With a snap General Election just weeks away, the business of what MPs do is back in the spotlight, with citizens closely scrutinising their views on everything from Brexit to bins. This year students on our Parliamentary Studies course each followed online the activities of a chosen MP for six months to see how Members of Parliament do their job and use their time, to answer the question ‘what makes a good MP?’ Students analysing their MP’s pages on TheyWorkForYou, read their tweets, and followed their blogs and voting record. Here’s what three of them found out:
Chosen MP: Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) ‘Rebellion and Responsibility’
Labour MP for Leeds Central, Hilary Benn once told an interviewer, ‘Ultimately, all politics is a compromise between the purity of the ideal and being able to help people. You can be completely happy with your beliefs – but if you don’t win, you can’t help anybody’. After researching Hilary Benn for several months as my case study for ‘what makes a good MP’, I would say it is this conviction which best encapsulates his approach to the role of parliamentarian.
The job description of an MP is highly open to interpretation. Once the MP is in Westminster, the parliamentary roles that MP may take on vary from being elected Speaker and never voting on anything again, to remaining a backbencher and rebelling against the government their constituents elected them to represent. In the case of Hilary Benn, he is a curious mixture of rebellion and responsibility.
Benn has more parliamentary muscle and influence than most due to his current role as Chair of the Brexit select committee, several years of cabinet and shadow cabinet experience, a revered family name and an arresting style of oratory. He has voted with the party on the vast majority of issues and yet, in recent years, he has also proved capable of some high profile dissent.
Perhaps, when he publicly declared no faith in his party’s elected leader, he deemed it unlikely that Labour could ‘help people’ while polling saw them so dizzyingly far away from any hope of an election victory. However, good intentions aside, further resignations and a spiral of negative press were what ensued. Whether this made him a good parliamentarian depends on who you ask.
He also makes a ‘compromise’ between his Westminster work and his work in Leeds. His majority of almost 17,000 gives him ample manoeuvre room to spend more time in the chamber and less battling to prove himself in the constituency. Nevertheless he holds above average levels of surgeries and is an avid user of social media and a prominent local blogger. He has proved popular enough to comfortably win four general elections. The two are not separate phenomena.
Leeds Central’s Harvey Nichols bestowed city-centre is a short bus journey away from hill after hill of lapsed industrial suburbs. These kinds of deprived constituencies require more surgeries, staff and time and they are also far more likely to vote Labour. Add to this the increase in constituency communications from ‘fewer than twenty letters per week’ in the 1950s to hundreds a week today and it is evident that our MPs are working harder than ever before. This development became apparent reading the diaries of the former MP for Benn’s area, Hugh Gaitskell. Mentions of any constituency work are few and a rather far cry from what I speculate Benn’s seven surgeries a month entail. Gaitskell once recounted a visit to Beeston Working Men’s Club where he was greeted by rounds of applause and constituents buying him so much beer that his colleague had to help him drink it all.
An example of the decline in public opinion towards parliamentarians since then can be exemplified by a conversation I had with one of Benn’s constituents outside that same Working Men’s Club last year. I won’t repeat verbatim their views on parliament, but suffice to say he would not be buying any MPs a pint. Why Benn might be categorised with that era of corruption is unclear, being that his expenses were so frugal the newspapers named him ‘Bargain Benn’.
This brings me to the crux of my research, which found that much of what makes a good MP, despite popular belief to the contrary, is already exhibited by a majority of today’s members. But if the electorate is no longer paying attention, what does it matter how good the parliamentarian is?
Chosen MP: Dan Jarvis (Barnsley Central): the loyal crusader?
Dan Jarvis, continually touted for the Labour Party leadership, represents the constituency of Barnsley Central. He has held the seat since a 2007 by-election in which he held the seat for the Labour Party. Since then he increased his majority in the 2015 General Election to a substantial vote majority of 12,435. Jarvis does not serve in the Shadow Cabinet and devotes all of his time to back-bench activities, scrutinising the Executive, and seeking clarity on issues, through both written questions to ministerial departments and oral questions within the House of Commons.
Although Jarvis is comparatively quiet in asking oral questions, asking only six questions between 16.10.16 and 29.01.17, he is rather more prolific with his written questions receiving responses to 131 questions from government departments in the same time period. He has covered a wide range of issues, from Brexit to care for veterans, but most prominently he has focused his attentions on the issue of child poverty for which he is the sponsor of a private members bill. The bill, which is due its second reading in the House of Commons in May 2017 (though the election may interfere), entitled the Child Poverty in the UK (Target for Reduction) Bill, tabled by the Back-Bench Business Committee, has received cross-bench admiration and achieved media attention, raising awareness for the cause in both parliamentary and public spheres.
Jarvis voted according along party lines in the recent EU Notification of withdrawal Act, voting with his Party and in line with his constituency, even though he campaigned for the UK to remain within the European Union. According to Public Whip Jarvis is a fairly well-disciplined member of his party, hardly rebelling, voting with his parliamentary affiliation all but 3 times since becoming an MP. He devotes much of his time away from Westminster taking part in constituency surgeries, and visiting local schools and hospitals.
Chosen MP: Jacob Rees-Mogg MP: Member for the 19th Century?
Jacob Rees-Mogg (47) is the Conservative member for North East Somerset. He is 47 years old and the son of William Rees Mogg (former Times editor) and Gillian Shakespeare-Morris. He was educated at Eton College and Trinity College, Oxford – where he read History. Following Oxford he became an investment banker in the City of London. His own children are famously looked after by the same Nanny that looked after Jacob, who also campaigns with him.
He has made 3 attempts to become an MP. His first attempt in the 1997 General Election was contesting a safe Labour seat in Central Fife where he came third, gaining 9% of the vote (3,669). The next attempt was in the 2001 General Election where he stood as prospective Conservative candidate for The Wreckin (Shropshire). Again Labour retained the seat but on this occasion he came second. His third and successful attempt came in the 2010 General Election as Conservative candidate for North East Somerset when he won the seat with a comfortable 4,914 majority. He increased the conservative vote by 2.2%. Since then he has stood for re-election in the 2015 General Election. He retained the seat but this time with a 12,749 majority and increased the Conservative vote by 8.5%.
Although the member for North East Somerset, some MPs also consider him to be the Member for the 19th Century on account of his style. Jacob is a Conservative, but definitely on the Eurosceptic wing of the party. Within Parliament, he is busy. Jacob sits on the Treasury Select Committee and the European Scrutiny Committee. He is also a member of the Palace of Westminster (joint committee), which is looking at the modernisation of Parliament. He clearly has a strong interest in Public Finance, according to ‘They work for you’ he has attended every meeting of the Finance Bill committee and the Financial Services reform committee (being the owner of Somerset Capital Management, he has a strong motivation for attending). In the last year he has submitted 57 written questions (above average). Since 2010 he has participated in 326 debates- again above average for an MP. Jacob frequently writes in the local newspapers. In one article he says that he finds ‘helping an aggrieved person obtain redress far more satisfying than all the debate in the chamber’. He tends to keep his constituency work low-key for reasons of confidentiality.