Are MPs elected to exercise their own judgement or do their constituents’ bidding?

Matthew SmithHead of Data Journalism
August 13, 2019, 11:38 AM GMT+0

It’s a longstanding political debate, and new YouGov research shows that parliamentarians and the public hold opposing views

In the 18th century the philosopher Edmund Burke argued that MPs should not be beholden to their constituent’s wishes, and be free to exercise their own judgement in Parliament:

“His unbiased opinion, his mature judgment, his enlightened conscience, he ought not to sacrifice to you, to any man, or to any set of men living. Your representative owes you, not his industry only, but his judgment; and he betrays, instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion."

In doing so MPs are freed to act in the national interest, rather than simply fighting to improve the lot of those in their constituency.

Burke’s comments were made shortly after being elected as MP for Wendover, and it may not surprise you to find that he was not elected for a second term.

But the principle he endorsed, known as the ‘trustee model of representation’, has never been more relevant as it has within the context of Brexit, with many MPs finding themselves holding opposing views to the constituencies they represent.

Now a new YouGov study finds that MPs and the British public are at loggerheads on what the nation’s representatives are supposed to be doing in Parliament.

Our survey of 100 MPs finds the vast majority of MPs support Burke’s view: 80% believe they are elected “to act according to their own judgement, even when this goes against the wishes of their constituents”.

As Burke found 250 years ago, constituents have very different ideas, with 63% of Britons saying that MPs are elected “to act according to the wishes of their constituents, even when this goes against their own judgement”. In contrast to the system Burke proposed, this is the ‘delegate model of representation’.

Leave voters are much more likely than Remain voters (78% versus 57%) to think MPs are supposed to act according to their constituents’ wishes, as are Conservative voters when compared to Labour voters (81% versus 60%).

Methodology: YouGov completed online interviews with 100 MPs from across the House of Commons as part of our monthly MP Omnibus survey.

See the results of the MP survey here and the public survey here

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