The Futility Monster

He'll pointlessly derive more enjoyment out of your resources than you

MPs: The New Social Workers

Posted by The Futility Monster on June 12, 2010 @ 18:32

There seems to be a problem with British democracy these days.

Having worked in an MP’s office a few years ago, I saw at close hand the amount of times MPs were asked to get involved in relatively minor issues involving planning regulations and issues regarding immigration and welfare. The MP, in truth, didn’t really do any work on those subjects, but still got deluged with letters and e-mails anyway.

The reasoning is simple. The complaining part of the country now sees MPs as the first port of call for any problems, even if they are not the appropriate target. For instance, planning decisions are almost always in the domain of the local council.

As for the remainder of the issues MPs get, usually regarding immigration and welfare, MPs will always take up a case. Well, the MP won’t. The staff will. MPs see this kind of work as free and easy; they do none of the legwork but get all of the benefit, whether the case goes in their favour or not. After all, it’s win-win to be seen to be “working hard for local people”.

This is all very noble, and all very nice. And maybe I was a bit harsh. MPs do indeed get involved. The staff certainly do all the groundwork, but asking questions of ministers, grabbing them for an informal chat in the division lobbies, and chasing these issues up if they slip through the cracks has to be done by an MP. Staff are just too low down the food chain.

The net cost of all this is the amount of administration required for an MP. MPs need so much staff to deal with all the casework, let alone do any actual research. For MPs, it’s all about opportunity cost. The time spent doing all this work is time not spent actually holding the government to account. Time not spent in the chamber, or not spent in a public bill or select committee. Time not spent doing research, reading briefings and writing speeches or other material regarding the topics they are actually interested in.

Because MPs are people too. People have varying interests, and Parliament works best when MPs are free to use those interests, use those motivations, as a way to pester the government on those subjects. We can’t expect them to be jack of all trades, but we do. And trust me, there’s nothing more demotivating for an MP than to be endlessly running around trying to resolve issues that are way out of their interest zone.

As with anything in life, it’s all about striking the right balance. But the terrible fear for MPs is that if they don’t do this casework, they will get stick from their local media, and, if they’re in a marginal constituency, actually lose the seat. This produces an ever spiralling arms race, because even PPCs will do minor casework (think dog shit and streetlamps) if it gets them the sympathetic ear of the electorate.

All this despite the fact that no one has yet done a comprehensive study regarding whether casework actually makes any difference to the end result…

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