(p. 274) 26. MPs Campaigning for their Constituencies
The last four decades have seen an increase in the time devoted by MPs’ offices to individual constituents, which has grown into a general advice service, as we saw in Chapter 25. This casework tends to overlay the more traditional role of speaking for the constituency as a whole. Both this holistic and individual casework are on the increase, and tend to support each other. For example, when a constituent with industrial injuries reveals a more general problem with associated benefits, research by the MP’s office can highlight the extent of the failure across the constituency and this can often develop into a campaign the MP will lead on. MPs from mining areas were at the forefront of campaigns to have pneumoconiosis recognized as an industrial disease in the 1970s, for example. Many MPs consider campaigning for their constituency to be their most important job. This chapter explores the mechanisms they use to promote and resolve local issues, which may start as individual constituency cases, but develop into broader campaigns. MPs can use Parliament and their local standing to influence policy agendas and become national figures.
Why do MPs undertake constituency projects?
A seminal article, ‘The Puzzle of Constituency Service’ (Norris 1997), showed that constituency work seemed to have only minimal electoral benefit, since party loyalties appeared to govern re-election. In the past couple of decades, however, the focus on constituency work has intensified. New MPs elected in 2010 reported spending 28 per cent of their time on casework and 21 per cent on constituency meetings and events (Korris 2011). There are both push and pull factors at work. The electorate is more highly educated, more demanding, and less deferential. Lobbying groups manipulate social media to promote local communication with MPs. Local authorities have lost powers to outsource services, and council leaders are overshadowed by the area’s parliamentary representative.
MPs have become full time and professional, understanding the value of a high profile locally, as highlighting local ties leads to popularity for candidates (Campbell and Cowley 2014). Indeed, electoral studies indicate that MPs seen as active in their constituencies generate an incumbency effect and that parties are converging in constituency campaigning techniques (Fisher et al. 2014). In dealing with local issues, MPs have learned to conciliate these with wider national issues and compartmentalize party and constituency loyalties, so that they may accept a national policy of closing small A&E departments, for instance, but still head a campaign to save the facility locally. This is unsurprising in the British norm of service to a geographic area.
(p. 275) Crewe found also that constituency work gives MPs autonomy in contrast to a perceived ‘lobby fodder’ role in the formal Westminster environment (Crewe 2015). MPs highlight the personal satisfaction gained from individual and project casework. Ex-MPs have described the fulfilment they found in building a local profile, particularly when a government career was not feasible. In exit interviews by parliamentary staff in 2015, ex-MPs considered that they were leaving their local area in a better state than when they had been elected, and highlighted benefits such as attracting new investment or a greater sense of community to the area. Some who had focused more on campaigning felt that building public awareness of a particular issue was their greatest achievement (Tinkler and Mehta 2016). There are therefore clear personal and career factors making constituency campaigning worthwhile to MPs. In terms of themes adopted for campaigns, although transport and infrastructure have become important, unemployment has long been at the heart of constituency projects.
Ellen Wilkinson and the Jarrow Crusade
The first modern example of how constituency unemployment could be used to win national publicity was the Jarrow Crusade. The Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson’s constituency had been thrown into deep distress by the closure of shipbuilding in the Great Depression of the 1930s, compounded by the refusal of steel owners to open a plant in the area. Dismissive comments by the minister Walter Runciman that Jarrow should find its own salvation led the local council to decide to march to London to present a petition to the new parliamentary session in October 1936. As its parliamentary representative, Wilkinson led the march of 200 people, taking 22 days to reach Parliament.
The campaign achieved tremendous publicity, despite the Labour Party’s concerns that the march would be hijacked by the Communist-led National Unemployed Workers Movement, which was organizing a series of hunger marches. However, the government refused to meet the marchers, resulting in Wilkinson’s famous speech at Hyde Park: ‘Jarrow as a town has been murdered’ (Wilkinson 1939).
As MP, Wilkinson was able to present the petition in the Commons and so force a government response. She had power to initiate a short debate where the lack of government action was noted, assembling a cross-party meeting of MPs. Among them was Clement Attlee, Leader of the Labour Party, who did not speak. However, on 8 November, Attlee and a dozen other Labour MPs broke with the party’s established policy and gave full support to the Hyde Park rally that ended the National Hunger March. So one immediate result was a change in Labour Party policy.
