The summer recess is a good moment to reflect on the complex relationship of an MP and his or her constituency and Parliament. I am fortunate that I love North Wiltshire and its (surprisingly varied) people, that in my 25 years or so living and working here, I have got to know every corner, every street, every village and hamlet, and that I have had some engagement or another with pretty much every organisation or event. In the best part of 1,000 surgeries, I must have seen perhaps 10,000 people; on top of that I probably have written 100,000 or so letters plus 24,000 or so to eighteen-year-olds on their birthdays. (I have been doing the latter for 21 years, so that anyone who lives here and is aged 39 or younger should have had at least one personal letter from me.) I visit schools and businesses and organisations of every kind, make speeches, open fetes, and just generally ‘get around the patch’. Perhaps as important as any of that, I live here, and just going about one’s ordinary everyday life, one picks up the flavour of what people are thinking and doing.
That, I think, is the most important aspect of an MP’s ‘constituency’ life. Of course I do what I can to help people locally, and I do seem to get involved in the most abstruse of issues on behalf of local people. But that, in a sense, is not the absolute central part of my job, which is to represent the people of North Wiltshire in Parliament, rather than vice-versa. A bear trap for an MP might be to make two common errors. Either to become so massively ‘embedded’ in their constituencies, spending their whole time doing things which really ought to be done by local councillors at county or district or parish level, or by all sorts of local organisations and bodies, that they land up neglecting their parliamentary duties; or to become so fixated by Parliament that they frankly ignore their patch. Both failings diminish the purpose in being an MP. I should know exactly what the people of North Wiltshire are thinking and doing, and then seek to reflect that in the Commons.
There is another common misunderstanding here. Some people write to me with an argument along the lines that since I represent them in Parliament, I am duty bound to represent their views, even if they are views with which I personally do not happen to agree. They are confusing a ‘representative’ with a ‘delegate’. On almost any issue there will be a divergence of opinion in North Wiltshire, and it would therefore be impossible to represent them all. That means that I must use my own judgement, my thoughts about what would be best for the nation, the constituency, my party and then myself, in that order, and then act and speak, and vote accordingly.
If, overall, most people conclude that I have done the right thing for them and for North Wiltshire over the five years of a Parliament, then presumably they will re-elect me. If I have not, they will have the ability to get rid of me at the ballot box. That is the great advantage of the age-old First Past the Post electoral system which ensures a close and direct personal link between the MP and the constituent.
That my majority has increased over the 21 years that I have been your MP from 3,500 in 1997 to 23,000 in 2017, suggests, I hope, that by and large I have been successful in pleasing most of the people at least most of the time. To those who disagree with one or other aspect of my work, I apologise, and can only hope that overall you will nonetheless conclude that I am doing my best to serve all the people of North Wiltshire.