Public care about the source of MPs’ second incomes just as much as the amount earned

5116060964_c118f83d00_oIt 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.

Rosie Campbell and Philip Cowley

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. 

MPs and Twitter: what are MPs tweeting about?

Image by Shawn Campbell

Image by Shawn Campbell

For my final year dissertation I chose to look at what use MPs’ are making of social media. Focussing on their use of Twitter, I set out to answer two questions: which MPs are tweeting and what are they using it for?

To answer the second question I took a random sample of 40 MPs from those who tweet, and then coded their 200 most recent tweets. There were three areas looked at: the content of the tweets (what issues they were on: international, national, constituency or non-political), the purpose of the tweets (were they promoting themselves or their party, explaining their position or something else) and the type of tweet (were they simply posting their thoughts, saying what they were doing or taking the time to respond and communicate with people).

Majority International National Constituency Personal/Non-Political N
0 to 5% 4.2 57.5 30.9 7.4 1400
5% to 10% 6.9 53.8 27.8 11.5 1928
10% to 20% 2.6 39.1 36 22.3 2077
20% to 30% 4.2 55 26.2 14.6 1509
30%+ 1.3 64 20 14.7 400

Tweet content by majority (% of total tweets)

64% of the tweets sampled were on national issues, by far the most common topic. The second most common topic was MPs’ constituencies at 20%, whilst non-political tweets accounted for 14.7% and ones on international issues just 1.3%. Unsurprisingly a recurring topic is the economy, with MPs regularly attacking the opposing parties. Often Twitter simply appeared to act as an echo chamber, with MPs repeating what was being said by their party in the news or in the House of Commons.

Party Inform Solve Problem Explain Promote Journal Unclassified N
Conservative 14.6 2.9 30.9 35.7 3.5 12.4 2149
Labour 16 2.4 33.7 29.1 4 14.8 3165
Liberal Democrat 9.5 2.4 33.8 42.2 1 11.1 1600
Overall 14.8 2.6 33.7 31.9 3.2 13.8 6914

Tweet purpose by party (% of total tweets)

When it came to the purpose of the tweets most were explaining their or their party’s position or opinion on the matter, with a similar amount also promoting their or their party’s activities.  When it came to tweeting about their constituency it was often to promote what they were doing, such as visiting a local group, attending an event , or saying how well attended their surgery was. A small number of MPs responded to constituents with problems their constituents wanted addressing, but these accounted for only 2.6% of the tweets sampled. It looks like people  rarely try to contact their MP through Twitter when they have a problem they want to contact them about.

One possibility considered before carrying out the research was that there would be a high number of non-political tweets designed to make the MPs appear more ‘in-touch’ or ‘human’. A recent example of this was George Osborne’s much derided burger tweet before his spending review speech.

However, non-political tweets accounted for only 14.7% of the tweets sampled, meaning over 85% were political. And of those 14.7%, few had the staged feel of Cameron’s or Osborne’s tweets. They were just tweeting about their interests. Perhaps this is because many backbenchers tweet for themselves, rather than having an aide do it for them.

Party Conversation Status Pass Along News Comments/ Opinion N
Conservative 28.2 25.8 28.4 3.5 14.1 2149
Labour 21.7 17.3 34 7.4 19.6 3165
Liberal Democrat 36.8 8.1 45.9 2.3 6.9 1600
Overall 28.7 15.3 35.9 5.3 14.8 6914

Tweet type by party (% of total tweets)

One final area to look at was the type of tweets posted, the main point of interest here being whether MPs were communicating with the public much. 28.7% of the tweets sampled were communication with other users using Twitter’s ‘@’ function. Some of these were conversations with fellow MPs, journalists and other MPs, but a large number were with members of the public. It has been suggested that the Internet and social media could herald a new relationship between elected representatives and the public, and there was certainly a willingness to interact and respond to people from a good number of MPs. However, this willingness varied from MP to MP and there are still over 200 who do not use Twitter at all. If there is a new relationship forming, it is still in its very early stages.