In the short term, the Jarrow Crusade did not alleviate distress, but in the long term it highlighted the necessity of external intervention. The town would go on to recover government shipbuilding contracts during the Second World War and Wilkinson became the second female Labour cabinet minister in 1945. Jarrow remains a potent example of how constituency concerns can shape a parliamentary career.
Raising constituency issues in Parliament
As Wilkinson found, MPs have a unique advantage over council, community, and business leaders when engaging in project work, since membership of the Commons allows them to exert direct pressure on the government. In the Commons they can use a wide range of parliamentary tools to pursue their campaign.
(p. 276) One such tool is the petition, as shown in Wilkinson’s case in the 1930s, and previously in the nineteenth century with anti-slavery and Chartist petitions, which had demonstrated the force of constituency influence on the legislature. Although this public petitions system, submitted through MPs rather than directly to Parliament, is much less used today, it still exists in practice and can be used quite effectively. See, for example, the WASPI (Women Against State Pension Inequality) campaign which culminated in October 2016 with 198 MPs presenting in the Commons Chamber petitions that had been signed by thousands of their constituents (HC Debates, 11 October 2016, cc. 261–74).
MPs also post ministerial responses to their parliamentary questions on their blogs, or in local media, even when there is an inadequate departmental response. Adjournment debates also offer opportunities. Conservative backbencher Richard Drax used his debate on ambulance waiting times to focus on his constituency, and the minister responding had been briefed on the specific challenges of South Western Ambulance Service (HC Debates, 17 October 2016, c. 743). Transcending party boundaries, MPs tend to work together in highlighting constituency issues, as demonstrated in a debate on shipbuilding policy on the Clyde, initiated by the SNP, but receiving support from DUP and Labour (HC Debates, 18 October 2016, c. 340WH).
A debate on the future of cooperatives in July 2016 enabled Co-op Party members to join forces with Conservative and SNP MPs to press for more government support (HC Debates, 14 July 2016, c. 190WH). The long-standing MP for Grimsby, Austin Mitchell, instigated a group for MPs from fishing constituencies, which was granted a general debate by the Backbench Business Committee (HC Debates, 11 December 2014, cc. 1003–55). The speeches made were then publicized in each individual constituency, reminding the government of the collective force of the industry.
MPs involved in constituency campaigns are adept at tabling amendments or presenting private members’ bills (PMBs) even when there is no chance of success. The action can be reported locally and feature on websites or social media, as well as signalling views to colleagues in Parliament. And some MPs do succeed in changing the law. For example, the Sunbeds (Regulation) Act 2010 originated from a PMB presented by Labour MP Julie Morgan and bans the use of commercial tanning equipment by under-18s. She used constituency examples to make her case (HC Debates, 29 January 2010, cc. 1054). There is some evidence that initiating PMBs increases the local popularity of the MP (Bowler 2010).
The collaborative working involved in all-party parliamentary groups (APPG) can be very effective in raising constituency profiles. For example, the London–Stansted–Cambridge Corridor APPG, chaired by Labour MP David Lammy, promotes the economic development of the area, and its secretariat is provided by the LSC consortium of public and private businesses; MPs with neighbouring constituencies are members. Lammy initiated a Westminster Hall debate in 2014 to highlight the importance of upgrading rail links to Stansted airport (HC Debates, 12 February 2014, c. 320WH).
Party mechanisms and lobbying ministers
Government backbenchers may also use their party machinery to good effect. The diaries of Labour MP Chris Mullin relate his ability to raise issues directly with Prime Minister Tony Blair, for example, using his presence on party committees (Mullin 2009). Similarly, Andy Burnham, as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, secured direct cabinet agreement from Prime Minister Gordon Brown to a second inquiry into the Hillsborough football disaster of 1989, a cause he had championed for two decades.
(p. 277) These mechanisms are unlikely on their own to build a successful constituency campaign. It is crucial for the MP to mobilize wider support. For example, Ian Liddell-Grainger’s constituency of Bridgwater contains the nuclear power station Hinckley Point, and he has been a strong proponent of the economic benefits of nuclear power. He used his blog to publicize support beyond his constituency and build a group of 19 MPs to promote nuclear power (e.g. Liddell-Grainger 2017).
