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What does representation mean in UK politics?

Rousseau argued that only direct participation by people is democracy and someone taking decisions for them is undemocratic.

Given the problems of direct democracy, writers such as John Stuart Mill suggested that the only way of extending democracy is through representative democracy.

The different ways of looking at representation

What representation really means is difficult and there have been different ways of looking at it.

There is first the idea that a representative is just a delegate who does not take independent decisions but is mandated by the people he or she represents.  Party delegates to a conference may be mandated by their local party to vote in a certain way. With MPs, who may have to take lots of decisions on how to vote this is more difficult and there is no easy way of finding out what the constituents think about these decisions. 

There is, however, the idea that the party manifesto published at election time acts as a mandate and an MP elected on a party label therefore has the voters’ approval to support the proposals in that manifesto.

Edmund Burke’s views

The political writer, Edmund Burke, argued in the late 19th century that an MP will, of course, look after the economic and social interests of constituents but in Parliamentary decisions uses an independent judgement as to what is best in terms of a more general interest.

MPs still quote Burke when voting in a way that they know their constituents will not agree with e.g. on capital punishment or the treatment of paedophiles.  

Views of representation in the 1960s

A more complicated explanation of representation was developed by Hanna Pitkin in the 1960s:

  • There has to be a way of choosing representatives that is generally accepted.  This raises question about whether the public supports the method of selecting Parliamentary candidates and the voting system
  • There is substantive representation so that the representative takes decisions which are in the interests of those he or she represents
  • There is descriptive representation which is the extent to which the representative is like those he or she represents
  • There is symbolic representation which is the ideas or views that the representative stands for

Developing ideas on representation

In the last decade, new ideas of representation have developed. In particular, writers have argued that it is who and what the representative says they represent that is most important.

Jane Manesbridge, for example, points to the way politicians talk about the promises they made at the last election and whether they have kept them, their reaction to what they think the voters want and what they say is important to them. 

Thus representation can be more of a dialogue between politicians and voters, though it may also take place through the media.