Orientation and training for new MPs is of vital importance in helping them to make the transition from electoral candidates to elected members. Consider that 27 per cent of the MPs who were elected in Canada’s federal election on 21 October are rookies without any experience in federal politics or firsthand understanding of how to be an MP. Later this year, the UK parliament will welcome a fresh intake of MPs after the general election on 12 December.
On either sides of the Atlantic, the skills that are required to run a successful political campaign are arguably different from those of an MP. While electoral candidates and MPs both interact with members of the public to debate ideas and seek electoral support, MPs have the added roles of scrutinising legislation, navigating party politics in the House and dealing with constituency case work.
According to my interviews with 68 MPs in both Canada and the UK, arriving in the House of Commons as a new member is unlike entering any other workplace. Following an election, new MPs arrive in London and in Ottawa exhausted after a busy election campaign. Most feel overwhelmed by the barrage of correspondence they receive, mainly from constituents and but also from lobby groups and think tanks who try to ingratiate themselves with MPs by inviting them to receptions. At this point most MPs have yet to hire staff or be assigned an office, which compounds the difficulties they face during this transition period.
From my interviews, I have gathered two key findings on how MPs cope with their early days in the House of Commons as they learn how to be an MP.
Orientation and training for new MPs
My first finding is that new MPs in both Canada and the UK are more likely to take informal advice from their party than learn the job of an MP through the formal orientation provided by the House.
Despite the best efforts of the Canadian and UK House of Commons to provide orientation and training for new MPs, members tend to gravitate towards their party for information on procedural and other matters. This informal induction from the party usually takes the form of ad-hoc mentorship with senior MPs in the party or through asking questions of the House leader or whips office in Canada.
In the UK, the regional whips play a pastoral role for new MPs, helping them to find accommodation in London as well as providing advice on how to best help constituents. The fact that new MPs rely on their respective parties so much for advice and information has implications for how they behave in the House. Naturally, the parties offer advice on how to be a good party member, whereas advice from the House is likely to be more neutral. This likely contributes to the parties having more control over their members.
MPs past experience
Second, my findings show that past experience counts for a lot (but not always in the ways you might think). My research builds upon the work of Michael Rush and Philip Giddings who theorise that the past experience of MPs impacts their orientation. Indeed, through my research I have found that the past career and political experience of new members shapes their ability to be an effective MP during those first few months as they learn ‘on the job’.
Out of each new intake of MPs, some new members will have previously served at the municipal or provincial level of government in Canada or with a local authority in the UK. Needless to say, this past experience means that new MPs are more comfortable dealing with constituents and are more familiar with the legislative process. Having a legal background is also useful in this regard.
Many of the MPs in Canada and the UK I interviewed had previously been staffers for MPs. For these staffers turned MPs, parliament is relatively straightforward to navigate as they have firsthand knowledge of the challenges that MPs face in balancing their work and family life.
Interestingly, MPs who had previously run businesses had some of the easiest experiences transitioning to the role of an elected member. This experience helped MPs to get their constituency and parliamentary offices set up, as well as hire staff. Establishing the infrastructure of their office helps new MPs get up and running to perform tasks like scrutinising legislation and helping constituents. Those who arrived without the experience of hiring staff feel lost during this period.
Party control and partisanship
To conclude, instead of orientation and training for new MPs from the House induction, new members in Canada and the UK tend to get advice from their party. The source of this induction has implications for the way that MPs go about their job. That is, if their early experiences in the House are heavily shaped by their party then it is possible that MPs may be more susceptible to party control and partisanship.