History

The origin of MP constituency surgeries

The History of Parliament blog has a fascinating piece on the origins of MPs holding constituency surgeries – that is, the practice of holding regular sessions in their constituency to which any constituent can come and raise any sort of question.

There was no one clear creator of the idea, but MP surgeries do seem to have started with Liberal and Labour MPs:

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…

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.

Writing in his book, The Confessions of a Candidate, Gray explained:

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 won re-election at the subsequent general election, in 1923. But then it all went wrong: he was unseated because his agent submitted false election expenses. Although Gray was cleared of corrupt practices, he was banned from standing for Parliament for seven years.

There’s much else fascinating about Frank Gray and many other gems in his book.

Find out more about the origin of MP surgeries in the full post.

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