Open-necked shirt campaigner, Tom Brake, is now campaigning for MPs to be allowed to refer to one another in the chamber by their names, rather than their constituencies. The current practice, he claims, “leave observers baffled”. Really? Do we seriously imagine that any British person watching a parliamentary debate will be bamboozled by the notion that Members of Parliament are members with respect to some geographical place? Do we manage to vote for candidates every few years and yet remain mystified by the existence of constituencies?
This is a far more serious issue than ties, which I discussed here, albeit for analogous reasons. Just as we wear different clothing depending upon the context, so we call others by, and are called by, different names (though I shall leave to one side the self-important obsession with pronouns for the moment). When about to part with an enormous sum of cash in a swanky restaurant or car dealership, we expect to be called ‘sir’ or ‘madam’. A particular John Smith might at times be addressed as “Mr Smith”, “John”, “Johnny”, “Mate” and perhaps “Darling” or “Dad”, depending upon who is addressing him. He might be addressed in ways that turn upon his profession — sir, doctor, professor, officer, my learned friend, or whatever.
It is entirely fitting for a Member of Parliament to be addressed, not by his name, but by the name of the constituency which elected him. The link is already broken when a particular MP becomes a minister, which is all the more reason to retain the link for MPs in general. It is true that an MP is a representative and not a delegate, but each should remember that the only reason he or she is paid a salary and generous expenses, the only reason he or she is given the heavy responsibility of voting for legislation and deciding how other people’s money is spent, is because people living in a particular area voted for him or her. The fact that our fictional MP is “The Member for Nether Wallop” and not “The Labour Member for Nether Wallop” is also crucially important. It may well be that more people voted against him than for him, and yet he goes to the House of Commons representing them all, at their pleasure, not his own.
Addressing MPs by name should be resisted for many reasons. It would make parliament appear to be even more of a back-slapping club than it already seems to many people. It would introduce an unnecessary temptation to use an MPs name to score cheap rhetorical points. One can imagine chippy Labour MPs pointedly referring to Boris Johnson as “Alexander” (and you may recall Theresa May’s unworthy ad hominem in which she referred to the Member for Islington South and Finsbury as “Lady Nugee”). One can equally imagine fogeyish Tory men addressing the Member for Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford not as “Yvette” or “Ms Cooper”, but as “Mrs Balls”.
However, the principal reasons is that it would begin to sunder the link between the MP and the constituency, and therefore the people, that he or she represents. People often say that politics should not be ‘personal’. Using what might be seen by some as a somewhat archaic form of address is one way of ensuring that it does not become more ‘personal’ than it already is. An MP should be respectful to another MP, not necessarily because of any praiseworthy characteristics of the MP himself, but out of respect for those who elected him and whom he represents. As I write this, the Labour MP for Liverpool Wavertree, Luciana Berger, is being bullied in the most appalling way by members of her own Party. They disapprove of what they see as her disloyalty to Jeremy Corbyn, apparently; the fact that she is Jewish is no doubt purely coincidental. But whatever the reasons, they seem to have forgotten that she sits in Parliament because the people of Liverpool Wavertree (80% of votes cast on a 70% turnout) sent her there. In our democracy, 34,717 voters carry rather more weight than a dozen Momentum thugs. Addressing MPs in the chamber by their constituency may seem archaic, but it is an important reminder of this democratic fact.