Praesidium

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Representation: Local or National?

There's an interesting piece on the BBC website (here) asking whether MPs should resign their constituency representation when appointed ministers. The suggestion is that the functions of government might conflict with representing a local constituency.

I think that this is a really interesting topic, but the 'solution' proposed by the BBC doesn't seem - to me - to go far enough. I think the problem is not confined to government ministers; rather the problem is the system of local representation as a whole.

Burke famously argued that MPs were to represent the nation as a whole, rather than their electors. John Stuart Mill agreed, endorsing a proposal for proportional representation (devised by Thomas Hare) that would effectively abolish local constituencies, arguing that what mattered was representing people, rather than places.

Much more recently, Andrew Rehfeld analysed the same problem (in his book, The Concept of Constituency), pointing out that representatives are typically torn between pursing the national interest (as they should, as legislators) and local, partisan interests, resulting in 'pork barrel' politics. His proposed solution was to make representatives accountable to the national interest, by abolishing geographically-defined constituencies and having each representative elected by a random cross-section of the population, the interest of which should coincide with that of the whole.

Rehfeld's proposal has merit, if you want each elector to be able to point to a particular representative and say 's/he is my representative'. Personally, I'm not sure that's necessary. I'd be happy for the whole country to be treated as a single constituency (as in Israel). I don't see why localities need to be represented as such. After all, other interest groups - such as occupations - don't generally get this special treatment (though some groups do or have had it).

I'm not saying that local government should be abolished. In fact, I'm all in favour of it. My point is that particularly local issues should be left to local government. The role of representatives in parliament ought to be to consider the national interest and this isn't obviously served by having them drawn from localities (not least because of the disproportionality that tends to result from elections in single-member constituencies).

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