What does it mean in a representative democracy to be a Member of Parliament? This is a question which is raised from time to time in my constituency and the more so because of the number of campaigns which take place by email. It has been raised in connection with the recent vote to extend our air strikes from Iraq to include Syria.
In a representative democracy the purpose of government and of an MP is to serve the best interests of the nation and of constituents based on judgement not on opinion polls or a rough calculation of how many locally support a particular proposition. Quite frankly, his or her role cannot be to represent constituents' views since there are always mutually contradictory views on any one issue. An MP's job is to represent the interests of the constituency. In doing this, it has been established for almost 250 years that an MP is there to assess the facts and to use his or her own judgement to make a decision.
Take a simple example; which football team do you support? In any audience where you pose this question there will be a variety of answers; some of them national, some of them local. What am I to make of the different views? Is the audience representative or not? How am I supposed to evaluate the opinions of those who do not express an opinion? The only solution is to weigh up the pros and cons and make my judgement. I do this all the time. I have for example opposed the introduction of court fees in the criminal courts and got the Government to change its mind on this issue. I have also indicated that a successful outcome of our negotiations with NATS and the CAA over aircraft approaches over Henley will influence my support for the expansion of Heathrow.
In the case of opinion polls, what they cannot tell us is whether those who answer the question have given the issue any serious thought before the question was put. The more standardised the questions that are put to me, the more likely this is. In addition, answers are often led by the nature of the question itself. Change the wording of the question and you get a different answer. Most importantly, opinion polls do not provide any context for how strongly an answer is felt or what priority the respondent gives to it.
Recent on-line campaigns are no better. Modern technology makes it all too easy to send an e mail at the press of a button with little thought given to the issue. How seriously for example am I to take campaign e mails which begin with the salutation "Dear [INSERT THE NAME OF YOUR MP]" and end with "Regards [INSERT YOUR OWN NAME]". Either way, this does not suggest a lot of thought was given to the subject or to the e mail before the button was pressed.
What characterised the standardised e mails I received on what has been called the Syria vote was the assumption made that I had received no emails in favour of the proposition. They assumed that because they had strong views, everyone else must hold the same view. Accordingly, all I had to do was vote as they told me. Second, they believed that their conscience was stronger than mine. Neither of these was true and devalued the role of an MP.
I am always interested in my constituents' opinions even when I do not agree with them. They can help me in assessing the information and forming a judgement. However, representing people does not mean simply doing what they say. And who are the 'they' anyway? Are those who wrote to me really suggesting that I should rely on guidance solely from the less than 0.5% of voters who contacted me? This is a difficult proposition anyway since many of that 0.5% would take a contrary view. In addition, what weight am I to give to the views of the 99.5% who did not feel the urge to write or e mail?
I do not wish to belittle strongly held views. I share many of their frustrations. But one needs too to retain some perspective and reflect that in most cases the number of people who write to me is as low as 0.1% of the population.