James Donald recently graduated from the University of Nottingham with a BA in Politics.

See also:
MPs and Twitter: who’s tweeting?
MPs and Twitter: which parties are tweeting?
MPs and Twitter: an infographic

MPs and Twitter: which parties are tweeting?

Image by Shawn Campbell

Image by Shawn Campbell

For my final year dissertation I chose to look at what use MPs’ are making of social media. Focussing on their use of Twitter, I set out to answer two questions; which MPs are tweeting and what are they using it for? Something that emerged when carrying out the research was the differences between MPs from the three main parties.

Party Yes No N
Conservative 54.8 45.2 305
Labour 69.1 30.9 256
Liberal Democrat 75.4 24.6 57
Others 65.6 34.4 32

Who tweets? By party (% of total MPs)

As of January this year, 54.8% of Conservative MPs were tweeting. This is significantly less than the 69.1% of Labour MPs and 75.4% of Liberal Democrats. The Conservatives certainly look to be lagging behind the two other parties, but this difference in numbers is largely down to the number of tweeting frontbenchers.

The majority of Labour and Liberal Democrat frontbenchers do tweet, with over 80% of each party’s frontbenchers on Twitter. This is in contrast to the Conservative party, with only half of its frontbenchers using Twitter as of January this year. If there is one party that is behind in using Twitter it is the Conservatives, with proportionately less of their MPs on it and significantly fewer frontbenchers. It seems to be viewed with suspicion amongst the party’s leadership, with David Cameron once infamously claiming ‘too many tweets make a twat’ and reported attempts to restrict their MPs’ use of it. On Labour’s side, with 85.7% of their frontbenchers on Twitter this suggests more of an effort to get their frontbench to make the most of Twitter.

If they are making this effort, it hasn’t filtered through to their backbenchers. Whilst there is a large difference between the number of Labour and Conservative frontbenchers who tweet, there is little difference between the backbenchers with 56.3% of Labour backbenchers and 59.8% of Conservative backbenchers tweeting. With fewer MPs, proportionately there are more tweeting Liberal Democrat backbenchers at 71.8%. The Liberal Democrats are the only one of the three parties with a high proportion of both front and backbenchers tweeting, meaning overall they have the highest proportion of MPs on Twitter. Only 13 of their MPs do not tweet. Given their position as the third party, this is not massively surprising. Twitter is perhaps seen by them as a means to promote their party, whereas they might struggle for coverage in the media compared to the other two, larger parties.

In the run up to the 2005 general election a number of MPs set up blogs, and in 2010 they signed up to Twitter. They realised the benefits of blogging and tweeting for their campaigns, but as things stand the Conservatives lag behind in terms of their presence on Twitter (particularly amongst its ministers, being the only party with its backbenchers more likely to tweet than its frontbenchers). It will be interesting to see whether they feel the need to change this as we head towards 2015, or whether they will remain behind the other two parties.

James Donald recently graduated from the University of Nottingham with a BA in Politics.

See also:
MPs and Twitter: who’s tweeting?
MPs and Twitter: what are MPs tweeting about?
MPs and Twitter: an infographic

MPs and Twitter: who’s tweeting?

Image by Shawn Campbell

Image by Shawn Campbell

For my final year dissertation I chose to look at what use MPs’ are making of social media. Focussing on their use of Twitter, I set out to answer two questions: which MPs are tweeting and what are they using it for? Here I will outline what I found when exploring which MPs are using Twitter.

Age Yes No N
Under 30 75 25 4
30-39 83.8 16.2 74
40-49 76.1 23.9 188
50-59 59.1 40.9 230
60-69 44.8 55.2 125
Over 70 27.6 72.4 29

Who tweets? By age (% of total MPs)

As of January this year, 408 MPs were on Twitter and 242 not. A clear disparity between younger and older MPs was found, with younger, more recently elected MPs far more likely to tweet than older ones who have been an MP for longer.  Over 80% of MPs under 40 tweet, compared to only 44.8% aged 60-69 and 27.6% over 70.

