What is in a role: differing views about MPs’ focus

For many MPs beginning their career before 2005, they started their job with no induction process or job description. Volunteer interviewer Peter Reilly reflects on his recent interview with David Howarth, MP for Cambridge 2005-2010, and asks the question: what is the role of an MP?

What is the role of an MP? It must be a question many new MPs ask themselves. Yet, as interviewees of the History of Parliament Trust programme attest, at least up to 2005, there was no clear answer given to them. There was no published job description to act as a guide, nor an induction process which might allow them to explore the purpose and objectives of their position. As MPs are not employees, there is no employer to explain their rights and responsibilities. House of Commons staff cannot dictate, nor really advise on what MPs should use their time doing. There is a Parliamentary publication which details its functions as scrutinising the work of the government, legislating, debating, and checking and approving government expenditure. There are also written and unwritten rules about conduct in the chamber, in the Palace of Westminster or more explicitly in government. However, none of these really address the question of balancing or executing these tasks. While party whips enforce party discipline, there does not appear a role that is tasked with guiding new MPs on how they can prioritise their time. Here, MPs are left to sink or swim.

David Howarth by Peter Reilly. Download ALT text here.

In this vacuum, some MPs have given considerable thought to the question: ‘what should the role of MPs be?’ One such was David Howarth (MP for Cambridge 2005-2010). As an academic lawyer with an increasing interest in constitutional law, this should come as no surprise. When I interviewed him in December 2022 and this topic came up, I expected him to focus on whether MPs were delegates (there to do their constituents’ bidding) or representatives (able to form their own best-interest opinion). This was the principal debate in my A-level British Constitution class fifty years previously. Instead, Howarth offered a different dichotomy: between those who saw the House of Commons as merely an agent of the executive, there to do the government’s bidding, or an independent legislative body with a mind of its own, able to decide the merits of the case. Indeed, in the Brexit debates of 2018 and 2019, the relations between the government and Parliament became a key constitutional issue as Howarth has written about elsewhere.

A photograph of a white man with greying hair stood behind a lectern that has two microphones on it. He has glasses and is wearing a white shirt, blue striped tie, a grey jacket, and has a lanyard on. The background is grey.
David Howarth MP addressing a Liberal Democrat conference.
(c) Wikimedia

In Howarth’s time in Parliament, there were more day-to-day questions about the tension between what he called ‘Whitehall’ and ‘Westminster’ views on how the House of Commons should operate. This came to the fore in the way the committee process operated. Howarth was a strong supporter of the changes to the workings of select committees proposed by the Reform of the House of Commons Committee chaired by Labour MP Tony Wright of which he was a member. Some of the recommendations it made in 2009 were introduced after Howarth left Parliament, in particular the election of chairs and members of Select Committees by secret ballot and the establishment of the Backbench Business Committee. 

David Howarth by Peter Reilly. Download ALT text here.

In pursuing his Westminster model of representation, Howarth saw his prime role as a legislator and scrutineer of government action. These might be one-off interventions or they might turn into a campaign, such as questioning the legality of the Iraq War or trying to scupper the ‘Abolition of Parliament Bill’ (officially the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill 2005-6). In executing these tasks he found his constituency work invaluable in two ways. Firstly, it provided him with insight on how national legislation or nationally sanctioned procedures impacted people. For example, his understanding of how constituents were affected by government funding, spurred him to ask questions about the inadequate resources provided for mental health. Secondly, he could sense how popular government plans were through the reception they got in his surgeries, letters or meetings within Cambridge. However, Howarth was keen to emphasise that MPs were not a replacement for local councillors. They should be careful not to usurp councillors’ responsibilities by interfering in areas within the jurisdiction of the council, such as housing provision. Having been a council leader himself he knew the boundaries.

David Howarth by Peter Reilly. Download ALT text here.

With that in mind, at the Liberal Democrats’ selection meetings for the Parliamentary ballots of 2001 and 2005 he did not emphasise his skills as a community organiser, the process of winning the election or campaign tactics, but instead talked about policy and ideological differences he had with his Labour and Conservative opponents. He could point to his own organisational successes, but it was not his USP, something which would distinguish him from the other aspirants to be the PPC. At Westminster, he wanted to tackle the national issues of illiberalism and inequality, albeit these might well affect his constituents. Moreover, for Howarth, there was a distinction to be made between activities directed at community engagement and development and those designed to win elections. Whilst the skills needed to succeed in meeting both objectives overlapped, Howarth tried to keep them separate in his local government career. The pressure, however, was to subordinate everything to winning elections. The whips’ desire to get their MPs back to their constituencies to pursue electoral success was linked to their Whitehall-centred view that MPs were only in Parliament to support the party line, not to pursue independent political campaigns.

David Howarth by Peter Reilly. Download ALT text here.

This balance between emphasising philosophical differences with one’s opponents, yet pursuing an inclusive approach to achieving benefits for his community, meant that he could be both a partisan LibDem MP and be perfectly happy cooperating with independent-minded Conservatives like Richard Sheppard over the Labour government’s proposed exemptions for the Royal Family to FOI requests. Or, when Justice spokesman for the LibDems, he quietly tried to depoliticise crime in the runup to the 2010 election working with Conservative shadow Dominic Grieve and Labour minister Vernon Coker. For Howarth, this was consistent with his notion of his role as a Parliamentarian: doing his best for his constituency and for the country by working in whatever way was appropriate to pursue this goal.

P.R.

Further Reading:

‘What is the role of Parliament?’, UK Parliament, available here.

David Howarth, ‘Westminster versus Whitehall: Two Incompatible Views of the Constitution,’ UK Constitutional Law Association, April 10, 2019.

Find more blogs from our oral history project here.


Download ALT text for audio clips here.

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