Explainer: what does a British MP actually do?

On the job. UK Parliament/Flickr

When we use the term Member of Parliament (MP) in the UK, we mean a Member of the House of Commons, the elected chamber of Parliament (as opposed to the un-elected House of Lords). While MPs are central figures in the public perception of our democracy, their job is not that well understood – and it’s rather more complex than many people think.

Who do MPs represent?

Each MP represents the constituency that elected them – their “seat” – including both those who did and who did not vote for them, as well as those who are unable to vote or didn’t turn out. In this capacity, MPs spend much of their time dealing with local casework, helping particular problems that individuals bring to them. This part of their role has grown rapidly in recent decades, arguably to the detriment of their work on other matters.

But beyond their constituency work, MPs are still act as individuals. They don’t just represent the residents of a geographical locale or even the views of the public in general, but apply their own judgement to matters requiring decisions.

There has long been a tension between the mandate to express the views of constituents and the imperative to exercise discretion. And in this era of social media and digital networked communications, the pressure to conform to outside opinion rather than exercise personal judgement has only grown.

Who’s in charge of them?

MPs are usually members of political parties. Party names appear alongside candidates’ names on the ballot paper in parliamentary elections, and candidates are in this sense elected on a party as well as individual basis. At a general election, the parties publish general sets of objectives for government, known as manifestos.

Once inside parliament, members of a given party work together as a group, voting on agreed lines in accordance with their manifestos or their general shared values. Problems can arise if the views of MPs as individuals come seriously into conflict with the official line of their party. Lately, MPs have become increasingly “rebellious” – breaking with discipline and voting against their party’s instructions.

What is their job in the Commons?

Collectively, MPs form the Commons, which provides a forum for discussion and deliberation of matters concerning the entire UK. Lately, the Commons and Parliament have in many ways expanded their ability to perform these functions.

The House of Commons is in a position of “primacy” with respect to the second chamber of Parliament, the House of Lords, meaning that it has certain powers to impose its will on the Lords if the Lords resists measures approved by the Commons.

Taking a breather. UK Parliament/Flickr, CC BY-NC

The Commons is a legislature, meaning its members take part in votes on approving and amending legislative proposals, which generally emanate from the government. They may also sit on committees specifically set up to consider individual bills. In some cases, MPs scrutinise bills in draft form, a process known as “pre-legislative scrutiny”.

How can they bring down a government?

MPs also take part in the endorsement or removal of governments. In the UK system, the central government rests on the “confidence” of the House of Commons. An absence of that confidence leads either to the formation of a new government or a general election.

Certain other functions are attached to this involvement in providing or withholding confidence. MPs collectively decide whether to grant a government “supply” – that is, money, raised through taxes, to enable it to function. And thanks to the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act, passed in 2011, they can now also vote to hold a general election in advance of the regular five-year term.

MPs who are members of the governing party or parties will make up the majority of ministers in the government that rests on the confidence of the Commons. In any government, many of the most senior posts – including that of prime minister – will be held by members of the House of Commons, with members of the Lords tending to hold less prominent offices. Generally all ministers come from one of the two houses.

Who do they hold to account?

MPs are responsible for holding ministers to account for their policies and the way in which they implement them, which they do by asking questions of ministers and taking part in debates.

They also have a pivotal financial role, in particular voting on whether to pass the budget. MPs who sit on the Public Accounts Committee are responsible for ensuring that government spends the money voted to it in the way it was supposed to, in accordance with set standards, and that it achieves value for money.

Some MPs are members of select committees, responsible for inquiring into particular policy areas. The members of these committees are now elected by their peers, arguably enhancing their legitimacy and autonomy after years of control by party whips.

There is, however, a potential tension here, since MPs who may have voted to support the existence of a government, and who may even be ministers in it (or hope to become so), have conflicting interests when taking part in processes intended to hold that same government to account.

During the first decade of the 21st century, MPs also acquired a de facto right to discuss and vote on overseas military interventions before they take place – a function they exercised dramatically in the summer of 2013, scotching David Cameron’s proposal to intervene in the Syrian conflict.

David Cameron’s 2013 Syria proposal, voted down.

Thanks to the internet, the proceedings of parliament are more widely accessible than ever before. Whether this growing visibility is matched by better public and media perceptions of MPs and their performance is of course a different question.

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