Former health secretary Matt Hancock’s constituents in West Suffolk have been vocally expressing their ire over his decision to take part in reality TV show I’m a Celebrity Get me Out of Here.
The prime minister has called Hancock’s departure from the UK while parliament is sitting “very disappointing”. The Conservative Party has removed the whip from Hancock, meaning he no longer represents the party in parliament.
He does, however, still represent his unhappy constituents, many of whom complain that he should be at home holding surgeries, sorting out problems and generally dealing with their needs. He reasons that as a backbench MP he has the “freedom and time” to take media jobs to raise awareness about issues. Writing about the show in The Sun, he said his goal in the jungle was to talk about dyslexia – a matter close to his heart following his own diagnosis.
It is certainly true that the audience for I’m a Celebrity is much bigger than a town hall in Suffolk or the Chamber of the House of Commons. Indeed, the very same chamber emptied back in December when Hancock introduced a ten-minute rule bill on dyslexia screening.
But Hancock’s TV side gig is an opportunity to consider a surprisingly unresolved question: what is an MP’s main job? Is it to make and change laws in Westminster – campaigning for important issues along the way to facilitate change? Or is it the main job of an MP to address problems in their constituency and speak up for constituents?
Commons or constituency?
We can’t claim that all MPs are expected to be in the House of Commons all the time. Government ministers often need to travel – and so do parliamentarians, as part of select committee research, for example. The system has also allowed some longer-term absence. Ministers can now take paid maternity leave . And we might not approve, but the backbencher Boris Johnson has been away quite a lot recently. So evidently presence in the chamber is not always needed.
However, it is increasingly important to be on hand to deal with constituency problems. For today’s MPs, these no longer come as a small pile of letters and a few conversations. The House of Commons Modernisation Select Committee reported in 2007 reported in 2007 that:
In the 1950s and 1960s Members received on average 12 to 15 letters per week. Today the average is over 300 per week, and then there are the emails, faxes and telephone calls.
Add to this the advent of organised online campaigns, Twitter and other forms of communication to today’s representatives and their staff and the scale of the job becomes apparent.
And for MPs, the question is not just what do they do, but what do people think they should do?
Research published in 2015 explored what both MPs and voters thought about the roles of elected members. Both groups ranked “taking up and responding to issues and problems raised by constituents” as the top role. Voters were found to be “more focused on constituency activity than MPs” – but the difference was small.
So according to those surveyed, doing things in the constituency and for constituents trumps, for example, committee attendance. This would certainly not have been the case 50 years ago when MPs often visited the constituency periodically rather than living there.
The need to be on hand is well recognised, including by Hancock himself, who appears to have negotiated with the producers of I’m a Celebrity to get special access to communications while filming in case of emergencies in his constituency.
As former Labour MP Tony Wright said in a 2010 lecture:
It is difficult to think of any other occupation where the nature of the job is so elusive … As a Member of Parliament I found a job without any job description at all, no means of knowing what I should be doing.
Wright put MPs into six categories. We need to assume a bit of tongue in cheek, but these are lickspittles, loyalists, localists, legislators, loners and loose cannons. Hancock was once a loyalist but is perhaps becoming more of a loose cannon.
According to Wright, localists “regard their Westminster role as subsidiary to, and servicing, their constituency role”. It’s certainly the case today that the ranks of localists are growing. Candidate selection material and MP biographies increasingly highlight local credentials, for example.
More recently, and less tongue in cheek, a questioner used freedom of information legislation to seek material about MPs’ job descriptions. The answer was simple. The House of Commons did not hold the information.
So in a sense there is nothing stopping Hancock deciding that his primary role at the moment is to raise an issue and seek out various ways to spread the message about that issue – such as appearing on TV. He has, after all, called for parliament to legislate to introduce screening for dyslexia in primary schools. He now wants to galvanise support for that work.
But that also supposes he’ll be given airtime to talk about his cause in the jungle. The most famous precedent for a British politician attempting to use reality television as a platform to raise awareness about an important issue was former Respect MP George Galloway’s 2014 stint in the Big Brother House. All anyone remembers about that appearance is Galloway’s unsettling impression of a cat on camera – not his original goal of talking about Palestine.
Until we have a clearer idea of what an MP is supposed to do, others are sure to follow Hancock down the reality TV path – whether their expectations about “raising awareness” are realistic or not. The fact that his party has removed the whip shows that there are repercussions for MPs who fail to commit to their parliamentary tasks. His constituents, on the other hand, appear to be lumbered with him.