Most of the members of the House of Commons, of course, are neither Ministers nor leaders of opposition parties. They are private members or backbenchers. What is their role? Edmund Burke, the great British statesman, nearly two centuries ago, laid down the principle that a member is a representative, not a delegate. He is elected to speak and vote according to his conscience and judgment. His constituents will expect him to represent their interests and he will have been elected because many of them approved of his views and the polices he stood for. Nevertheless, he cannot possibly represent the views of his constituents to their total satisfaction because all his constituents do not think alike on everything. He must therefore make up his own mind on various issues which come before Parliament, deciding where he stands in accordance with his party's policies, his own conscience, and his personal view of what the national interest calls for.
The modern Member has more than one function to perform. They are a kind of ombudsman for their ridings, to whom various problems, complaints and grievances are brought and they are expected to do their best to settle them. They are a legislator, who must attend the House and the Parliamentary committees of which they are a member. They are almost always a member of a political party, to which they have commitments. They are expected to attend conferences, support good causes, keep their electors informed, and look after their riding, without neglecting their duties in the House.
Debates in the House often take place with very few members present, but this does not mean that the absent member is not attending to his parliamentary duties. They may be attending a committee, working in his office, or visiting their riding. Not all parliamentary work takes place on the floor of the Chamber. Much of it is undertaken by committees which make great demands upon the time of the private member. For example in the parliamentary session which came to an end on September 1, 1972 no less than 326 sittings of the House of Commons Committees took place.