Intake Yes No N
1959-1979 25 75 24
1983 31 69 29
1987 37.9 62.1 29
1992 55.6 44.4 45
1997 52 48 102
2001 56.7 43.3 67
2005 71.1 28.9 114
2010 77.1 22.9 240

Who tweets? By intake (% of total MPs)

Those MPs elected at the 2010 general election were the most likely to tweet, with 77.1% of them using Twitter. The intake of every parliament since 1983 proportionately has more MPs using Twitter than the last, the only exception being slightly more of the 1992 intake using Twitter than the 1997 intake (55.6% compared to 52%). All of this suggests that in the future, as older MPs retire and new, younger ones are elected, the total number of MPs using Twitter is going to go up.

Majority Conservative Labour Liberal Democrats Others Overall
0% to 5% 72.5 88.9 93.3 80 81.4
5% to 10% 73.8 77.1 50 83.3 73.4
10% to 20% 51.9 59 72.2 70 57.2
20% to 30% 51.3 60.9 90 28.6 56.6
30% + 39.4 73.2 100 83.3 56.3

Who tweets? By majority (% of total MPs)

I also looked at this question from the angle of MPs’ majorities to see whether MPs defending a small majority are more likely to tweet than those with a safe seat. This appears to be the case. MPs with a majority of under 5% are the most likely to tweet, with 81.4% of them doing so. Those with a majority between 5 and 10% are the group with the next highest proportion tweeting on 73.4%, whilst those with majorities of +30% are the least likely to tweet. Fewer than 60% of MPs with such a majority tweet.

Whilst there is an overall correlation, the picture within the individual parties is more mixed. All the parties have a high proportion of MPs with majorities under 5% tweeting, but when it comes to the larger majorities, over 70% of Labour MPs with a majority of +30% tweet (well above the overall figure) whilst less than 40% of Conservatives do. A small majority does look to be an incentive to tweet across the board, but only within the Conservative party is an MP with a large majority significantly less likely to do so.

Party Backbenchers Frontbenchers Total Backbenchers Total Frontbenchers
Conservative 56.3 50 229 76
Labour 58.9 85.7 158 98
Liberal Democrats 71.8 83.3 39 18
Overall 58.7 71.4 426 192

Who tweets? Backbenchers v. frontbenchers (% of total MPs tweeting)

Finally, frontbenchers are more likely to tweet than backbenchers. Of the three main parties, 71.4% of MPs who sit on their party’s frontbench tweet compared to 58.7% of backbenchers. These numbers do not tell the whole story however, as there are noticeable differences between the parties, something that will be looked at more in the next post.

James Donald recently graduated from the University of Nottingham with a BA in Politics.

See also:
MPs and Twitter: which parties are tweeting?
MPs and Twitter: what are MPs tweeting about?
MPs and Twitter: an infographic

Making Sense of Chief Whips

On Friday, the Government Chief Whip, Patrick McLoughlin, spoke to students on our second year British Political Parties module.  The next visiting speaker on that module is a former Chief Whip, Jacqui Smith.  That’s two Chief Whips in a couple of weeks.  So what’s the collective noun for Chief Whips?

Believing in the wisdom of crowds, I asked twitter.  And answers included: a threat, an obeyance, a clusterf**k, a black book, a thumbscrew, a crack, a dungeon, a coven, an inquisition, a flail, a discipline, a lash, a sewer, a headlock, a fist, a golden shaft, an omerta, an Urquhart, a looming, a panic, an oppression (that one even came from a former whip), a McAvoy (a Westminster in-joke), a walnut (very clever), and a persuasion.

