When I didn’t get into Yale, I didn’t write to my representative asking him to convince Yale to accept me. When my insurance carrier refused to cover an emergency room visit, my mom didn’t call our senator and complain about the company’s incompetence — she called the company itself and gave their customer service representatives an earful. And I have never written to the president telling him about my neighbor’s noisy dog.

That’s because I’m an American.

Those complaints might seem ridiculous to someone from the States, where we typically write to our elected officials to complain about policies and voting records. The only time I’ve ever written to a representative was to berate the Michigan Legislature for ending the Michigan Promise scholarship. If we want to threaten someone who isn’t acting the way we want, we contact our lawyer and threaten a lawsuit.

But here in the United Kingdom, things are different. Members of Parliament are very concerned with their constituents’ needs — so much so that they have at least one person on their staff devoted to “casework” from their constituents. These people answer letters from average citizens about anything from policy questions to problems with grass cutting in the local square.

For anyone who knows a little about British politics, this might seem counterintuitive. In the U.K., party whips are much stronger than in America. MPs usually vote the party line because it is how you keep your government — the term used to refer to the executive branch — in power. This means sometimes MPs have to vote against their constituents’ wishes. When I first learned of this, I was amazed that British citizens weren’t storming Westminster Palace with pitchforks and torches. But once inside the system, it became very obvious why the people weren’t overthrowing the government.

About 90 percent of my work as an intern in parliament involves drafting answers to constituent letters. People write to their MP about literally everything. Some are very similar to what you would see in America — people want to know their MP’s position on electoral reform or the budget. Others write with suggestions for the government to take into consideration, like how to reform the school system. Just like in America, constituents like to feel they have a say in the government in addition to their vote.

Some people write with quite mundane requests, and some are a little bit crazy. Sometimes instead of consulting a lawyer, a constituent will write to their MP asking for advice. At times, constituents skip the appropriate local channels and jump straight to the national level. Others like to write to their MP so much that they’ll write even when they don’t have a problem, just so they feel their voice is heard.

But some constituents have real problems that make me disgusted with the whole system. About half of the letters MPs receive would be unnecessary if British agencies and companies — like the Child Support Agency, for example — would just do their job in a timely fashion. Parents with mentally handicapped children write with concerns about the care their children receive and the letters often make me tear up. Some people legitimately have hard lives and the institutions that are supposed to help them seemingly can’t be bothered. Instead, they sit around twiddling their thumbs until a letter from Westminster shows up. Only then do they put down the “cuppa” and get to work.

At first, some of these letters seemed outrageous to outsiders, and some still do to me. But it’s clear to me now that this is how MPs please their constituents. Aside from a serious desire to help people, MPs are winning votes.

Every day the mailroom is like the scene in Harry Potter where the letters come spurting into the house from every crack. MPs have to ask questions during debates that reflect the concerns of their region and ask ministers to come to a rendition of “A Christmas Carol” done by five-year-olds that they would never have time to attend. Their constituents pay attention to those things.

Besides, most MPs go home Thursday evening through Monday morning — and home means the region that voted them into office, no matter how far it is. My congressmen might vote to support Michigan, but they call Washington, D.C. home.

As someone who reads hundreds of letters a week, I sometimes wish the postbag was a little smaller. But as a constituent, I can’t help but feel it might be nice if my representative could do something for me back home.

Erika Mayer can be reached at elmayer@umich.edu.

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