The job of an MP is never static (there is no job description), but since the EU referendum of 2016 the task of being a constituency representative has definitely become more challenging. Leaving aside the result of any such vote, a referendum is an act of direct democracy that sits uneasily with the concept of a parliamentary representative democracy. I and many other parliamentary colleagues have had to revisit and re-evaluate what being a representative now entails.
Usually MPs stand on a party manifesto which, if it forms the platform for government, will involve us voting on a range of issues, some of which our constituents feel strongly about and many they do not.
But the act of voting on a binary question in a referendum has meant that our constituents feel even more invested in how parliament handles that outcome than they would in a normal election. And the trouble with such a close result which, so far, has not been resolved is that they care very much more than normal how their elected representative is handling the implementation of that vote.
The Loughborough constituency, which I have represented since 2010, is estimated by the House of Commons Library to have voted almost 50/50 in 2016. So, for me, a complex issue becomes even more challenging to represent and vote on because views are so split. Many of the views put to me by my constituents are fundamentally irreconcilable.
Trying to represent instructions both to leave the EU immediately on “WTO terms” but also to support a second referendum to overturn the result are simply not compatible. Yet those of my constituents advocating them deserve to have their views both considered and voiced in Westminster, in the same way that I would be speaking up about any other constituency issue, even if it is not my own personal position.
The concept of a parliamentary representative owes much to the speech given by Edmund Burke in 1774 in which he said: “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.”
As the Brexit process has been through periods of great activity and debate and then become stuck, my inbox has reflected the highs and lows. Often people are honest enough to tell me that they are not interested in my judgment as their representative — they know what they voted for and they either want Brexit to happen or to be stopped.
Sometimes, in a bid to demonstrate the challenge of representing such diverse views, I might share the anonymised contents of an email received from one constituent with another who thinks very differently. Some respondents are honest enough to say they are not that interested in what someone else thinks, particularly if they consider themselves to have been on the “winning” side in 2016. Some might not reply at all, while many just say they are glad they are not an MP.
I have found it is important to keep listening and to do my best to engage with the views being put to me. I spend a lot of time answering emails as well as talking about Brexit at constituency events. I certainly noticed that at Christmas last year the usual conversations about plans for the festive period were replaced by lots of curious conversations about Brexit, and what was happening in parliament, in a way I had not experienced before.
I have written two open letters to my constituents about how I intend to vote on the withdrawal agreement, spoken at public meetings and in many private events too. The reactions to all are helpful in calibrating my views as their representative.
And then, of course, there are the comments on social media, which vary between questioning, ridicule, abuse and threats. Sadly, as the months have gone by the level of threats has risen, resulting in prosecutions and sentences. I work very closely with my local police force on a variety of constituency cases. Never did I expect to become a police case myself. The response from the police and parliamentary authorities has improved hugely and I am grateful for it. But I do not want my staff to put up with abusive calls, horrible messages and having to police my Facebook page.
Twenty-first-century, post-Brexit parliamentary representation would be unrecognisable to Burke. We need to work out how to keep the extra engagement, restore a place for MPs to exercise judgment and lose the abuse.
The writer is a Conservative MP and chair of the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee