Members of Parliament are there to represent the interest of the citizens in a democratic state. In the UK there are approximately 650 seats (this number changes when the voting areas split or merge). With the number of the population estimated at 65 million that produces a ratio of roughly 100 thousand to one. The subject question refers to this number. Can the Members of the Parliament effectively represent the interests of their voters if there is so few of them?
The supposition is that your MP is there as your voice in the government. They are there to agree on your behalf issues like the level of your contribution to the national budget and its subsequent reallocation. Every MP has an office. To have any influence on government policy the voter contacts that office and leave suggestions. That is the same word that is used within corporations to encourage employees to participate in the shaping of the organization. Although it provides the company a pool of valuable ideas, it rarely is as beneficial to the workforce. Without the positive feedback people may feel that their suggestions have little value or are ignored altogether. Imagine then the office of your MP. How do they use all suggestions they receive? Which are being used, and which ones are ignored? What would happen if all of their voters submitted suggestions all at once?
The question that needs asking is how many of your suggestions end up in the parliament to be discussed? There are now websites that promote citizen participation, and one of them is WriteToThem which makes contacting your local MP easy. Do you know it? The link will take you to their internal statistics (latest are from 2008) which show the response rate for messages from voters. Here are some notable numbers from that page:
- WriteToThem sent a total of 183,493 messages to elected representatives (and Lords) in the year 2008
- Out of that number 94,479 were sent to the MPs
- Their average response rate was 60% in 2 to 3 weeks
Your MP has 1 minute per year to listen to your concerns
That means that each MP had about 12 messages from this site to respond to per month, and yet they only responded in 60% and it took them up to 3 weeks to do so. To be fair I have no data on how many enquiries they have to respond to through the more traditional channels. This brings me to the research I conducted recently, where I wanted to find out amongst other things; how much time each representative would have available to spend with each voter per year. A simple calculation reveals that, given the MP works five days a week and has 12 weeks of holiday, he or she would have 1.068 minutes per year to spend with each citizen in their constituency. That is assuming they did nothing but meet them every working day for 10 hours straight.
There are other notable aspects of this system. After analyzing lists of MPs available on Wikipedia from 1979 to the 2010 elections, the data has shown that:
- out of the 5200 seats available over 8 terms only 1985 MPs have been in power.
- 645 members served one term, 426 two, 377 three, 291 four, 132 five, (and here we get to the “superstars”) 64 have been elected six times, 36 seven, and 14 MPs have not left their office since 1979
Given little or no time available for voters, how is it that the same people get elected time and time again? With so much money spent on organizing the system of information exchange between your MP and you, the question is, why is it that so few people get involved in the democratic process outside election time? Also, who do the MPs actually represent, and if it is you and me, how do they know what is it that we want? This has often raised the question of interests of groups which support elections – or lobbyists. There are both charities and for profit organizations which lobby the government. They seem to be the only link between the people and the Members of the Parliament. But are they? When was the last time you have spoken to the Tax Payers’ Alliance or a similar group that seemingly represents you?
The thesis proposed here is that the majority of citizens are not schooled to participate in the democratic system:
- They are used through the education system and their workplace to be part of a hierarchical system of power centralization. This starts at birth, since the child is not prepared to live autonomously and is dependent on parents to survive, but does not stop there. At school the child is taught to obey the rules of the school and has little or no influence on the school direction, or their place in it. Then we go to work. There, we are employees (rarely employers), and we are handed instructions top down, like in the army.
- Most of our suggestions not only will never be used, but not even taken into consideration. We acquire skills and habits through positive feedback loops. The current system makes the voter a spectator by the means of the media on which the voter also has no influence. The media tells us of the party proposals, not of the ideas of the individual citizens.
- The amount of resources available dictate the impact a citizen, a group or an organization has on the amount of support they gather.
- The challenges of our day to day lives take enough energy to leave little for issues of national or global importance.
Democracy is not another subject to read about in a textbook or to be tested on a standardized test. It has to be continuously experienced.
The good news is that we are already doing it ourselves and can make change bottom-up:
- Crowd funding sites like kickstarter or indiegogo allow regular people to get funded without the need to wait for tax money to be reallocated.
- Cooperatives in food, housing, employment, allow regular people to self-organize.
- The internet allows for the exchange of ideas on a scale not known before in the history of mankind. That also includes the democratic process.
This is not to say that the system is broken. The thing is, that a small group of people know how to play this game, and it is up to us to keep up. What can we do to promote more grass-root movements, cooperatives to form? What needs to change in order to increase the participation of the society in general outside elections once every four years? What can be done to give the term “representative” its true meaning?
References and resources
Scripts written to aid analysis (link to be added)