It was an interesting leap from the shenanigans in Falkirk Constituency Labour Party to proposing a restriction on MP’s outside interests, but it was a leap Ed Miliband made two weeks ago. Arguing that this would help clean up politics, and renew public faith, he proposed a limitation on MPs’ second incomes, to no more than 15% of their total income. This is one of those issues where MPs might be forgiven for thinking they can never get it right. When many MPs had second incomes, the criticism was that they were not spending enough time at Westminster. When we got more full-time politicians, the complaint became that we had not enough politicians with experience of the ‘real world’.
We know that the public say they don’t like MPs with second incomes. A recent YouGov poll for the Sunday Times found a majority of the public opposed to MPs having second jobs and in favour of an outright ban. But MPs second incomes – where they exist – come in lots of different forms. Some involve fairly small sums of money. Some, on the other hand, have ‘second’ incomes larger than their parliamentary incomes. Plus, some of these second jobs are in fact first jobs, at least in the sense that they were the MP’s job before they became an MP – and exactly the sort of ‘real world’ professions that people often say they want to see represented at Westminster. (Miliband himself had previously argued that he wanted to see more entrepreneurs stand for Labour; an income cap would presumably limit the Party just to the unsuccessful ones, or to those who agreed to sell their companies for the pleasure of becoming a backbench MP). Other second incomes are directorships or such like picked up after becoming an MP.
To try to get at some of these differences, we ran a series of split-sample surveys, in which we tested the public’s reactions to small changes to the profiles of hypothetical politicians. To begin, we showed half of respondents to a survey two politicians:
Politician A is 48 years old. After university, where he studied physics, he trained as an accountant, and set up a company, which he then sold. He is married with three children. He is an avid cricket fan, and a keen player in his youth; he is now a passionate advocate for sporting facilities for young people. He also has interests in the health service and pensions. He became an MP in 2001 and is a member of the Heath Select Committee and is known to be a hard-working constituency MP.
Politician B is 45 years old. Before entering politics he was a lawyer, although he no longer practices. He is passionate about the environment and education. His wife is a primary school teacher and they have two children and he is a trustee of an educational charity that supports apprenticeships. He has been an MP since 2005 and he is known for his focus on education policy, and is the one of the more rebellious and independent-minded MPs in the House of Commons.
We asked them, without knowing what party these politicians stood for, which would they prefer. Shown the profiles above, we found 38% of the public preferred A, 45% went for B, and 17% said neither. In other words, B led by 7 points. It doesn’t especially matter why B led by 7 points; this is just a baseline, with which we then compare other similar profiles.
So, for example, the other half of the same survey saw the same text as above, except we changed the second line of B’s profile so that it read ‘and he continues to practice, arguing that this keeps him in touch with the world outside Westminster’. Support for A over B was now 1 point. In other words, continuing to practice as a lawyer damaged B’s popularity among potential voters; his lead of 7 was now a lead for A of 1. In a further survey, we then changed B’s profile yet again to add a sum of money, earned as a result of this work. Half of the sample saw: ‘This brings him in approximately an additional £10,000 per year in income’. A’s lead now extended to +6. The other half saw the sum of £50,000; A’s lead extended even further to +11. That’s a difference of 18 percentage points between the baseline for the non-practicing lawyer and the one who’s still earning £50,000 from the work, suggesting a hefty electoral penalty for continuing a career in law once elected, magnified by the sums of money earned.
Some of our previous work has shown that GPs make very popular election candidates with the public. So in another set of experiments, we changed the text of candidate B replacing ‘a lawyer’ with ‘a GP’. As expected, this made a huge difference. Whereas in our first experiment, B had initially led A by 7 percentage points, B’s lead was now 23 points. But when we changed the extent to which our fictional GP still worked as a GP, their popularity began to wane. Continuing to practice, but with no mention of money, and the lead dropped to 18 points; earning £10,000 and the lead was 13 points; an income of £50,000 reduced the lead to seven points. Even then, they were still the preferred politician (and by exactly the same amount as a lawyer who didn’t practice any longer), but that is because GPs make – rightly or wrongly – such popular candidates to begin with. The overall negative effect of increasing the extent to which they worked as a GP from not at all to earning £50,000 was 16 percentage points, basically the same as when we changed the income of the lawyer.
But this seems not always to be true. A third experiment took our initial profiles, and we changed the text of politician A. Instead of having sold his company, the text read ‘which he continues to run, arguing that this keeps him in touch with the world outside Westminster’. And, again, we altered the income levels, from no mention of money, to £10k, and then to £50k. This time, the effect was non-existent. Politician B’s lead varied from six to 10 points, never statistically significantly different from the base-line. The additional income did not make him more popular, but it appears to have done no harm.
And finally, we tested for the effect of directorships gained since becoming an MP. Again, we split a survey, and randomly added the following text to the profile of politician A:
Since becoming an MP he has become a non-executive director of a company who pay him £10,000 per year. He argues that this keeps him in touch with the world outside Westminster.
Without that text, in our baseline survey B had led A by seven points. Adding that text to A’s profile, extended that lead to 34 points. In other words, it made a difference of 27 points. When we changed the amount to £50,000 we produced a lead of 29 points, a difference of 22 points. This is a much larger effect than we found for any of the GP, lawyer, or accountant experiments. In other words, the public reacted with much more hostility to income gained since becoming an MP than they did from income from pre-existing occupations. But with directorships the sum of money didn’t especially matter. The politician who earned £50k from directorships was no less popular than the one who earned £10k. If anything, on the raw figures they were marginally more popular, although the differences were not statistically significant. It basically didn’t matter whether they earned £10,000 or £50,000. Both were equally unpopular.
We found the sums of money involved did matter, however, if both earned money from directorships. In our final experiment, we first added £50k in directorships to profile A and £10k to B; and then we swapped the sums around. When A trousered £50k from directorships, and B just 10k, B led A by 32 points, which is a deviation from the baseline of 25 points. The other way round, and A led B by 20 points, a deviation from the baseline of 27 points. We also found, once both candidates earned money from directorships that the percentage of respondents selecting ‘Neither’ increased to at least 30% of respondents, higher than in any of the other experiment.
If the aim of any income cap is to make politicians more popular, then we need to realise that the issue for the public is not just the sums of money involved but both the sums and the source. Continue to earn £50k from a company that you had set up before becoming an MP, and the public do not especially seem to mind. But earn even £10k from continuing your profession as a lawyer or a GP, they do. They object even more to directorships – the spoils of electoral war for some MPs – but again the sum doesn’t hugely matter; £10k earned from directorships is worse than £50k earned from pre-existing occupations. But in terms of just the sums: for a backbench MP £10,000 would be below the proposed 15% cap. In other words, it won’t do much good.
We ran questions with YouGov over five days, between 15-19 July 2013. In total, we tested 15 variants of the profiles. Each survey was weighted according to YouGov’s standard weighting.