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In the News

Role of an MP

Mike McCartney

14th June 2023

Case study: Caroline Lucas

The only MP from the Green Party in the House of Commons has announced that we Shon't be standing at the next election. This news about Caroline Lucas has generated a lot of coverage and gives us an excellent opportunity to revisit what it means to be an effective MP.

An MP has multiple roles, and the following is something of a list. It is not intended to be exhaustive, and, of course, sometimes these roles do overlap (or conflict!).

Constituency role. An MP has an obligation to represent the needs and interests of their constituency members. This could mean acting as something of a delegate in the Commons and speaking or voting in a way that represents the majority of opinion in their area - even if it perhaps conflicts with their personal view, or party position. A role that has certainly become more important in recent years is where an MP helps a constituent out with a personal problem. This could be resolving a dispute with a neighbour, the local council, or non-payment of benefits. These types of issues will make up the bulk of correspondence in the post or via email from local residents, and can be discussed at surgery meetings later on in the working week, or on Saturdays. There is more on the constituency obligations of an MP here.

Parliamentary role: select committees One of the principal ways that an MP serves the people is holding the government to account - echoing ‘great reformer’, William Gladstone, who is reported to have said to Members of Parliament that ‘Your business is not to govern the country, but it is, if you think fit, to call to account those who do’. And when it comes to this function, select committees are far more effective than other mechanisms, such as PMQs. The introduction of departmental select committees in the UK in 1979 allows these non-partisan bodies to call for ‘persons, papers and records’ and can be seen to have resulted in more open government and act as a useful deterrent on an over mighty executive. Furthermore, the Prime Minister is now called to answer questions twice a year by the Liaison Committee. Peter Riddell has argued that select committees have ‘been a major factor in the opening up of the workings of government over the past twenty years.’

Parliamentary role: debate. Something that has changed in recent years when considering the role of the legislature is the way in which members of the legislature perceive their debating and deliberation function. It is true to say that on the one hand viewership numbers for BBC Parliament are tiny, but however small these numbers might be and despite the fact that politicians appear on TV in much less formal shows (a process really accelerated by Tony Blair when he appeared on Richard and Judy and the Des O’Connor show) does not diminish the fact that our national assembly sets the tone for political debate.

Why is Parliament recalled in response to important national developments? Because the people expect it.

Examples (though by no means an exhaustive list) worth mentioning in student responses on this topic include:

  • The Falklands invasion (1982)
  • Black Wednesday (1992)
  • 9/11 (2001)
  • English city riots (2011)

A fuller account of recalls of Parliament can be found here, from the Commons Library:

And this is the area where we can really consider the impact of Caroline Lucas. As an individual MP she has used the House of Commons as a platform for raising issue that cold be considered to be on the fringes of political debate and gaining media attention. Issues Caroline Lucas has campaigned for are covered in this excellent article in the i newspaper.

Of these, I would like to cite one particular example. The campaign against media sexism and her calls for "No More Page Three". See the BBC coverage here.

Mike McCartney

Mike is an experienced A-Level Politics teacher, author and examiner.

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