1 People doing politics 1 People doing politics

Elected representatives

Local councillor

Left home at 0800 for 0830 meeting with the Head of Service in final preparation for my taking the chair of the Council Communities Committee…

Had an advice surgery before returning to the office to catch up on casework…

I spent the afternoon and part of the evening preparing for a range of meetings that I was to attend/chair this week… I have before me over 1000 pages of reports all of which relate to meetings this week or immediately thereafter…

As secretary of the group I spend time preparing minutes and agendas and ensuring the meeting runs smoothly. In addition, there are often actions required as a result of the meeting for example arranging to meet Trades Unions or progress the group communications strategy… In the evening I attend the fortnightly [party] political group meeting which discusses issues of importance to the group and the administration…

Local councillors’ diaries, Scotland, 2015


The UK Member of Parliament represents a constituency, a defined population in a defined territory. To represent means to speak for, and doing that effectively means getting to know who it is and where it is he or she represents.

Rory Stewart is MP for Penrith and The Border, in the north of England. It’s a Saturday in mid-December, and he’s in the constituency to attend what will be nine different meetings in the course of the day. His work includes running a surgery session at the Conservative Club in Brampton, a small market town east of Carlisle. A farmer wants his advice on an inheritance dispute he’s finding hard to resolve.

One of the things that’s quite striking is that people are coming in to see me who’ve really reached the end of their tether, they feel they’ve been failed by the system… they’ve been failed by government, they’ve been harassed by their neighbours, they’ve been let down by their lawyers, their lives can feel as though they’re fraying and coming to pieces… That was a man who’s been for fifty years a farmer, in a healthy, outdoor life and who now is looking pale, clearly his health is suffering, stress is beginning to tell and really the role there of the Member of Parliament feels less like a legislator and almost more like a counsellor or even perhaps the traditional role of a priest. You’re there to try to provide some compassion, if you can some common sense, but it’s a very uncertain, informal relationship with people often at a time of immense stress in their lives.

Rory Stewart, MP for Penrith and the Border, 2015

The very personal encounter Stewart describes complements and corrects our habitual but partial image of the parliamentarian as a public figure, one who seems always to be on show, forever talking rather than listening, projecting him or her self as much as those he or she represents.

This constituency is no single thing but a loose aggregate of individuals and communities, groups, organizations and interests.  To give any reasonable account of it requires time spent with residents, campaigners and advocates, visiting schools, hospitals and other local public services, meeting community leaders and members of firms and commercial bodies.  Each meeting is a complex search for understanding on each side, a constant pursuit by both represented and representative of understanding and support.

The politician is potentially always on stage. Every aspect of his behaviour can become part of a public performance which must be managed and controlled to mobilize support. Many of his activities will be essentially symbolic, i.e. for the purpose of creating the desired identity in order to draw the audience into his drama…. The political drama has numerous performers acting partially opposite each other and partially in the absence of each other. They are in front of sometimes similar, but not identical, and sometimes different audiences. While the actor may be performing in reference to another actor, his eye will be on the audience as well. While he may be projecting an image of himself to the audience, one of the other actors may be casting him quite differently.

Peter Hall, ‘A symbolic interactionist analysis of politics’, 1972

In Parliament, the role of the MP is to make the interests and concerns of constituents, as well as of his or her party, present in debate. In committee work, however, party and constituency may sometimes dissolve, as the MP acts on behalf of Parliament in holding the government to account.

The role of a Member of Parliament is like a jigsaw, OK? And there are many pieces of the jigsaw and… now, is the [committee], is it the corner of the jigsaw? Is it the edge of the jigsaw? Is it the heart of the jigsaw? I don’t know, because everything is jumbled up… They are pieces of the jigsaw, of the totality of being a Member of Parliament on a select committee, constituency MP, a parliamentarian.

MP, House of Commons, in Marc Geddes, Dramas at Westminster, 2020


In 2004, the European Union was to be enlarged by the accession of ten countries to the south and east. As a Social Democrat MEP from Austria, Hans had a position: that this enlargement was broadly positive, but would carry costs and so needed to be adequately prepared and managed. Above all, Europe’s social agenda must be protected.

He begins the day in consultation with his assistant, who manages his diary, and spends the rest of it speaking to a range of different audiences. His first set piece is a committee meeting, at which he makes a statement distinguishing the Parliament from the Commission, and blaming the Commission for the problems of the enlargement process. His speech goes smoothly, but then he’d been through it with his assistant beforehand and gets a quick debrief in the corridor afterward from one of his German counterparts.

He’s meant to have his photo taken for a newspaper article his assistant is writing, but now he’s running late. He meets a Slovenian delegation for lunch, for whom he has something of a mentoring function. He shares as much with them as he can, then leaves to join a parliamentary debate, and manages to have the photo done afterward. He’s at the Social Democratic Club in the evening, to give a lecture.

In this mêlée of meetings held, postponed and rearranged, only his continuing restatement of his political position seems to give his work any coherence and consistency. In each successive encounter he manages to rearticulate and recontextualise his core position in terms required by the audience and the occasion. It’s not that he’s being different people, but he is being himself differently, performing as much as merely presenting what he thinks the problems of enlargement are what might be done about them.

Political business of this kind is conducted in talk, but it has a material, physical component, too. The meetings Hans attends have corollary documents: the WTO statement his committee is to consider, papers for the plenary session in the afternoon, and of course the photograph. And every meeting takes place somewhere else: in his office, in a committee room or in the corridor, at lunch, in the parliamentary chamber or in the Wien Haus where the Social Democrats meet. What this means, in turn, is that he’s constantly on the move, and if not actually in a meeting then invariably between meetings.


Excerpts from councillors’ diaries are from Richard Freeman (2020) ‘The role of the councillor and the work of meeting’, Local Government Studies 46 (4) 564-582

Rory Stewart was MP for Penrith and the Border, BBCR4, 12 September 2015, and the story he tells about the farmer is at min:sec 11:55. ‘The politician is always potentially on stage…’ is from Peter Hall, op cit, p 61, and ‘The role of a Member of Parliament…’ from Marc Geddes’s Dramas at Westminster: Select Committees and the quest for accountability, Manchester: Manchester UP, 2020, p 57

The study of MEP Hans is from chapter 4 of Ruth Wodak’s The Discourse of Politics in Action: politics as usual, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2009: ‘One day in the life of an MEP’