The cost of caring.

The cost of caring.

The Noble Hallmark of the British System: MPs and their Constituents


SOME reports have it that Thomas Mair, the 52-year-old man arrested for yesterday’s fatal attack on Jo Cox, a Labour MP, was waiting for her outside the Yorkshire library where she was holding a constituency surgery. Whether or not this turns out to have been the case, her murder is a stark illustration of the risks MPs take by making themselves so available to their constituents.

What is under-appreciated in Britain is how special this is. I have complained about First Past the Post (FPTP) in the past. But it is undeniable that it makes politicians more personally responsible to their constituents. In proportional systems some or all MPs have no specific loyalty to a particular, narrow geographical area. By contrast all Britons have a representative whose job it is to voice their interests and those of their neighbours.

Moreover, most of those representatives give their constituents a degree of access unparalleled in other countries. During election campaigns, they will typically go door-knocking (on the continent street stalls and rallies are preferred). Between elections, most hold regular surgeries, like the one outside which Ms Cox was attacked yesterday. Constituents can attend these—sometimes simply turning up on the day and waiting in line—to raise their opinions, concerns and problems. Subjects range from badger culls and foreign policy to abusive neighbours and violent crime. Often these occasions function as the public-service-of-last-resort: a final hope for citizens who feel ignored or let down by, say, the police, the National Health Service, or the local council.

The cynics claim that politicians do this only to secure re-election. However, studies have suggested otherwise. Time spent in these meetings would be more fruitfully used canvassing swing voters or nurturing journalists, in electoral terms at least. Many surgeries are dominated by repeat visitors, those at the junction of multiple social fractures (poor health, crime, poverty) who are unlikely to vote come election time and may not even know which party their MP represents.

Moreover, the First Past the Post system creates safe seats, where MPs can afford to ignore their constituents and still win elections. However, practically none do. This became obvious when I worked on an article about the role of surgeries. I spent a day with Jacob Rees-Mogg, who represents a corner of Somerset where they virtually weigh the Tory vote. But it is not without its social problems. And although Mr Rees-Mogg has a reputation for being a rather grand, fogeyish type, I was profoundly impressed watching him respond as his voters unburdened their woes on him. From volcanic disputes between neighbours to a constituent with a long-term health problem (who suffered a sort of fit during the meeting) and a woman reduced to tears by debt problems, he offered each sensitive, practical, and informed advice and explained what he and his office could do to help.

Then I sat in on a surgery with Rushanara Ali, the Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow. This too was—and is—an extremely safe seat. Yet in a run-down council building, she dealt with a long series of terrible accounts of bureaucratic indifference and institutional failure (many concerning the immigration system) with calm professionalism, switching between Bengali and English often within conversations with the same family. Her temporary office was protected by a punch-code lock while—if I remember correctly—a security guard stood outside. Only a couple of years previously, Stephen Timms, the MP for nearby East Ham, had been stabbed in the abdomen at one of his surgeries.

That is a reminder of the dangers MPs face daily; the price they pay for listening to their constituents and making themselves so approachable. A report cited by the Guardian just in January documented the abuse to which parliamentarians are routinely subjected. Of the 239 MPs surveyed, 192 said they had experienced “aggressive or intrusive behaviour,” 43 that they had been subjected to attacks or attempted attacks, 101 that they had received threats of harm. Reports included accounts of being punched in the face; of being hit with a brick; of their children being told that they would be killed; of having petrol poured through the letterbox. The authorities were already trying to improve security for MPs when yesterday’s attack took place. Fresh safety advice has now been issued.

It is their very visibility to their constituents—that noble hallmark of the British system—that makes MPs targets for loners, extremists, and the furious. The lurid rantings of such people regularly make it into parliamentary mail bags, as I have witnessed both working in one MP’s office and visiting dozens of others as a journalist. In one, I was shown a thick wad of paper from one constituent, perhaps one hundred pages thick, filled with dense, spidery, scatological fantasies of violence and destruction. It was not untypical, I was told.

The abuse is not confined to the deranged. It arises in an environment in which the stereotype of the lazy, venal, self-serving MP is depressingly widely accepted. This has deep roots in Britons’ ancient skepticism of authority. Yet particularly since the 2009 expenses scandal, when a handful of (frankly rather minor) scoundrels gave the decent majority a bad name, this has curdled into something darker, something nastier. In the heat of the EU referendum campaign, I have attended a series of events (for the Leave side, it must be said) at which placid, middle-class Middle England types have parroted not just the usual gormless claims about MPs (“They’re all the same,” “They’re all in it for themselves”) but have tipped into outright conspiracy theorizing. Britain is not a democracy, its politicians are just puppets for shadowy corporate and foreign forces, they are traitors.

Such was the febrile atmosphere in which Ms Cox was slain. It is too early to say whether it was a big-P “political” act; early reports claim Mr Mair shouted “Britain First” and has links to far-right groups. But irrespective of what investigators discover about the causes of the murder, yesterday’s ghastly incident is unequivocally political in at least one respect: it took place as a hard-working, public-spirited MP was among her constituents, serving them, trying to make their lives better; yet in a society in which such efforts go scandalously overlooked.

Were it not for its frightening underside, the popular view of politicians would be laughable in its utter inaccuracy. Britain is one of the least corrupt countries in the world; its politicians are probably cleaner and more accountable than those in any European country outside Scandinavia. MPs are not well paid compared with other parliamentarians and other professionals in the public service. Most work spectacularly long hours, spend chunks of most weeks in what amount to glorified student digs in London, have little time for their families. Why? There is a dose of ego in the equation, of course. But far more prominent is a genuine commitment to the public good, a desire to do something positive and meaningful. The quest to “give something back” is no less sincere and important for being clichéd.

And yes, it is healthy for citizens to hold their representatives to account, to interrogate and challenge, to adopt a skeptical attitude towards the decisions they take and to boot them out when they fail. But Britain in 2016 has gone far, far beyond that. A country so intensely suspicious about its leaders, so wide-eyed in its willingness to believe the worst, so thirsty for proof of betrayal and decadence, is not a country in a good place.