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In recent months, when debating issues such as the outside interests of MPs or whether there should be a register of lobbyists, I have repeatedly come across a particular wrong idea, that I think is very widespread.  The idea is this: that MPs are employed by voters to listen to the concerns of those voters.

So, for example, there is thought to be the following problem with professional lobbying: lobbyists are paid to gain the ear of MPs so they listen to the particular concerns of the lobbyists' clients, rather than of the voters that employ them.  That's just wrong, and it's both straightforward and important to see why.


In any system of government – absolute monarchy, triumvirate, eldership, representative democracy, direct democracy – there will be some process for the rulers to take account of the ideas and concerns of ordinary citizens.  An ancient potentate might appear in public to hear supplications and appeals, and to judge disputes.  Listening to the concerns of ordinary folk is no intrinsic or unique feature of democracy.  Even today, regulatory authorities, competition authorities, and government departments frequently conduct open consultations that are mainly focused upon particular stakeholders but to which any member of the public can make a submission.

Any healthy form of government will aim to listen to the concerns and ideas of ordinary citizens.  Doing that is not any unique part of the role of an MP.  MPs do not exist so that they, uniquely amongst all other parts of the governmental process, can listen to voters.  An MP is not there to listen to voters; an MP is there to represent voters, which is something completely different.  An MP that thinks her task is to listen to voters is likely to be a very bad MP, because only a small minority of her voters will ever seek to speak to her, so if she only gives voice to the interests and opinions of those that speak to her, she will only ever represent a tiny minority of her constituents.

The MPs primary task is not to listen to voters; it is to speak to government as the official voice of voters.  If it were feasible and useful for the opinions of all voters, individually and at all times, to be expressed to government and in legislating, then representative democracy would have little value.  The MP is the voters' voice, not the ear to receive the voices of those that choose to speak.

In being the voice of voters, one of the useful things an MP can do is to be informed about issues, so that ordinary citizens don't have to spend their time doing that.  Ordinary citizens want to do their jobs and play with their children and volunteer at the local hospice and watch X Factor, not waste their time trying to understand boring legislation and regulation and the like.  One of the ways MPs should inform themselves about issues is by discussing them with experts and interested parties with a stake in events.  A useful route by which MPs can gain access to people that might help them become informed is via lobbyists.

Thus when a lobbyist talks to an MP, it isn't that the MP is listening to the lobbyist instead of her constituents, or giving inappropriately greater weight to the lobbyist than to an individual voter.  Instead, the MP is making herself better informed, on behalf of her constituents, so as better able to represent their interests.

To repeat: the wrong thought is that it is the job of an MP to listen to various folk and then reflect the balance of opinion she hears, and if that balance of opinion is imbalanced by listening to a persuasive lobbyist then something has gone wrong.  No!  Having been elected, the MP must find her own way to represent her constituents (and if they don't like the way she does it they get to pick someone else next Election).  Some may find they inform themselves best by reading weighty reports; others by chatting issues through with lobbyists, others by chatting issues through at the local pub (though the last is, virtually by definition, going to be a terrible way to do things for almost anything complex).

MPs are not "employed by voters to listen to their concerns".  They are elected by voters to represent all voters, including those that never want to interact with their MPs at all other than by voting for or against them.

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