It’s fair to say that whips have got an image problem…

Professor Philip Cowley

How to be an MP

I recently spoke at the book launch for Paul Flynn’s latest book How to be an MP. It was, people think, the first book launch held in the Speaker’s House, and was introduced by the Speaker, John Bercow.  I think I was invited to speak because, a few months ago, when Paul Flynn was getting lots of stick for offending someone or other (and those who know him know that doesn’t help narrow the time frame down very much) I tweeted that people should leave him alone because he’d written what I described as ‘the single best thing ever written about being an MP, full of humour, insights, wisdom’.

That quote was about his earlier book Commons Knowledge, which came out in 1997, but with publisher’s typical chutzpah that quote has found its way onto the jacket of the revised and updated book.  But no complaints: if the new book is half as good as the old book, then it’ll be a cracker.  For those of us who have to teach parliament to undergraduates, an up-to-date Flynn publication is a Godsend.  There are lots of good books out there about Parliament, but many of them are – bluntly – a little dull (I may even have written some of the duller ones), and it’s useful to have something with a bit more punch to get students interested in the topic.

I dug out my old copy of Commons Knowledge to prepare for the launch and almost every page has some underlining or marginalia.  Every page is quotable.

For example:

Those who are slightly mad, eccentric or possessed by demons are magnetically attracted to MPs. The obsessive, the weirdos and devotees of religious cults ventilate their irrationality at great length and frequency to Members (p. 63).

All MPs know exactly what he means.

Or this, from p. 27, his advice for aspirant ministers:

Cultivate the virtues of dullness and safety. Be attuned to the nation’s lowest common denominator of conscience, idealism and cowardice. At all costs avoid any appearance of humour, originality or interest in your speeches.

Whatever, whoever, can he mean?

Or this, p.93:

The expectation is growing of the omnipotence of MPs as a point of help of last resort… A woman rang me from a hotel in Milan to say her husband had died ten minutes ago and asked what should she do next. I was paged in the Chamber by a man who complained that the dustmen had left his emptied bin in the middle of the drive. He had been forced to stop his car and move the bin to the side. I asked why he was ringing me. He said he had already run 10 Downing Street and they told him to contact me.

One point that I made during the speech was that what MPs do does matter.  The public do notice what goes on in the Commons.  In September last year there was wall-to-wall media coverage of the latest report by the Committee On Standards In Public Life showing the extent to which MPs expenses had damaged the standing of Parliament and MPs.  The next day, however, some of my colleagues at Nottingham reported some more up-to-date figures, which showed that the way Parliament had responded to the phone hacking scandal had led to a noticeable increase in trust in MPs.  The latter survey also revealed that hacking had damaged the reputation of journalists, both broadsheet and tabloid, which may explain why, with the honourable exception of Bloomberg, not a single national media outlet covered the second story.

How To Be An MP is dedicated by Paul to David Taylor, MP for North West Leicestershire until his death in late-2009. David was always incredibly helpful and kind to me in my work, – and I say that despite the fact that he caused me lots of problems.  Because when you’re studying the way MPs vote, the last thing you want is people who vote in both division lobbies at the same time. David Taylor wasn’t the first person to do this as a means of recording an abstention, but he raised the art of double voting to an art form.  Back in 1997, the Modernisation Committee said that it would be in favour of an Abstention option in the Commons, but nothing happened, and once he’d realised he could do it de facto, David was soon abstaining all over the place.  I once got into an argument with a Labour MP who told me that the act of voting in both lobbies was known as a Skinner Abstention.  That was rubbish, not least because Dennis Skinner has never abstained on anything in his life, ever.

Previous Speakers are on record as deprecating the act of double voting, but I’m hoping that the current reforming Speaker, in his infinite wisdom, will somehow get it on record that they’re a perfectly acceptable thing to do, and they should hereafter be known as Taylor Abstentions.

And there I was following the advice on p. 50 of Commons Knowledge, where it says:

Flatter the Speaker, subtly.

