What do we want from the MPs we’ll elect tomorrow? Do we want them to spend more time in their north east constituencies dealing with local issues, or would we rather they were at Westminster, ensuring that parliament passes good legislation for the UK as a whole?
I’m a political scientist interested in how representation really works in democracies, and lately, I’ve been focusing on the link between individual MPs and their constituents. In particular I’ve been examining the constituency service work that an MP undertakes when in office, whether that’s helping constituents in their interactions with local or national government, or campaigning on local issues such as hospital or school closures.
There’s been increasing concern at Westminster that, faced with a growing demand for constituency service from their electors, MPs are being forced to spend too much time on these types of activities and too little time scrutinising and improving the laws and policies which effect the country as a whole.
Surveys of MPs carried out by organisations like the Hansard Society give us a fairly detailed picture as to about how MPs divide their time between constituency service and national policy-oriented Westminster work. But we have much less evidence as to what we, as voters, actually want from our local Member of Parliament.
Why is this important? Because without such evidence it’s difficult to evaluate whether MPs’ behaviour corresponds to the wishes of their electors, or perhaps whether we as voters have unrealistic expectations of our MPs.
My colleague Markus Wagner and I carried out a series of survey experiments on a nationally representative sample of British voters. Each respondent was presented with several pairs of hypothetical MPs and asked to choose which they would most prefer to have as their local Member of Parliament. We randomly varied several characteristics of the MPs, not only the number of days per week they spent on constituency work versus national policy work, but also their political party, their independence from the party line, as well as age, gender and number of years in Parliament. By comparing how often respondents opted for MPs with different characteristics, we were able to get an idea as to which characteristics really mattered for voter choices and how.
Contrary to those fears expressed at Westminster, we found that voters want their MP to work hard, but not exclusively, on local constituency issues. Yes, our respondents were significantly less likely to opt for MPs who spent the minimal possible amount of time working on constituency issues and who concentrated solely on Westminster work. However, respondents’ preference for an MP didn’t rise perfectly in line with the amount of time they spent on constituency work. Rather, MPs who spent around 60% of their time on constituency work and 40% on national policy work were most preferred on this dimension of behaviour.
Of course, in British elections political parties play a central role in how people cast their ballot. Yet our research suggests that sitting MPs can potentially improve their re-election chances at the margin by devoting a significant portion of their time to constituency service activities, and by making voters aware of these activities through their campaign materials.
The Lib Dems, for example have traditionally been a party that’s very good at getting the “local champion” message across to voters – it’s one of the reasons Lib Dem MPs tend to have a slightly larger incumbency advantage than MPs from other parties. Come election day tomorrow, they will be hoping that this factor helps them retain a number of seats that they otherwise would lose.
There are, of course, lots of questions that remain. Do voters want MPs with a local background, or don’t they really mind too much, as long as the MP does a decent amount of constituency work? Also, do voters want independent-minded MPs who regularly rebel against their party leadership, or do they prefer party loyalists provided the MP is from a party they like?
On this, our results suggest that the former is very much the case, highlighting a fundamental tension for a political system that has traditionally relied on disciplined national parties to ensure stable national governments. But that is another topic…
Nick Vivyan is a lecturer at the School of Government and International Affairs at Durham University and one of the academics behind the electionforecast.co.uk website. You can read more about his research in Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box: 50 things you need to know about British elections, edited by Philip Cowley and Robert Ford (Biteback Publishing).
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