John Howell column ‘Answers are often led by the nature of questions’

MP for Thame John Howell brings you his views in a monthly Thame Gazette column
MP for Thame John Howell brings you his views in a monthly Thame Gazette column

THE issue of a referendum on Europe seemed to raise more questions about the role of an MP than it did about Europe.

In a representative democracy an MP is there to serve the best interests of the nation and of constituents based on judgement not opinion polls.

Opinion polls cannot tell us whether those who answer the question have given the issue any serious thought.

Answers are often led by the nature of the questions themselves.

Opinion polls also do not provide any context for how strongly an answer is felt or what priority the respondent gives to it.

Recent online campaigns are no better. Technology makes it too easy to send an email at the press of a button with little thought.

How seriously for example should I take campaign emails which begin ‘Dear [INSERT THE NAME OF YOUR MP]’ and end with ‘Regards [INSERT YOUR OWN NAME]’. This does not suggest a lot of thought was given to the email before the button was pressed, if indeed an individual rather than the campaign organisation pressed the button at all.

It’s not just electronic communications. Some constituents recently complained that they had not asked me to write to them in relation to a particular campaign. I had to point out that the petition they had signed clearly asked for just that in black and white.

Constituents’ opinions can help me in forming a judgement.

However, representing people does not mean simply doing what they say. An MP is not a mere delegate to be mandated to vote in a particular way. The role is not to represent constituents’ views since they are always mutually contradictory on any one subject. As was established as long ago as 1774, an MP is there to use his or her own judgement.

And who are the ‘they’ anyway? Are the 0.1 per cent of voters who contacted me about a referendum on Europe really suggesting that I should rely on guidance solely from them?

This is difficult since many of that 0.1 per cent were against a referendum, not for it. And, what should I make of the views of the 99.9 per cent who did not feel the urge to write or email on this occasion?

Above all, one needs to retain some perspective. Constituents here are not shy in contacting me, they do so by the many thousands each year.

Yet I had more than twice as many emails about the fate of Anne the Circus Elephant and the conditions in which hens and cows are kept than I did about a European referendum.