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Keeping it local: are home-grown MPs best?

4 min read

As recent by-elections have shown, constituency parties – and voters – prize a local candidate. Professor Philip Cowley examines whether a home-grown MP is always best

When the Liberal Democrats announced their candidate for the Tiverton and Honiton by-election, they described him as “a local champion”. The press release noted where he lived, where he grew up, and where in the constituency he volunteered; out of its 25 sentences, 17 made some reference to his local roots. 

It reminded me of the prediction by James Kirkup of the Social Market Foundation a few years ago of a post-apocalyptic Britain “in which all that will remain of life on earth will be cockroaches and Lib Dem activists handing out Focus leaflets attacking the cockroaches for not being local”. 

But it’s not just the Lib Dems who are at it. The Conservative and Labour candidates in Wakefield also played localness Top Trumps. 

There isn’t any evidence that MPs who have local roots are better than the ones that do not

It’s easy to criticise this sort of stuff. There isn’t any evidence that MPs who have local roots are better than the ones that do not, and an obsession with local candidates would have altered British politics somewhat. Winston Churchill did not have exactly deep roots in the constituencies he represented in Oldham, Manchester, Dundee or Epping. Ditto Margaret Thatcher and her seat of Finchley. 

Yet politicians are acutely aware of how much voters care about this; any candidate plays up even the vaguest local connections. My all-time favourite is the Labour MP who tells people where in the constituency he was conceived. 

Of all the subjects I’ve worked on, this is the one where there is the biggest gap between how practitioners and academics view things. Raise the importance of local roots with academics and they often shrug; politicians look at me as if I am making a statement of the blindingly obvious.

Survey after survey finds that being local really matters to voters. One British study found it trumped all the demographic characteristics offered. Another study found that the distance between a voter’s home and a candidate’s home had an impact on their electoral performance.

Plus, for all that each election produces rows about parachuted candidates, the trend is actually in the opposite direction. A recent study (published, for those who are interested in further reading, in The Journal of Legislative Studies) finds that MPs are in fact becoming more local. Between 2010 and 2019, there was an election-on-election increase in the number who sat for constituencies in the United Kingdom standard region in which they were born. This now applies to more than half of the House of Commons. Labour MPs are more local than Conservatives, but the increase is true across the board. 

In some parts of the UK, being local is clearly very important. In Scotland and Northern Ireland, it is more than 90 per cent of MPs. In Wales, it is 75 per cent. In turn, MPs in the North of England (where the percentage varies from 56 per cent to 65 per cent) are more local than those from the South or the Midlands (all under 50 per cent), down to a mere 21 per cent in the East of England.
There are some obvious issues with using region (not least that they are big), as well as place of birth (what if they grow up elsewhere?). But there are also some advantages, and anyway what matters more is the change over time. At every election since 2010, those entering the Commons have been more local than those exiting – and those coming in as a result of taking a seat have been more local than those who inherited a seat from the same party.  

The result is that the newer MPs are noticeably more local than the more established ones. So unless there is a massive change in the type of people selected in coming elections, we should expect to see this trend continue, and the Commons become more local still. 

Philip Cowley is professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London

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