Philip Cowley

A scandal of two halves

As our last post indicated, the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2009 inflicted damage to popular perceptions of politicians. But what impact has the phone hacking scandal had?

Despite the furore it created within the political class and the turmoil it generated within the media, the public reaction to ‘hackgate’ has been largely left to speculation – until now.

In November 2010, YouGov conducted an online survey on behalf of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which probed public trust in various groups of professionals, covering the media, politicians, and senior police officers. The University of Nottingham repeated this survey over the weekend of the 15th July 2011, by which time the full implications of the phone hacking scandal had become apparent. By comparing the two surveys we think we can identify the impact of ‘hackgate’ on trust.

The results are as stark as they are important.


% Trusting in Nov 2010

% Trusting July 2011

Change (%)

Broadsheet Journalists




Tabloid Journalists




Senior Police Officers




MPs in General




Your Local MP




Government Ministers




Top Civil Servants




Trust in journalists – both broadsheet and tabloid – is down by around a quarter. This can most easily be observed for broadsheet journalists, which was gauged by asking about trust in “journalists in newspapers such as the Times, the Daily Telegraph and the Guardian”. The percentage of the public who expressed trust in them fell by 13 points: this, despite the fact that the scandal primarily focused on tabloid journalists and was actually broken by a broadsheet. The public, however, do not appear to have made this distinction. Trust in tabloid journalists (asked by referring to “journalist in newspapers such as the Sun, the Mirror or the Daily Star”) has similarly fallen by around a quarter, although as this is from a much – much – lower starting point the absolute change is relatively small.

Senior police officers have also not escaped a loss of trust. While the relative size of the change is fairly small, this may be only the beginning of a downward trend.

This is, however, a scandal of two halves. If trust in newspaper journalists and the police has fallen, there has been a remarkable resurgence in trust for politicians and senior civil servants. Trust in MPs in general saw a dramatic 7 point increase, representing a relative increase of well over a third. Such changes are replicated, although to a smaller degree, for respondents’ trust in their local MP, government ministers, and senior civil servants. Whatever the partisan effect of the scandal, the political class as a whole appears to have benefitted from it.

From these data it is obvious that the public has not only taken notice of the scandal, it has also reacted strongly in terms of who they now do – and do not – trust. In particular, it seems likely that the role of individual Parliamentarians in exposing phone hacking and the Parliamentary select committees anticipated scrutiny of Rupert Murdoch, his son James and former executive News International executive Rebekah Brooks (which occurred a few days after the second survey) probably played some part in improving perceptions of politicians.

When MPs do bad – as with expenses – public trust nose dives; but when they are seen to do good voters still give Parliamentarians some credit.

Whether these trends continue or are reversed will depend on the nature of any revelations to come: the phone hacking scandal is clearly not yet over. But it also depends on how the leading players react to these revelations. The big question is: can MPs continue to reverse what many once saw as an inevitable popular decline of trust in politics? The answer appears to be in their hands.

Data note: the sharp-eyed reader may have noted that the figures used for 2010 are not quite the same as those reported by the CSPL yesterday (although they are not that different).  They come instead from a companion survey carried out at the same time by YouGov, also for the CSPL, to test the differences between face-to-face and internet surveys.  Our 2011 survey was also by YouGov, and to make valid like-for-like comparisons we make here use of the YouGov survey from 2010.

Fieldwork periods: 15th Nov 2010 – 20th Nov 2010, n=2551, 15th July 2011 – 16th July 2011, n=2012. All changes discussed significant to at least p<0.02. Figures are based on unweighted data.

Jonathan Rose and Cees van der Eijk 

Trust in politics: down, down, deeper and down?

In the last couple of years there have been three major events in British politics: the MPs’ expenses scandal of 2009, the 2010 General Election and the phone hacking scandal of 2011. In this post we look at the impact of the first two; and in our next we assess the effect of the third.

