We've all seen photos of a near-empty chamber used to imply MPs aren't doing their jobs properly. But that's not only unfair on our politicians—it gives the public the wrong idea about how democracy worksby Tara Jane O'Reilly / May 15, 2019 / Leave a comment
Theresa May is still putting off the Queens Speech, the last division was over a month ago, and cross-party Brexit talks are still inclusive: it’d be easy to presume Parliament isn’t achieving much.
This week, one journalist tweeted “Just the three and a half hour day for MPs today” with a photo of a near-empty chamber as business in the House wrapped up on Monday, with another adding “The basic salary for a UK MP is £79,468.”
But a lack of votes and Brexit decisions don’t mean MPs aren’t still busy working hard—and implying MPs are only working three-hour days and being paid loads for it is disingenuous.
We’ve all seen the posts where a screenshot of the chamber packed out with MPs is juxtaposed with a screenshot of an empty chamber—the former often captioned something like, “MPs debating MP pay rises” while the latter is said to be a debate on a ‘proper’ issue like welfare. All it takes is a simple Twitter search of ‘MPs debating pay rise’, and a plethora of MPs being selfish vs MPs being lazy posts show up.
It’s easy to take a screenshot of a debate with few MPs present and make out that MPs don’t care about the issue being debated. This isn’t just lazy, however—it does a disservice to democracy. Caroline Lucas was criticized for doing just this recently by tweeting that 610 MPs ‘skipped’ a climate debate when actually the debate—a Backbench Business debate on a Thursday afternoon to which 37 MPs showed up—was described as “well-subscribed” by the deputy speaker.
It’s hard enough when those outside Westminster misconstrue the work of parliamentarians, but it hurts when it comes from those who work in Westminster. Lisa Nandy MP, among others, rightfully responded highlighting the work MPs actually do when they’re not at debates: “When we’re not in the chamber we’re helping constituents, speaking at events, getting up to speed on legislation, even occasionally seeing our families.”
MPs usually spend Monday to Thursday in Parliament and the rest of the week in their constituency. For most MPs travelling up or down from their constituency, work in Westminster starts after spending hours on a train or plane. They grab a copy of the order paper, check the whip for the week, and commence living off copious amounts of tea and coffee and not enough food whilst trying to stick to their carefully-organised diary. (You’d be surprised how little MPs actually eat—a lot of the time it’s a sandwich scoffed down in the minutes between meetings.)
Each day is different but work often involves preparing speeches, asking questions, meeting constituents in Westminster, working on all parliamentary party group or committee business, having chats with journalists, meetings with other MPs, popping into charity events and more—and then, most visibly, spending time bobbing and debating in the chamber. On top of their own job, they also have a team to manage, encourage and look after. The slower moments, like when the House is not sitting, are used to check emails, read briefings and check in with staff via WhatsApp.
Then it’s back on the train to the constituency for casework surgeries, speaking at schools, meetings with the council and community leaders, campaigning on local issues, and then some good old door-knocking. If they make it on time to any of these things—it’s a miracle. There is little rest for MPs. Yes, some evenings are spent at receptions or socialising with colleagues—but wouldn’t you, with a work schedule like this?
I can understand why the public may not know what MPs spend their time doing beyond debating, especially as chamber business like PMQs and certain Brexit debates are highly publicized and often clipped on the news. Most things that happen in Westminster are behind closed doors, and perhaps that’s part of the issue. An MP sitting down with their caseworker to go over cases of constituents being made homeless isn’t as sexy as a shouting match in the chamber and doesn’t make it to the telly. Tweeting about it certainly doesn’t get the likes or retweets.
But journalists and others in the Westminster bubble know all of this. Ask any lobby journalist how long it takes to actually meet an MP (after setting the date, rescheduling, rescheduling again, and then them turning up late) because they’re busy working—and they’ll tell you being rescheduled is part of the job. They understand the hectic life of an MP and it is disingenuous to pretend otherwise to the public. It’s dangerous, too: MPs and their staff are already subject to terrifying levels of abuse in the current hostile climate and implying we’re not really working only angers the public more.
Nothing that is going on in Westminster at the moment is easy, and the complexity of politics is something that should be communicated to the public transparently, without cheap shots aimed only at one part of a much bigger and more nuanced picture. So let’s hold our politicians to account when they receive second incomes or abstain on important votes—but let’s not contribute to the widening divide between the public and public servants by implying MPs aren’t doing any work. Because they are.