Are you local?

Britain’s MPs are more local than you think, finds new Demos research by Ralph Scott.

What do you think of politicians? If you’re an ordinary member of the public, you no doubt think that they’re only in it for themselves, they don’t understand ordinary people’s lives, and perhaps most crushingly, they’re all the same.

It’s difficult to blame the public for this. A series of scandals – implicating much of the political and media class – have further reduced institutional trust in all but the army and the Monarchy, while a narrower recruitment pool from elite universities and the parties’ ideological convergence makes it difficult to tell the difference between politicians except on very close inspection.

Some people are reacting by not voting and simply dropping out of mainstream politics altogether, as recommended by Russell Brand and investigated by Fran O’Leary in Issue 1 of Demos Quarterly. But others are finding their concerns reflected in a rise of outsider, populist political movements. In the US this found its expression in the Tea Party movement. In Europe, Demos research has shone a light on movements as diverse as Jobbik in Hungary and Beppe Grillo’s Movimento Cinque Stelle in Italy, who all draw on this anti-establishment appeal.

In Britain the big story has been the rise of UKIP. Polling by YouGov for the Times has found UKIP supporters are more likely than the average voter (73 per cent v 55 per cent) to think that never having had a ‘real job’ outside journalism or professional politics makes you unsuitable to be a politician. And as George Eaton has pointed out, also interesting is the discovery that 500,000 Lib Dem voters in 2010 have switched to UKIP – a bizarre twist if considered in terms of policy but which can be explained if we remember Nick Clegg’s own anti-Westminster stance in 2010 and the resultant popularity boost.

So if UKIP are the symptom, and political disaffection is the disease, how do we go about finding a cure? Or, to put the question another way, how do we close the gap between the political class and the ordinary voter?

Perhaps we could start by asking the public. Philip Cowley of the University of Nottingham did just that, putting together a wide-ranging survey to get to the bottom of what they want in their representatives.

Plenty of those asked wanted more female and more working class MPs – 50 per cent and 58 per cent net in favour respectively. There was also support for more young MPs, more BME MPs and more MPs with disabilities. However, the most striking finding was that, a huge majority (80 per cent) said they would like more MPs who came from the area they represent – ‘local’ candidates.

This concern over the representativeness of the political class is not new. Since 1997, all parties have made small steps towards addressing the under-representation of women and BME groups through mechanisms like Labour’s All-women shortlists and the Conservative so-called ‘A-list’. And there is growing concern about the social class and working background of MPs, with the progressive conservative blog Platform 10 publishing a study showing a decline from 16 per cent to 4 per cent of MPs from a manual labour background between 1979 and 2010.

Yet ‘localness’ of political representatives is not a characteristic that has received any real research or campaign attention, and certainly not one for which the House of Commons library holds data. So to get a better sense of whether people were getting the local MPs they desired, Demos has compiled data on the ‘localness’ of MPs. We developed a three-part definition of ‘local’, by which an MP is local if either:

1. They were born within 20km of their current constituency’s boundaries.

2. They went to school (primary or secondary) within 20km of their current constituency’s boundaries.

3. They have lived within 20km of their current constituency’s boundaries for five years prior to seeking election.

If an MP satisfied any one of these they qualified as ‘local’. These parameters are common-sensical while being relatively generous.

We then trawled through all publicly available autobiographical data – including DODS, Wikipedia and MPs’ own websites – to discern the localness of each MP in the current Parliament. In compiling these figures we have inevitably exercised judgment, but we have very often given MPs the benefit of the doubt in terms of ‘localness’ – if anything we have overestimated the number of local MPs, not least because to maintain consistency we applied the 20km limit in cities too.

There were also a number of MPs for whom it was impossible to discern whether or not they were local – the biographical information for them was simply too incomplete, usually on the five year criterion. For this reason, 52 MPs were excluded from the sample.

Overall, we found that 63 per cent of the three main parties’ MPs are local: perhaps not as many as the public would like, but still a pretty strong showing. But when you break this down, and look at the difference between parties, it reveals that 73 per cent of Labour MPs are local, while only 51 per cent of Conservative MPs are. The Lib Dems are the most local of the three, with 82 per cent of their sitting MPs meeting one of our parameters.

Figure 1: How local are the political parties?

Looking at this over time, it tells a story of convergence between the two main parties, with the Conservatives becoming rapidly more local. While only 30 per cent of the Conservatives’ 1997 intake are local, 65 per cent of the 2010 intake are. That compares with Labour’s 69 per cent in 1997 and 75 per cent in 2010.

So MPs are becoming ‘more local’, but the public are particularly concerned about ensuring this remains the case. What implications might this have, however, in fulfilling other public concerns about the representativeness of their MPs: does having more local MPs mean fewer women or MPs from BME groups?

This question arose in Blaenau Gwent in 2005, when Peter Law, a Labour Assembly member and long-standing supporter of the retiring MP, left the party in protest at the decision to select using an all-women shortlist. He stood as an independent candidate and won with a majority of almost 10,000, which was in part interpreted as a protest against the centralising aspect of all-women shortlisting.

To investigate whether efforts to improve the gender and ethnic representation of Parliament crowd out local candidates, we analysed the Labour party’s all-women shortlists and the Conservatives’ 2010 A-List.

The Labour party has, not without controversy, used all-women shortlists since 1997 as a means of affirmative action to ensure that the representation of women in the Commons gets closer to parity. Of those MPs currently sitting, 54 were selected through an all-women shortlist, and 67 per cent of these are local – not a bad result. However, it is lower than the average for the party as a whole (73 per cent), and interestingly, lower than those female Labour MPs selected through other means, which stands at 77 per cent.

Figure 2: the impact of all women shortlists on localness

This small dip in ‘localness’ may be considered a price worth paying for a more gender-representative Commons. The system of AWS certainly fares better than the Conservatives’ A-List, which was a list of preferred candidates drawn up by Conservative Central Office, with the intention to make the 2010 Conservative intake more representative of society as a whole. 37 members of the A-list became MPs in 2010, of which only 45 per cent were local. Almost half of the elected A-list were women, radically increasing the number of female Conservative MPs – however, only 40 per cent of these were local.

There is much more that can be done with this dataset, and we at Demos plan to investigate these further questions over the coming months. However, these preliminary results show that, by our definition, the political class is perhaps more local than most people think. However, unlike some other identities, ‘localness’ is more porous and more easily acquired – and therefore equally liable to being questioned and revoked.

Most importantly, it is not identified as a form of representativeness in the same way gender or ethnic background is – and therefore is not strategically encouraged through selection. It is likely the increase in ‘localness’ we have seen in the last decade is a phenomenon driven from the bottom-up, with local electorates favouring local candidates and councillors. But as the parties strive to improve the numbers of women and ethnic minority MPs, might this trend stall, or even reverse?

When it comes to representativeness, it seems the electorate cannot have their cake and eat it: if we want the Commons to do a better job of representing different groups, that might mean fewer ‘local’ candidates, if only because the parties don’t currently offer both.

But is this even the right dilemma? It depends on what is meant by local. Reflecting on the widespread political disaffection and UKIP’s consequent electoral appeal, it’s possible the public’s support for ‘local’ is in fact a proxy for something else: someone who understands me, someone who has lived a life resembling mine, someone who understands my concerns. So perhaps the question is more one of social, rather than geographical, distance.