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Not Love, Actually

By Philip Cowley 

Everyone knows that people don’t much like MPs. But spend any time around Westminster and you’ll hear a much-repeated caveat: whilst people don’t like MPs as a species, they quite like their MP. For politicians it’s a bit of a comfort blanket; after years of press and public hostility, they can reassure themselves that the animosity is nothing personal, that whilst other politicians may be disliked, they personally are OK. More than a few are banking on this helping them out come next May.

It’s only partially true, though.

There is a difference between how people view MPs in general and their own MP, but the difference is often exaggerated.

The table below shows the responses to two questions from the third wave of the British Election Study, asking respondents how much trust they have in MPs ‘in general’ and how much they have in the MP ‘in your local constituency’. Responses were on a seven point scale, from 1 (no trust) to 7 (a lot of trust).

How much trust do you have in…? (%)

Members of Parliament in general The MP in your local constituency
Low trust (1-3) 56.2 39.1
Medium trust (4) 21.0 17.8
High trust (5-7) 20.0 33.3
Don’t know 2.7 9.9
-36.2 -5.8


The first column of data shows trust in MPs in general. Over half of respondents had low levels of trust (that is, have a response of 1 to 3), and just 20% had high levels of trust (5 to 7).  That’s a net score (high trust minus low trust) of -36. By contrast, the second column of data shows the scores for trust in your local MP, and this time the net score is -6.  That’s significantly better, but it’s worth noting that it is still negative. Even when it comes to their own MP, we are still talking about only a third of respondents who say that they trust them, and more who distrust them than trust them.

The other thing is that whilst these general and local responses are not identical, they are not independent either. If we calculate the relative trust respondents have in politicians (that is, the score for MPs in general minus the score for local MPs), we get a score from -6 to +6. Those with a positive score trust MPs in general more than they trust their local MP; those with a negative score trust their local MP more than MPs in general. There are more people with a negative score (46%) than a positive score (17%), but almost as many (38%) trusted the two groups exactly the same.

And most importantly, the differences really are not all that great: a full 67% gave an answer that was either identical or at most a point different to both questions.

(These results are also pretty consistent over time: compare these findings from wave 3 with the earlier ones from wave 1).

So when we say that ‘people’ are more positive about their MP than MPs in general, we are only talking about a minority of people (albeit a minority sizeable enough group to shift aggregate scores) and most of these people are only slightly more positive.

There are actually very few people who ‘hate’ MPs but ‘love’ their MP. Given the way the issue is often discussed, you might expect some people to be very negative about MPs but very positive about their own MP.  But out of 24,000 respondents, just 101 gave a score of 1 for MPs but 7 for their MP (that is, 0.4%).

There is a famous article – well, famous in academic circles anyway – by Dick Fenno called ‘Why We Hate Congress but Love Our Congressman’.Whatever it is that the British feel about their own MP, it is most definitely not love.

The idea that we really rate our local MP whilst hating MPs in general is wide of the mark. Most people rate their local MP pretty much the same as they rate MPs in general, and a minority are a bit more positive about their local MP than they are about MPs in general. This isn’t half as snappy, but it’s much closer to the truth.

But what about the partisan effect? The net score for trust in your MP is roughly the same for respondents with Conservative MPs (-7.6) as for those with Labour MPs (-4.8). But it is noticeably higher – and indeed, positive – for those with Lib Dem MPs (+1.3).  Again, though, whilst it’s clearly higher, it’s not massively higher, and yes, it’s positive, but only just.

One of the biggest determinants of whether you trust your MP is whether they are the same party as you. You see this clearly in graph below, which shows the trust respondents have in their local MP, broken down both by the party of the MP and then by whether the respondent is a supporter of that party or not. For all of the parties, trust in MPs from supporters (those who say they are going to vote for the party) is higher than trust from opponents (those who are not). This shouldn’t be a huge surprise. Partisanship colours lots of things, and this isn’t any different. Plus, if you share the views and prejudices of your MP, you’ll trust them more than if you don’t. Trust in politicians isn’t like trust in a supermarket or in your local bus service. It’s a political judgement.

And, in part, this explains why even local MPs do so badly on this measure – because in most seats in the UK, the majority of constituents didn’t vote for the winning candidate, and so dissatisfaction is built into the system.  It probably also explains why MPs over-estimate how popular they are – because they probably talk more to supporters, and amongst that group they are reasonably trusted.

Trust in your MP, by party and vote


Lib Dem MPs do better from amongst both supporters and opponents. Even amongst opponents they score just -4.4 (compared to comparable figures of -30 and -23 for Labour). But they do equally well amongst supporters (+66, compared to scores of +43 for the Conservatives and +36 for Labour).  With normal surveys, you’d not be able to do this sort of analysis. There aren’t that many Lib Dem seats and even fewer Lib Dem voters in them. But the beauty of the BES is that the sample size is so big that the Lib Dem opponents group is around 2000 respondents (that is, a normal sized national survey), and even the supporters group is more than 250, large enough to draw decent conclusions.

Importantly, you see the same effect in other ways – such as name recognition.  Of those with Labour MPs, under 70% knew the name of their MP, for Conservatives, the figure is just over 70%. But of those with Lib Dem MPs, 82% could identify their MP. There’s a lot of Lib Dem MPs hoping that that extra trust and visibility will save them next May.

Philip Cowley is a Professor of Parliamentary government at the University of Nottingham and is the co-editor of the book ‘Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box‘. 

This is taken from a presentation given to the BES’s conference, ‘Insights Into the 2015 General Election’ on 9 December 2014

Image credit: Wikipedia Commons

Published inBritish PoliticsGeneral Election 2015Politics

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