Speaker's Conference on Parliamentary Representation - Speaker's Conference (on Parliamentary Representation) Contents

4  What is an MP, and how do you become one?

81. An MP has a number of responsibilities. The main ones are:

·  as 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:

·  Take 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 justice—an 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.[66] 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 report.

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 Candidate—What 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):

·  Communication skills: being able to communicate effectively; being able to communicate a message to an audience in different ways;

·  Campaigning: being able to plan and carry out an effective campaign;

·  Leadership: being able to lead a team of people and work collaboratively with people and organisations from a wide range of backgrounds and communities;

·  Management 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);

·  Representing 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;

·  Judgement;

·  Resilience;

·  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.[67]


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".[68] 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.[69] Women councillors in particular were likely to give as their reason for involvement that they had been asked.[70]

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 harder—or mean it is perceived to be harder—for 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:

·  That 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 the constituency.

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 bias—whether or not it is intended—can be removed.

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.[71] 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";[72] 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.[73] 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.[74]

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 routes.

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 step.

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.[75]

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 lucky—or privileged—few.

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".[76] 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.[77] 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.[78] It seems probable that the same holds true for other under-represented groups.

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 experience—such as a spell as a party employee or as an MP's researcher—are 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 detail:

·  the barriers which obstruct the success of individuals from under-represented groups;

·  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

67   SC94, 98 Back

68   Q178 Back

69   Ev 24; Ev 55-57 Back

70   Ev 22 Back

71   Q228 Back

72   Q440 Back

73   Ev 64 Back

74   Q459 Back

75   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

76   Q252 Back

77   Q252 Back

78   Q157 Back

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