A survey commissioned by Committee on Standards in Public Life the sheds some light on this question. Conducted in December 2010, the survey focused on how the public perceived the conduct of politicians, public officials and other professional groups, and on the degree of trust these groups engendered. It was published today.

Because the survey replicates many questions asked in 2004, 2006 and 2008, we can track the course of public opinion over a significant length of time. For obvious reasons, one might expect the expenses scandal to have had stark consequences for the repute of, and trust in, politicians. On the other hand, general elections serve to ‘cleanse’ the political system by throwing out the rascals, and so generate a temporary boost in public regard for politicians.

Even though the survey cannot disentangle these two countervailing effects, it does show their net impact. And the results make uncomfortable reading for the political class.

Amongst many other findings, the report shows that perceptions of the actual behaviour of MPs have become much more negative since 2008. This is made plain from the percentages subscribing to the notion that all or most MPs are:

  • ‘dedicated to doing a good job for the public’: 26 per cent in 2010 (-20 per cent from 2008);
  • ‘competent at their jobs’: 26 per cent (-10 per cent);
  • ‘telling the truth’: 20 per cent (-6 per cent);
  • ‘making sure that public money is spent wisely’: 18 per cent (-10 per cent);
  • ‘in touch with what the public thinks is important’: 15 per cent (-14 per cent).

Other questions reveal that:

  • 33 per cent of respondents rated ‘overall standards of conduct’ in public life as (very or quite) high, down from 41 per cent in 2008;
  • trust in one’s local MP has fallen from 48 per cent (in 2008) to 40 per cent.

Clearly, in December 2010 the fallout from the expenses scandal had not dissipated in spite of the General Election. The Coalition might have been described as marking a ‘new politics’ but so far as many in the public were concerned it was obviously not new enough.

Can MPs to redeem themselves in the public mind? Or have they been permanently tainted by the 2009 expenses scandal? We address those questions in our next post when we look at the impact of the more recent phone hacking scandal on trust.

Cees van der Eijk and Jonathan Rose

Of politicians and pogosticks

Yesterday evening, Radio 4’s Four Thought – which you can listen to here – featured a lecture about a teenager from Hull who back in 2003 had taken to writing to politicians to ask them if they had ever been on a pogo stick or space hopper.

As I explained in the lecture, ‘Jason Whiley’ never really existed – him and his letter having been dreamt up one night in the pub.  But the replies he got from politicians were all genuine: his (appalling written and frankly moronic) enquiry produced more than 80, including from 27 Cabinet Ministers, four Prime Ministers, three Chancellors of the Exchequer and two European Commissioners, many of whom also enclosed pictures of themselves. ‘Jason’ used the replies to create a website, called Statesman or Skatesman, which back in 2003 attracted widespread coverage, from the BBC to the Stuttgarter Zeitung to the Times Education Supplement. ‘Occasionally’, as the TES put it, ‘a pupil comes along who has just a bit more spark than average’.

Part of the reason I agreed to give the lecture, and to ‘out’ Jason, was to make a (small) apology to all those who replied – many of whom were busy enough responding to real enquiries from constituents without having to deal with fictitious ones from imaginary teenagers.

But I also wanted to explore quite why so many did reply. Part of the explanation is simply that MPs are more ready to do this kind of thing than they used to be.  In an era when we talk a lot about the political class being increasingly remote and detached, it’s unfashionable to claim it, but all the evidence is that MPs today are much more in touch with their constituents than they were 40 or 50 years ago.

There is the famous story of the MP who arrived at his constituency in 1945 to be asked by the top-hatted stationmaster if that would always be the date of his annual visit. There are no MPs today who take such a detached view of constituency work – and any who tried would not last very long.

MPs are now increasingly likely to live in the constituency, to come from the constituency, to have offices in their constituency and to spend more and more of their time working in or for the constituency.  A study by the Hansard Society into the behaviour of the 2005 Commons intake found that constituency work was on average taking up more than half of the time of an MP.  Their central or primary role — or at least the main draw on their time and energies — was no longer at Westminster but in the constituency.

