When Winston Churchill was the Member of Parliament for Dundee between 1908 and 1922, it is said that he never visited the town, writes columnist Andy Winter. This was not uncommon at that time and many MPs would never visit their constituency between elections. The link with one’s constituency was merely a vehicle of convenience for gaining political office.

How different it is today. MPs maintain constituency offices with a number of paid staff. When the House is sitting, the majority of MPs return to their constituencies on a Thursday evening, undertake constituency business on Friday and over the weekend, before returning to Westminster in time for Monday’s sitting.

It wasn’t until 1969 that MPs first received an allowance to employ a solitary secretary and it wasn’t until the early 1970s that MPs began to make case work a major part of their role. This development was pioneered by Liberal candidates and MPs who set up Liberal Focus Teams. This led to some notable successes in by-

elections and was soon replicated by other parties. In Brighton Kemptown, the Conservative Andrew Bowden, who in 1970 won the seat from Labour’s Dennis Hobden, became a very familiar figure around the constituency and made this a safe Conservative seat for the next two decades.

By contrast, his fellow Conservative in Brighton Pavilion, Julian Amery, was rarely, if ever, seen in Brighton between elections. This prompted a letter to the Evening Argus asking whether Mr Amery was in fact dead since he had not been seen in the constituency since the previous election. Mr Amery responded that he was elected to represent his electorate in parliament, not in Brighton.

Today all MPs aim to be familiar figures in their towns, villages or cities. All advertise regular surgeries where they meet with constituents and take up issues on their behalf, including planning matters and neighbour disputes. They will advocate on behalf of their constituents about housing need and disrepair, traffic and parking problems, school admissions and registration with doctor surgeries. In Brighton and Hove potholes, refuse collection and weeds on the pavements have demanded time and attention from MPs who are supported by a team of constituency caseworkers. If the truth be told, it is these staff who do most of the casework on behalf of the MP. Back in Westminster, the role of MPs is to scrutinise legislation and to hold the government to account but this has been watered down as MPs have increasingly become mere voting fodder for their party leaders.

This arrangement where MPs have become glorified and well-paid social workers is, of course, a ridiculous nonsense. MPs have no direct authority and little expertise on most casework matters. They have no responsibility for schools, housing, street cleaning, traffic, parking and planning matters.

On the other hand, local councillors are responsible for all these. But local councillors, too, have lost their way. They debate and pass resolutions on national and international matters, none of which is the responsibility of local councils. Meanwhile, they have highly publicised action days where they make a big show on social media of them removing graffiti and cutting back weeds. This is not the role of a local councillor. Councils employ staff to do these tasks, and whenever I see a councillor having one of these action days, especially when they are part of the administration, it is a signal that they as councillors have spectacularly failed in their role and they are trying to look good while merely papering over the cracks of failing services.

The role of councillors should be the setting of strategies, priorities and standards for council officers to implement and ensuring that these strategies are carried out. In Brighton and Hove we see the complete reversal of roles, where officers take a lead on strategic matters and all too often police their councillors’ actions and statements. Whereas councillors should be the representatives of their voters, there is a breed of council staff called “community engagement officers”. I have witnessed these officers moderating what a councillor can say at community meetings and councillors deferring to them.

Brighton and Hove City Council is having to find cuts. I would suggest that councillors get rid of community engagement officers and that they resume that role. While they are about it, they should clear out the overwhelming majority of strategy officers, policy co-ordinators and community safety, diversity and inclusion officers. They make the council look busy and might make some people with vested interests feel good but rarely benefit the people of the city.

Andy Winter is a former councillor who worked in social care and homelessness services for 40 years