By Emma Crewe
Originally published on the PSA Political Insight blog.
Parliament Week was about women MPs this year. It is encouraging that Parliament is putting the spotlight on our women politicians but depressing that they need it. Since October 2011 I have been researching MPs’ multiple roles and how they are changing. All Westminster MPs face increasing demands in parliament, government, constituencies, civil society, and 24-hour media and internet, and not enough time to respond – new MPs reported doing a 70 hour week on average. When parliament sits, out-of-London MPs usually split their time: Monday to Thursday in Westminster and Friday and Saturday in the constituency, with Sunday off for some lucky ones. According to one it feels like Genghis Khan’s famous torture, four horses being attached to your limbs and told to pull.
There are additional pressures if you belong to a group of people who face inequality in society – women, ethnic minorities, elderly, disabled, LGBT. They will expect you to take special action on their behalf. As a black woman MP you not only have constituents looking to you as their representative, but you may also have both women and black people across the UK expecting you to champion their common cause with you. All will have different ideas about what is needed.
And you may face discrimination in our political system as a member of one or more of these groups. Women MPs in all political parties told me that when they are outnumbered in a meeting, which is the norm in Westminster, women struggle to be heard. A woman can make a point that is ignored but when repeated by a man – and especially a senior male politician – gets the response, “that is brilliant!” Equally, the media tend to report more favourably on men than women MPs. Lobby journalists, who are also over-represented by men, tend to get chummier with male MPs. Other journalists often report on women MP’s appearance, but men’s achievements and abilities. The misogyny and homophobia voiced by online and twitter trolls is unspeakable.
Women and men MPs report different experiences of discrimination – their party, position in the party and aspirations will all make a difference. For example, Labour men have complained to me about quotas and Conservative men that women have better promotional prospects than they do (although the numbers belie this). I have dwelt on gender, but equally observations could be made about other inequalities and assumptions. Younger and black MPs get their passes checked by security more often than older white MPs. Several women told me that it is hard to be taken seriously if you are a young woman; youth is associated with naivety. Older women struggle to get promoted if they have arrived in parliament late. If you are wheelchair-bound, a shocking proportion of strangers will talk to the person with you rather than address you directly and this happens to disabled MPs as much as anyone else. So assumptions about competence based on gender intersect with others based on age, race and disability.
MPs with dependents have a harder time than they used to especially if their constituency is outside London and they have no other source of income. The sitting hours of the Chamber have shortened, but if you include all their workplaces then the hours for MPs have got far longer in the last few decades. Running two homes – one in London and one in the constituency – and lower expenses for family travel and accommodation make it almost impossible to be both an MP and a conscientious parent.
Women MPs develop strategies to deal with these pressures. One of the most effective goes to the heart of political work: building alliances. Politicians need to win support, and it is not surprising that women MPs do this brilliantly. The relationship-building that is least visible takes place in the constituency. Most backbench MPs I interviewed put significant time into constituency work, especially surgeries, which are sometimes rudely dismissed by pundits as glorified social work; but these should not be ranked lower than policy work for three reasons. First, a high proportion of cases MPs deal with in surgeries are urgent. Of the thirty-two cases I listened to, fourteen were extremely serious: the person – or their relative – was destitute or about to lose their income, house, sanity or right to stay in the UK. Secondly, I found that MPs were making a difference: sometimes constituents felt that for the first time someone important was taking notice and treating them with respect. Often MPs speed something up or even transform a person’s life by ensuring their rightful access to housing or compensation, and so on. Where possible MPs worked in conjunction with local councillors. Thirdly, MPs develop an in-depth knowledge of the people, resources and latest changes affecting constituents and this, as well as seeing the impact of policy and law on people’s everyday lives, informs their work on select committees, in opposition and in government. Anthony King and Ivor Crewe write in their latest book, “the Blunders of our Governments”, that there is a disconnect between the lives of policy-makers and those they rule. Constituency surgeries are perhaps the most important way to create a human bridge between representative and represented that leaves both better informed. It brings MPs down to earth.
Constituency work has value and women not only do it willingly but with consummate skill. They use the empathy and listening skills that some psychologists suggest women tend to develop more fully than men. All the MPs I could find who rarely or never attend surgeries seemed to be male. For those few, their ambition was to get onto the frontbenches; constituency surgeries were a distraction. These MPs delegate all (rather than just most) casework to their staff. These caseworkers tend to be female, while policy advisers are more evenly split. So it is particularly fitting that backbench MP Paul Flynn in his book “How to Be an MP” writes of the relationship between MP and constituent,
The MP should be the living embodiment of the constituency, tirelessly promoting and defending the territory with the ferocity of a mother protecting her offspring.
I’m not arguing that women should spend less time in Westminster. And I don’t want to give the impression that men were necessarily bad at constituency work – one of the most skilled surgery MPs I observed was a man and the vast majority of all backbenchers take it seriously, but I think there is enough evidence to suggest that women excel at the less antagonistic side of politician’s work. There is nothing inevitable about women having greater emotional intelligence, but women become socially skilled in ways that are more useful in politics than many realise.
The denigration of MPs’ constituency work is as shortsighted as indifference to the care of their children. One measure to enable all MPs to accomplish their work, and encourage those with dependents to stand and stay in parliament, would be to improve expenses for those that depend on them. As 2015 looms, this is the moment to send a positive message to MPs that we value their work. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority are currently consulting about MPs’ expenses so an opportunity presents itself. After all, even if politicians are loathed as a group, polls show we mostly love our local MP.
Emma Crewe is a Research Associate at SOAS, University of London. She is currently researching the work of MPs in the House of Commons, a project funded by a Leverhulme Research Fellowship. Further details can be found on her website.