A regular, usually weekly, constituency surgery is these days an inescapable element of the routine of any Member of Parliament, and one which most regard as of central importance to the way they do their job. Commentators often find it remarkable to find politicians, far from being out-of-touch and distant figures, not only engaging with individual constituents, but lavishing time and energy on listening to and trying to help people with complex and intractable problems. Some argue that they should leave some of it, at least, to others, and get on with trying to sort out the country’s problems; others (including Members themselves) point out that their contacts with individual constituents provide the best index possible to the challenges for and failures of public policy, and may help them to improve it.
A century ago, the surgery certainly didn’t exist. But it’s difficult to be categorical about when and why Members started holding them. Their origins might be traced to the activities of some of the early East London Labour activists, Will Crooks (MP for Woolwich, and then Woolwich East from 1903 to 1921) and George Lansbury (MP for Bow and Bromley 1910-12, and 1922-40). Contemporary biographies of both men recount how local residents would knock on their door to seek solutions to their problems at all hours of the day and night. Crooks’s house close to the East India Dock Road was ‘the gathering ground of all kinds of deputations and of troubled individuals seeking advice on every subject under the sun. He was a court of appeal in family troubles as well as on public questions’. His assistance was requested with drunk husbands, angry wives, medical problems and everything else. (George Haw, From Workhouse to Westminster: the Life Story of Will Crooks MP (1911), pp. 144-53) Both Crooks and Lansbury, though, seem to have been acting in this capacity well before they were elected to Parliament, and the role may have been more closely related to their positions as Poor Law Guardians than as legislators. It isn’t clear whether they continued to provide advice when Members, though since they continued to live in the same place as before, it is difficult to see how they could have escaped doing so.
The first description of what we might recognise as a surgery comes in a little book written by the former Liberal MP, Frank Gray, in 1925. Gray had been a solicitor before the First World War, but with independent means (his father, a self-made man, had become a North Oxford property developer) and a flamboyant approach to electioneering. His ‘personal canvass of nine-tenths of the constituency’ – mainly the poorer areas – helped him to dramatically overturn a Unionist majority in the December 1922 election in Oxford. Recognising that his victory could easily be reversed, he threw himself into what he described as ‘nursing’ the constituency:
I announced to the electors that on receipt of a post-card I would visit any one of them at the earliest date, and, moreover, at six o’clock on each Friday at a stated place I would sit to receive the visits of constituents. The suggestion met with an immediate response and has been applied to other constituencies. On the first evening the callers numbered three, but, with fluctuating progress, the numbers grew to the record of fifty-seven, necessitating Saturday afternoon and evening being devoted to this occupation. (Frank Gray, Confessions of a Candidate, p. 47)
Gray, like Crooks, found that many of his visitors were seeking advice about matrimonial difficulties. Pensions, housing, and unemployment, he wrote, were collectively second. ‘These interviews’, he went on,
viewed as a boon conferred at the beginning, soon came to be regarded as a prescriptive electoral privilege. The fame of them spread beyond my constituency, and people miles away from the city who had heard of them wanted to avail themselves of them. And besides those who visited at the appointed hour and place, an increasing number would travel as much as eight miles to my private house. (p. 49)
He found himself tied to jumping into a taxi at Westminster every Friday, after the House had risen, and throwing himself onto the train at Paddington in order to get to Oxford Town Hall by 6pm for his advice session. Crooks held his seat in a bitter contest in Baldwin’s 1923 election, though he lost it shortly afterwards when he was unseated on petition as his opponents picked apart the muddle he, his wife, and his agent had made over dealing with election expenses.
Despite this account it is unlikely that Gray ‘invented’ the constituency surgery, for others seem to have been doing the same thing at the same time. The Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail for Tuesday 2 January 1923 carried an announcement that:
Mr W. A. Jowitt KC, MP will meet any of his constituents who wish to see him on Wednesday January 3rd from 11am to 1pm at Central Buildings, Church Street, West Hartlepool; Thursday January 4th from 11 to 1pm at North Eastern Buildings, High Street, Hartlepool.
William Jowitt was, like Gray, a lawyer, though a far more eminent one, who would eventually become lord chancellor in the government of his friend, Clement Attlee. Like Gray, he had won a precarious victory – his majority, of 567, was much smaller than Gray’s was, and though he clung on in 1923, he would lose the seat the following year. (It is not clear, it should be said, whether the January surgery was a pre-start of session one-off, rather than the first in a series.)
Gray and Jowitt were probably very unusual, and for the moment it looks as if the practice began after the 1922 election, though perhaps more and earlier examples will come to light. It was common for Members who were not based in their constituencies to make an appearance during the summer recess and maybe one or more other occasions but not much else. Many Members would not have seen it as necessary or desirable to attend so closely to the wishes of their constituents, and the time and expense involved would no doubt have been a considerable disincentive. Jowitt, an already eminent King’s Counsel and busy man, probably thought it worth the time and expense to try to boost his narrow majority. Gray was in a position to travel with relative ease to his constituency; men like Crooks and Lansbury both lived in their constituency and could travel to and from Westminster every day the House was sitting. Nevertheless, when a select committee was investigating in 1920 the annual allowance to Members, it found that some were making full use of the railways to travel long distances to their homes and constituencies on a regular basis. The then Leader of the Labour Party, William Adamson (MP for West Fife from 1910 to 1931) told the committee of his ‘habit… of going home [which was also the constituency] for my week end, just as most Members of Parliament are in the habit of going, but it so happens that in my case I have further to travel than possibly any of the other Members of Parliament who are in the habit of going home weekly’ (Q. 85). There were others, though, who took the contrary view. Another Labour Member, Matthew Simm (Wallsend, 1918-22), made clear that he had no desire to go home for the weekends; while agreeing that a free rail pass would be of great value to Members ‘if they desired to go among their constituents often’, it was not something, he made clear, which he either did, or wanted to do. (Q. 224). The committee, noting ‘the inequality of expenses between a Member for a London constituency and a Member whose constituency is situated at a distance from Westminster’, recommended that first-class travel be provided between London and the constituency for all Members (but not, they added, between their homes and London). The House itself rejected the recommendation, but it was implemented four years later by the Labour government. Its introduction may have encouraged others to begin making more frequent visits to the constituency.
