perceived to be harderfor people from diverse
backgrounds to become candidates. The choice of prospective parliamentary
candidates rests with the local political parties. Various arguments
were put to us as to the reasons why local parties predominantly
select white, male, apparently able-bodied, middle-class candidates.
These arguments included:
there are not enough candidates from other groups (for example
women, disabled people) coming forward to enable nationally proportionate
selections, meaning the local parties have little choice;
· People will
naturally choose people who appear to be like themselves;
· Where there
is strong competition for a seat, a party will choose whichever
candidate it thinks has the best chance of winning; but,
· If a party
considers a seat to be 'safe' (one they are very likely to win)
it will tend to choose someone who 'looks like' an MP: if most
MPs are white males, this approach would lead to more white males
being selected; and
· Parties will
tend to choose someone whom they think will appeal to voters in
94. We have received a number of submissions rejecting
the idea that there are not enough women interested in becoming
candidates. We were told that the tendency for people to choose
people who are like themselves has also declined since the 1950s.
The perpetuation of the stereotype of an MP may still be an issue.
We consider in our chapter on selection processes (see Chapter
5) how such biaswhether or not it is intendedcan
Looking like Ministers
95. It was suggested to us that in certain cases
ambitious local parties may not simply select a candidate on whether
they 'look like' a Member of Parliament but also on whether they
'look like' a potential Minister. We put this suggestion to Peter
Riddell, Chair of the Hansard Society. He told us that "it
is always difficult to predict at the time of selection"
which candidates will progress to the highest levels in a political
party, but agreed that this might be a consideration for some
local parties. This
raises the question of what a Minister looks like: while much
improved compared to Governments pre-1997, at present the Government
remains significantly white and male. If local parties do try
to choose likely Ministers in that way, the parties will simply
replicate the current ministerial team and ensure that more of
the same are elected.
96. When we asked the party leaders about representation
in the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet, the Prime Minister pointed
out to us that in addition to full cabinet members there are women
and members of BME communities "who sit at the Cabinet table
who do not necessarily hold a full departmental responsibility";
while we acknowledge the value of these arrangements both for
the Cabinet and for the Members concerned, it is regrettable that
such appointments do not bring greater public status or visible
responsibility. The Women Liberal Democrats regretted that women
MPs are not more prominent, even visible, in the wider political
arena and in the media.
Mr Cameron told us that the Conservative Party had "only
two" MPs from a BME background, both of whom "are Shadow
Ministers, but both were elected at the last election." Mr
Cameron said that he had set a target for a third of Ministers
in a future Conservative administration to be women by the end
of the five-year term.
A narrower path into politics?
97. Concerns have been expressed for some time about
increasing specialisation and narrowing of the route to Westminster.
There is some evidence to suggest that aspirant MPs who take a
particular career path are more likely to be successful in getting
selected and elected than potential candidates who take other
98. Historically many MPs would join the House after
working in one or more different trades or professions, with perhaps
some union or local party involvement and gradually progressing
to the point where standing for Parliament was a logical next
99. More recently a trend can be seen which suggests
that a small but growing number of new entrants to the House
of Commons are 'career politicians' who have shaped their careers
over years specifically to maximise their chances of entering
Parliament. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the optimum career
path for a 'career politician' today would include perhaps experience
as a local councillor, a spell spent working as a paid employee
for a political party as a researcher or adviser and/or a spell
spent working for an MP. Education also plays a part. The Equality
and Human Rights Commission presented us with striking evidence
to indicate that having a degree from a Russell Group university
was likely to increase a candidate's chances.
100. This apparent trend in candidates' backgrounds,
away from an emphasis on broad life experience acquired outside
politics and towards a greater focus on a restricted range of
political roles, presents two challenges. Firstly, although 'career
politicians' who have deliberately pursued a pre-parliamentary
career of the type described may have acquired valuable 'parliamentary'
skills in public speaking, negotiating, researching and analysing
information, they may lack some of the experience and expertise
which life as (for example) a teacher, a miner, an entrepreneur
or farmer may provide. Such experience can bring useful insights
into the way policy translates into practice and is important
to the effective scrutiny of Government policy and legislation.
Secondly, there is a risk that if parties have a strong but unspoken
preference for candidates who have followed a particular, narrowly
defined career path, this effectively and unfairly closes the
gates against all but a luckyor privilegedfew.
101. We asked senior representatives of each of the
parties whether they recognised the existence of such a narrow
career 'path into politics'. John Maples MP, speaking for the
Conservative Party, recognised the existence of a 'professionalised'
route into Parliament but told us that while he "would certainly
be very worried if [he] felt the whole of our intake was coming
through that route
looking at the numbers it seems it is
about ten or 12%, and that is probably fine".
Ray Collins, General Secretary of the Labour Party, suggested
that monitoring could help to determine the extent of this trend
but noted also that organisations such as the trade unions still
had a role to play in providing an alternative route into politics
for some individuals, particularly those who might not have ready
access to social networks at Westminster.
These networks can be powerful and can exclude. We have seen that
"being asked" to be a candidate is sometimes an important
starting point for a political career. We were told that if you
are a woman, or from a black and minority ethnic community, you
are less likely to be asked.
It seems probable that the same holds true for other under-represented
102. It is important to ensure that there is no
single route into politics which is accessible only to a privileged
few. We recently sought to amend the Equality Bill in order
to create a mechanism for monitoring the socio-economic backgrounds
and occupations of future candidates; unfortunately, there was
insufficient time for our proposal to be debated. We nonetheless
continue to believe that the routes by which future Members
come into Parliament should be monitored and information published
by the political parties. (For further discussion of our proposed
amendment see paragraphs 160-161).
103. There would be value in the parties being
more open about both the qualities, and the experience, they consider
to be desirable for a prospective parliamentary candidate. If
it becomes clear that certain types of experiencesuch as
a spell as a party employee or as an MP's researcherare
preferred, the parties should consider how those experiences can
be made more accessible.
104. But whatever new processes are put in place,
greater diversity in our elected representatives will be achieved
only when the culture of our political parties has been changed.
This change in our political parties should be driven by the changes
we see in wider society, which requires and demands greater diversity
in all representative organisations and bodies. Party leaders
can help to challenge stereotypes of an effective Member, or Minister,
by ensuring that MPs from all backgrounds and communities are
able to demonstrate their skills in positions of prominence, either
within Government or within the party.
105. In the following chapter we consider in greater
barriers which obstruct the success of individuals from under-represented
· the selection
processes used by the main political parties; and
· ways in which
the selection processes might be improved.
66 See for example Appendix 1 of Report No. 38 from
the Review Body on Senior Salaries, Cm 3330-II (HMSO, 1996) Back
SC94, 98 Back
Ev 24; Ev 55-57 Back
Ev 22 Back
Ev 64 Back
The EHRC told us that about 72% of the House of Commons was university
educated and about half the House (46%) attended one of the 20
'Russell Group' Universities. Within the 2005 intake of new Members
of Parliament 89% were university educated. In the House as a
whole, 27% of Members attended either the University of Oxford
or Cambridge. Within the 2005 intake of new Members this percentage
rises to 29%.
The Russell Group is an association
of 20 major research-intensive universities of the United Kingdom.
They are the universities of Birmingham, Bristol, Cambridge, Cardiff,
Edinburgh, Glasgow, Imperial College London, King's College London,
Leeds, Liverpool, LSE, Manchester, Newcastle, Nottingham, Queen's
University Belfast, Oxford, Sheffield, Southampton, University
College London and Warwick. Back