Parliament: The effectiveness of representation

Tony Benn, I feel, summarises the situation of parliament’s role of representation accurately.  “I left parliament to devote more time to politics, and I think that what is really going on in Britain is a growing sense of alienation. People don’t feel anyone listens to them.” Benn makes a valid point, summarising in one small paragraph how the noticeable lack of electorate representation is contributing to increasing disillusionment. Although Parliament does demonstrate signs of gradual improvement,  it still has a long way to go in ensuring it represents us effectively.

I have learnt that in principle Parliament is the main agent of representation in society. I feel that representation is the most important function of Parliament, in terms of democracy. In the United Kingdom, we operate on the basis of representative democracy. In its purest form, democracy translates to ‘rule by the people’. Because of Britain’s status as a western nation, elected representatives instead govern on our behalf. In this respect, Parliament acts as the key medium between the electorate and the government. The representative function of Parliament is carried out by our elected MP’s who sit in the House of Commons. Therefore representation operates through the relationship between MP’s and us- the constituents.

Presently, I notice that parliamentary representation is effective in some areas. Firstly, you must explore the two ways of representing constituents. This is either through Burkean representation or ‘toeing the party line’. Edmund Burke believed that: “MPs should use their judgement in the best interests of their constituents (even if initially unpopular) and help protect against the tyranny of the majority.” In terms of which is better for the electorate, I would hope that my MP represents me the Burkean way. However toeing the party line can supplement representation, as this is how MPs are elected- through party manifesto pledges.  

MPs at the end of the day are representatives. It is this status, I believe that is the very cornerstone of our democracy. Not all, but a large majority of MP’s, I have noticed,  do represent their constituents using ‘their own judgement’.  Examples include Dennis Skinner, Alex Salmond and Jacob Rees-Mogg. More specifically the Hon. Philip Davies, states that he will ‘always put constituency interests first’. This highlights how Parliament is beginning to improve in its function of representation. 

 The House of Commons is certainly a microcosm of society in terms of the chamber still being socially unrepresentative. However, it does defend the interests of racial minority groups and others. I cite examples such as the Disability Acts, Equal Pay Acts and Race Relations Acts, of which have all been passed by Parliament. This corroborates the view that there is a sense of effectiveness in parliamentary representation. The 2016 Audit of UK Democracy states “Individually and collectively legislators should seek to uncover and publicise issues of public concern and citizens’ grievances, giving effective representation both to majority and minority views.” As I have discussed, those recent Acts passed by Parliament gives credence to this. 

In reality, I feel that, although there is evidence of Parliament representing us effectively, there are incontrovertible factors that would state otherwise. Personally, the subject that stands to dispel the effectiveness of parliamentary representation for me, is the House of Lords. Due to its nature as an unelected body, it carries out no representative function and yields no democratic legitimacy.

The Liberal Democrats state in their policy pledge that no peers are “answerable to the electorate”.  Yet, the House of Lords has the ability to block and cite amendments to bills. Putting this problem into political context highlights to me the stark reality regarding the Lords. The UK is one of two countries in the world which has a completely unelected second chamber. Half of its members are based in London, making it completely unrepresentative both socially and geographically.

For me, the House of Lords completely contradicts the principles of our democracy. Power should be matched with legitimacy! But this is not the case in the second chamber and numerous suggestions have to be cited to avert this problem. I have noticed, that reform of the Lords has cross-party support, emphasising how it has become a constitutional issue.

I must highlight, in fairness, however, that the second chamber does ensure that the executive branch of government does not become too powerful. What’s more, there have been constitutional reforms such as the House of Lords Act (1999). This removed the right of most hereditary peers to sit and vote. Furthermore, a fully elected chamber could undermine the power of the Commons and act as a legislative rival. I feel it would be more practical for a proportion of the Lords to be elected. This would gradually stem the size of the chamber, stopping membership growing indefinitely. 

Another issue that undermines the effectiveness of parliamentary representation is the fact that by and large the House of Commons still remains socially unrepresentative of wider society. This acts to undermine representative democracy, which stresses that all aspects of society should be represented. The composition of the Commons reveals its own socially unrepresentative nature. For me, the issue of social class is a factor that still haunts the lower chamber. The manual, working class are largely unrepresented, even in the Labour Party, with only 10% of MP’s coming from a working class background. Take education as an example, 32% of our Parliamentarians attended private school. This is four times more than the population as a whole. 

It would seem that the Commons has not accommodated the progression in a society of growing diversity. Overall this, therefore, highlights how our Parliament still has a lot of work to do if it is to be highly effective in its function of representation.