The earliest evidence of surgeries is associated with Liberal Members, and it is easy to assume (despite the case of Mr Simm) that Labour Members would have adopted the practice most willingly. The conservative party agent Philip Cambray wrote in his 1932 guide to political strategy, The Game of Politics, that ‘in recent years Labour members especially made themselves slaves of their constituents. They spent almost every weekend among the electors. They held monthly, fortnightly, and even weekly demonstrations’. In fact there are plenty of indications that Conservatives were just as ready in the 1920s to help their constituents. Harold Macmillan, writing in his memoirs (published in 1966) of the first Parliament in which he served (1924-9), described ‘the heavy burden of local affairs’ in serving his Stockton-on-Tees constituency, ‘especially so in a large industrial constituency, suffering from all the individual problems arising from four years of war and several years of unemployment and distress’. He talked of helping individual constituents deal with war pensions, unemployment and unemployment benefit, and how men would come ‘to the office at the stated times, generally once a week, in the hope that I might be able, by some influence with this or that employer, to help them towards a job’. Normally, he added, ‘we would go north two or three times a month—sometimes more. The 1.20pm from King’s Cross on Thursday or Friday; then back on the night train on Saturday or Sunday’. Macmillan acknowledged the drawbacks of ‘the development of a Member of Parliament into a kind of local welfare officer’, but his engagement with individual problems seems to have left as a deep an impression on him and his approach to politics as it does for many Members now. (Harold Macmillan, Winds of Change, 1914-1939, pp. 159-64). Newspaper announcements in the 1920s show several other Tories were advertising their availability to their constituents for individual interviews, including Sir George Berry, MP for the Scottish Universities; William Ormsby-Gore (Denbigh Boroughs, 1910-18, Stafford 1918-38; later Lord Harlech); and Colonel Herbert Spender-Clay (MP for Tunbridge/Tonbridge 1910-37).
Such advertisements were more frequent in the 1930s and 1940s, but the practice of surgeries seems to have taken time to penetrate to some areas; feature articles after the 1945 election show some journalists treating it as a new fad. The ‘Essex Man’s Diary’ in the Chelmsford Chronicle for 12 October 1945 remarked on the conservative Saffron Walden MP and former minister R.A. Butler adopting ‘fireside methods’:
He is sending a bulletin round by hand from time to time; and more than that, he is going to conduct a political “surgery”. That means he will attend once a month at certain hours at the main centres of population, Saffron Walden, Dunmow and Halstead. The simile of the surgery however, is not quite right; for surely it is Mr Butler who comes to take the medicine, not the patients!’
The laboured joke about medicine is echoed in several other local newspapers in 1945 and 1946, and suggests that the idea of a ‘surgery’ was a new one. The Essex piece is the first I have found to use the word for what had usually been referred to as ‘interviews’. It might be assumed that the introduction of the National Health Service made it a natural extension of the idea of a medical surgery, and it’s tempting to link it in some way to the work of Hyacinth Morgan. Morgan, who had been born in Grenada, was Labour MP for Camberwell North West in 1929-31, for Rochdale in 1940-50 and for Warrington in 1950-55. He was also a doctor, working in general practice in London, and acting as medical adviser to the TUC. Announcements of his weekly advice sessions appeared with unusual frequency in the Rochdale Observer in the 1940s, and perhaps inspired some to use the same term as for his medical practice. Or perhaps not.
An academic study in 1963 by Robert Dowse from Hull University, found that 11 out of 68 respondents to a survey of MPs said that they did not hold surgeries. Labour MPs, it concluded, were more likely to find them useful, a response which the author concluded may have had something to do with the fact that it was more likely to be Labour voters than Conservative ones who sought help. Since then the practice of holding surgeries has become universal, and has come to occupy more and more of each Member’s time, helped by additional assistance now provided to deal with constituency casework, the difficulty of finding political fulfilment in changing anything at Westminster compared with the psychological rewards of directly helping individual people, and the encouragement of the political parties, including such initiatives as ‘constituency weeks’.
Robert Dowse, ‘The MP and his Surgery’, Political Studies, XI (1963)
Philip Norton, ‘The Growth of the Constituency Role of the MP’, Parliamentary Affairs, 47 (1994)
Oonagh Gay, ‘MPs Go Back to their Constituencies’, Political Quarterly, 76 (2005)
Jon Lawrence, Speaking for the People: Party, Language and Popular Politics in England, 1867-1914 (1998)
Jon Lawrence, Electing our Masters (2009)