MPs need to be sophisticated in their approach to lobbying ministers. They must not entrench hostility to the local project by ridiculing government arguments. Initially the MP begins with quiet conversations. Only when these are rebuffed are they likely to generate local protest as a way of pressuring government (Norton and Wood 1993). Conversely, ministers are likely to be susceptible to personal approaches from MPs because they share a common role as constituency representatives, and understand the pressures. Dropping notes into the pockets of ministers when all are together in the voting lobby has been a successful approach (Crewe 2015).
Ministers and constituencies: dilemmas of constituency projects
The key principle of the Ministerial Code is that government facilities and funds should not be used for constituency campaigning. Where ministers have to take decisions within their departments which might have an impact on their own constituencies, they are required to consult their Permanent Secretary, and in some cases will rearrange departmental responsibilities. However, ministers may contact government on constituency issues provided they make clear they are acting as constituency representatives and not as a minister (Cabinet Office 2015).
Where constituency interests clash with government policy and the MP is a minister, tensions can be acute. Recently this has surfaced in a number of constituencies in regard to transport policy. The choice between expansion at Heathrow and Gatwick airports led the Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith to promise in 2008 to stand down and fight a by-election if the government decided on a third runway at Heathrow. His constituency, Richmond Park, would be directly affected by the consequent increase in air traffic and pollution. He resigned in October 2016, but lost the subsequent by-election to the Liberal Democrats on 1 December 2016, on a wave of anti-Brexit sentiment. His constituents had decided that the EU was a more pressing matter than Heathrow. Resignation can be a high-risk strategy. He would later regain his seat (by a very small margin of 45 votes) at the 2017 general election.
Likewise, Boris Johnson made opposition to Heathrow expansion central to his London Mayor manifesto. His continued opposition as Foreign Secretary, and that of Education Secretary Justine Greening, appeared to be behind the decision of the new prime minister, Theresa May, to suspend cabinet collective responsibility during a year-long consultation on the choices involved (Parker 2016).
MPs have unique advantages through Parliament to publicize constituency campaigns and many tools which they can utilize to good effect. If they are to be successful, they must make sure that they build alliances locally. They must also cooperate beyond party loyalties if they are to achieve a national profile, something which will increase the likelihood of their constituency campaign being successful.
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This case study analyses actions by Conservative MP Cheryl Gillan to represent her constituency’s opposition to the high-speed railway HS2. Proposals to build a high-speed rail line from London to Manchester and Leeds, via Birmingham, won Labour government backing after 2009, and has had the support of the Conservatives since May 2010. Gillan’s constituency of Chesham and Amersham is directly affected by the proposed line, and falls within part of the Chilterns Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).
Proponents argue that the line is urgently needed to meet projected future demand, to tackle the capacity constraints on the West Coast Main Line, and to deliver wider economic and regional benefits. Opponents claim that the case is overstated and that future capacity requirements can be met through other, cheaper means. Phase 1 of the HS2 project would take the line from London to the West Midlands by 2026, while Phase 2 would run from the West Midlands to the north of England by 2032–3.
The route for Phase 1 was published for consultation in February 2011 (McLoughlin 2013), eliciting strong responses from those concerned about the effects on the Chilterns and other AONBs and on the borough of Camden, particularly around Euston Station. The government announced changes to mitigate some of these concerns, but was more willing to adapt the proposals for Euston, since this would involve a cost reduction, than it was to help AONBs with extra tunnelling.
A new railway throws up many challenges to those MPs whose constituencies are to be cut through. Constituents will be very concerned about the resulting economic and visual damage, and their opposition is strengthened by controversy over the economic benefits of a high-speed line. Government ministers with seats in affected areas have particular difficulties in juggling collective responsibility with the need to retain sufficient local support. This makes the position of Cheryl Gillan of particular interest.
Cheryl Gillan was first elected to Parliament in 1992 for the constituency of Chesham and Amersham. She became Welsh Secretary in the Coalition government of 2010. Her opposition to HS2 had been long term. A strong local campaign to ensure that the route would be fully tunnelled underneath the Chilterns has so far been unsuccessful, although a partial extension of the tunnelled area was announced in September 2015. However, this did not offer full protection for the AONB.
