2 December 2021

‘What do we want from MPs’ is really two conflicting questions – so how do we reconcile them?

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What do we really want from our MPs?
This has been the question hiding in plain sight for the past few weeks in Westminster and the country at large. The scandal around Owen Paterson’s lobbying led to a wider conversation about MPs’ second jobs, whether they should be allowed to do them and how they should be regulated – but that is only one piece of the puzzle.

When we ask what MPs should be able to do besides being an MP, we are really asking what it means to be an MP, and what we want it to mean. On one side, some have said a ban on second jobs would inevitably lead to a duller, more uniform House of Commons. If we want to attract the best and brightest into politics, the argument goes, we must not force them to leave every part of their old life behind for as long as they sit on the green benches.

For others it’s obvious that being an MP should obviously be a full-time job, if said MP is to represent their constituency to the best of their ability. There are, after all, few professions where one is allowed to swan off one day a week to do another job entirely.

Here is my question: what if both sides are right? Or rather: what if both sides are right because we are currently trying to find answers to two separate questions? “What do we want from our MPs?” is a question with two meanings: depending on the context or your ideological predispositions, it can either seek to address the quality of the House of Commons as a whole, or the behaviour of individual MPs.

The problem with this is not only that both questions require different answers, but that they are in direct conflict with each other. To offer a boozy metaphor – this is the festive season after all – it is not unlike a dinner party. On a macro level, everyone agrees that an evening out can be made more lively by the presence of one person getting entertainingly drunker than the others. On an individual level, few would volunteer to be that person.

The House of Commons is not dissimilar. If we are wondering what would make the best possible Parliament, it does not feel unreasonable to argue that it should comprise all types of MPs. There should be quiet hard workers who care about little but their constituency and idle but clever mavericks sharpening debates in the chamber; single-minded campaigners who won’t rest until their pet issue is sorted and conscientious wonks who care about the minute detail of every policy.

A perfect House of Commons would include people who were born and bred in SW1 and people for whom politics never came naturally, but whose experiences in the real world can inform their parliamentary actions. A drab and uninspiring one would have 650 quiet MPs all cut from the same cloth, aiming to keep their whips pleased and only speaking up on important local issues.

The problem here, of course, is that a quiet MP that toes the party line faithfully while standing up for their constituents when it matters is what most people want from their local MP. Others can have the bright eccentrics and sanguine freedom fighters; few would willingly want them as their elected representative. That is the conundrum at the heart of the debate; everyone wants to enjoy themselves alongside the merrily sozzled friend, no one wants to take one of the team and down the Merlot.

How do we reconcile the two? Perhaps the answer lies with a greater focus on MPs’ staff. If the problem with MPs is that their job is actually four or five jobs instead of one, we should make sure that they have enough support to be the sort of MP they want to be without anyone losing out.

If every MP had a constituency team full of experienced caseworkers running the show, it would allow those who are better at debates than surgeries to do the former while ensuring no one loses out. If every MP had a Westminster team full of experienced speechwriters and policy experts, they could be briefed as needed while really focusing on whatever their current pet project might be.

That way, the House of Commons could be at its best – as a diverse chamber filled with a broad variety of characters – and individual MPs could still fulfill all their duties to their constituents. “What do we want from our MPs?” could then return to being a single question, and one which would be debated more fairly.

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Marie Le Conte is a freelance political journalist and author of 'Honourable Misfits: A Brief History of Britain's Weirdest, Unluckiest and Most Outrageous MPs'.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.