Edmund Burke argued that MPs should be free to exercise their own judgement in Parliament and that they should not be restricted to the wishes and their demands of their constituents. Yet aren’t they primarily meant to serve as a promoter of their constituency interests?
This poses the question – to whom are MPs accountable to? Do they represent those who put them in said position of responsibility or are they just using that as a vehicle for their party line? And alongside this, do they represent what they believe the people want or what they believe to be best for the people? And is “what is best for the people” determined by the MP themselves or by their party?
By being directly elected in a general election by their constituents on the basis of their policies, personality or otherwise, this infers they are voting with their own knowledge and judgement in mind. By contrast, this rejects viewing the MP as a dependent translator between the constituency and Parliament – therefore implying that the MP is entrusted by voters with the responsibility for their representation and governance. MPs therefore serve people as they believe is best.
This gives light to the ‘Trustee Model of Representation’ where the MP, acting as the trustee of their people, has the duty in mind of deliberating and making decisions for the greater interest of the people while still putting the national level first.
This means that they are able to take a broader view of issues and balance effectively competing claims and issues. This is particularly significant when it comes to priorities for allocating spending, balancing budgets, and setting taxes. On these complex issues, the average member of the British public may not hold as great an understanding as an experienced MP. This can be down to a number of factors – primarily concerning a lack of political education – in which an MP as a trustee would be better placed to analyse and evaluate said issues.
Distinctively within the Brexit referendum, practical instances of the public holding autonomy can arguably be seen as defective and why trusteeship representation of the MP is necessary. In April 2017, the British Election Study surveyed almost 28,000 voters and found that 11% of ‘leave’ voters expressed their regret alongside 7% of ‘remain’ voters – roughly 3080 and 1960 individuals respectively. Despite being a small portion of the total electorate, this can be seen as relative to a much larger number of voters who perhaps were not educated or informed enough prior to making that crucial vote.
Instead, the MP uses their initiative to vote with their conscience on their constituents’ behalf. This takes into consideration that their constituents elected them on the basis of their ability to enact their promised policies, as well as their strong personality or shared party ideology.
For example, the Labour MP for Bristol East, Kerry McCarthy, signed up to pledges such as ActionAid’s pledge to protect women’s rights globally, as well as WWF’s call to take urgent action to tackle the nature and climate crisis. In light of being voted in with consideration to these pledges, it would thus be no surprise to find that she had voted to legalise abortion in Northern Ireland (July 2019) and also voted in favour of developing and implementing a plan to eliminate the substantial majority of transport emissions by 2030 (February 2020) respectively. This therefore highlights how she indirectly represented constituents who had voted for her based on these pledges and is consequently undertaking action in the House of Commons to convey these promises.
Yet policies and personality aren’t the only variables present. The representative’s political party poses as an equivalent factor as to why the MP gets voted in as well as who they are obliged to represent.
According to the House of Commons Modernisation Committee in 2004, one of the main aims of the MP is to support their party in votes of Parliament – giving way to their partisan function, their relationship with their affiliated party. This means that arguably the MP could be seen as to have been elected as a party representative rather than a constituency representative – especially considering the twofold variables on the general election ballot for each candidate, who they are and what they represent.
The Conservative MP for The Cotswolds, Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, voted in favour of triggering Article 50 in order to leave the EU, despite his constituents in The Cotswolds voting Remain by 52.08%. He stated that “this country will be perfectly capable of prospering outside of the EU”, a shared view with the majority of the Conservative membership who were heavily in favour of a ‘hard Brexit’ – an example of party unity. Regardless of the clear outcome from voters in The Cotswolds who overall voted to ‘remain’, Clifton-Brown nonetheless voted in favour of his party’s approach for withdrawal from the European Union – demonstrating his Conservative representation in that sense.
MPs regularly communicate with their local party, allowing them to communicate local issues nationally which have been raised by constituents. An existing convention at Westminster also supports this, by stating that MPs should represent all of their constituents, not just their affiliated party supporters.
To such a degree, it can be suggested that the MP represents their constituency on behalf of their party, in order to rigorously reflect each of their anticipated roles – thus interlinking significantly both their political constituency and partisan role.