In 2010, Gillan made clear that she would be prepared to defy any whipped vote on HS2 (Bucks Free Press 2010) and she submitted a full response to the government HS2 consultation in 2011, expressing her opposition despite her cabinet position (Gillan 2011).
However, she did not resign when Transport Minister Justine Greening announced that HS2 would proceed in January 2012. In the event, Ms Gillan was sacked as Welsh Secretary as part of a wider reshuffle in September 2012. Returning to the backbenches offered a chance to step up her opposition to HS2 within days and, using her high profile, Gillan was able to criticize the project in a series of media appearances. In the Daily Telegraph she wrote:
(p. 279) For any Government to function effectively, it is vital and right that Cabinet members remain loyal and maintain collective responsibility. HS2 has not made doing so easy for me. I saw the anxiety HS2 is creating across my constituency week after week. My departure from the Cabinet has changed matters. Now I am liberated and free to say what I think about HS2—and I certainly will. I have written to Patrick McLoughlin, the new Transport Secretary, urging him to axe HS2. (Gillan 2012)
As a Conservative, Gillan was aware that she faced competition from UKIP, which also took an anti-HS2 position. She used parliamentary mechanisms available to her such as the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Integrated Transport Policy; Cavendish Communications (a consultancy) is paid to act as the group’s secretariat by its clients Heathrow Hub Ltd and Conserve the Chilterns and Countryside. Opposing her was an APPG for High Speed Rail which had industry backing.
Legislation was introduced to Parliament in 2013 for HS2 to proceed. It was a hybrid bill, which has elements of both a public and private bill—the key additional scrutiny stage here is a special select committee to consider petitions against the bill from directly and specially affected individuals, organizations, or groups. This adds significant time to the parliamentary process and allows more concerted lobbying. Cheryl Gillan moved a cross-party amendment to oppose the passage of the HS2 Phase One hybrid bill on 28 April 2014; of her 50 supporters, most were Conservatives whose constituencies were affected. The Speaker, John Bercow, with a Chilterns constituency, could not vote, but expressed his opposition on his website and in oral evidence to the High Speed Rail Committee (Bercow 2017). Gillan was ruled ineligible under procedural rules to join the bill committee, as an MP with a clear interest.
In the 2015 general election, Gillan’s safe seat was hardly dented by a UKIP surge against her; the UKIP candidate gained 13.7 per cent vote share, compared with her 59.1 per cent. Local dissatisfaction is tempered by Gillan’s clear opposition to HS2 and her ability to articulate this. As a backbencher, she continued to campaign through parliamentary questions and debates, and with other affected MPs attempted unsuccessfully to petition the Lords Committee. Parliamentary rules forbid MPs in general from petitioning the other House.
There was a setback for anti-HS2 campaigners when the new Transport Secretary Chris Grayling confirmed the project, offering extra funds for environmental improvements in affected areas, including the Chilterns, on 12 October 2016. The hybrid bill passed in February 2017, despite Gillan’s efforts, as there was cross-party support from both frontbenches. She continues to argue for effective compensation and oversight.
Gillan successfully mobilized constituency concern about the disruptive impact of major infrastructure work represented by HS2, and fought off UKIP as a result, which lacked her access to parliamentary mechanisms. Gillan’s return to the backbenches gave her more opportunities to use her parliamentary position to highlight the arguments against HS2, even if ultimately she was unable to cancel the project. This shows how effective MPs can find constituency campaigning in terms of building their national profile, and as an outlet for their capabilities, once ministerial office is over.
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● High Speed Rail (London—West Midlands) Act 2017. Online at: http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2013-14/highspeedraillondonwestmidlands.html [accessed 27 June 2017].
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Gillan, C. (2011) ‘Submission to the Consultation on HS2 on behalf of the Constituency of Chesham and Amersham’, 29 July. Online at: https://www.cherylgillan.co.uk/sites/www.cherylgillan.co.uk/files/hs2_-_chesham_and_amersham_submission.pdf [accessed 25 June 2017].
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