In other words, I suspect that any imaginary Jason Whiley who’d tried a similar exercise in 1953 would have got a much less enthusiastic response than the one in 2003 – simply because MPs then were not so used to replying to letters.

The public should be pleased by this, because surveys of voters show that they rank constituency work as the number one priority for MPs – looking after their constituents is exactly what the public think MPs should be doing.

Yet there must now be a real concern that MPs are so focused on the parochial they have no time for the national, let alone the international, picture.  One MP who responded to the Hansard survey spent 97% of their time working on the constituency, which suggests that they were not a terribly effective MP in the remaining 3%.  There is a real danger that MPs spend so long sorting out Mrs Miggins’ pension problems that they don’t spend long enough scrutinizing the Pension Bill – with the result that millions of future Mrs Miggins’ will suffer.  The problem MPs face is that voters want, and expect this relationship with them; and any MP in a marginal seat who decided to make a virtue of prioritising Westminster over the constituency would soon find that the voters had different priorities.

But it is possible simultaneously to value the constituency link – the link between representative and represented – and still think that this has grown out of all proportion.  Many MPs enjoy their constituency work – they find it satisfying, and a good way of keeping in touch – but some will privately admit that they think it has now got out of hand.

In other words, perhaps it would have been better if more MPs had simply dumped Jason’s letter in the bin.

Philip Cowley

Wrong about whips

This Tuesday’s Independent contained what was for the most part a by-the-numbers article about parliamentary whipping; it managed to squeeze in references to ‘fear’, ‘submission’, ‘the little black book’, and ‘Francis Urquhart’ all in the first two paragraphs. But it was saved by the inclusion of Whip’s Top Trumps profiles.  They only covered four of the current whips, graded on empathy, competence, and ferocity, but there is clearly the potential for something wider.  I’d pay good money for a historic Whips Top Trumps set, in which I could match up Tommy McAvoy and David Margesson.

The core of the Independent’s piece was that, as well as being an especially rebellious bunch, many of the new MPs were also complaining about being kept late for votes, only then to see the government win with enormous majorities.  As the paper reported:

“The whips seem to have no sense at all of ‘threat management’,” said one disgruntled backbencher who, like a number of his colleagues, was not confident enough to be named.

He said: “We’re all being kept here – often late into the night – to vote and then we end up with a majority of over 200 because no one from the other side turns up. It’s a total waste of everyone’s time and not a good way to run Parliament.” Another MP said: “The whips’ office doesn’t appear to have any sense of career development for new MPs like me. All they seem to care about is us doing as we’re told. But many of us have lived in the modern world and won’t simply accept that things are done like this ‘because they always have been’.”

I get cited in the piece, described as a ‘political commentator’, a phrase which always brings to mind that Alan Watkins line about people wanting to be constitutional experts (‘how many O levels does that require?’).   And for some reason, the reference is to the whips wielding discipline through their ‘little black book’, even though almost everything I’ve ever written on the subject has tried to stress how this is the wrong way to understand the role of the whips.

But what really struck me is how similar all these complaints are to those I’ve heard before.  As I wrote in a book about the 1997 period: ‘the main criticism of the whips under Blair was neither of arm-twisting nor bullying but just of poor and ineffective time-management.  A number of backbenchers felt there was a ‘psychological desire’ on the part of the whips to have a majority of at least 100 in every vote.  As another put it: ‘They [the whips] are like First World War generals.  They don’t need to think; they just throw numbers at the problem’.

It’s easy to criticize whips for this, and suspect that they are just being bloody minded or thoughtless.  But it’s their job to get the business through; they need to have enough MPs present to cope with the possibility of an Opposition ambush; and they also need to get MPs to realize that delivering the government’s legislation is part of their job.  If you can’t secure discipline and attendance at the beginning of a Parliament, then what chance do you have when things get tough at the end, let alone during a second term?

Philip Cowley