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The Professor Will See You Now

Illustration: Tracy Worrall

4 min read

In an occasional series, Professor Philip Cowley offers a political science lesson for The House’s readers. Here: can individual MPs do much to buck wider electoral trends?

Faced with suboptimal polling, some Conservative MPs are said to be trying to dig in their constituencies – including by taking part in rebellions – to signal to their voters that they are different from the government. 

How likely is this to work? British elections remain largely party affairs, with the merits of the individual candidate being very much secondary, however much it appeals to the ego of some MPs to think otherwise. 

Yet there is some evidence that the MPs’ personal vote has been growing in recent years and estimates of the incumbency effect at the last election weigh in at around two percentage points for most Labour and Conservative MPs, and higher still for those fighting their first election as an incumbent. 

In a marginal seat two percentage points are not to be sniffed at. Working the parish pump hard therefore makes sense. 

But how much do we think MPs’ voting behaviour is going to matter in all of this? Here we can turn to two recently published bits of research, which reveal the short answer to be: not a lot. 

Any MP thinking that a bit of independence is going to save them is likely to be disappointed

On run-of-the-mill stuff, you might well not expect voters to notice how their MP voted or, even if they noticed, not to care very much. Most voters have better things to do with their lives than scrutinising what MPs get up to in the division lobbies. 

Yet the first of these two pieces of research looked at how MPs voted over Brexit – and that was about as good a test case as you could create. It was high profile, on a polarising issue, with deep divisions within the parliamentary parties, and plenty of cases where MPs were out of sync with their electorates. You would struggle to come up with a better test in a laboratory. 

Even here, though, the effects were extremely limited: just four MPs lost their seats in 2017 because of their position on Brexit. The authors also surveyed MPs and found that their own estimates of the electoral sanction were just as limited as the reality. Not only were MPs not accountable for their voting: they knew they weren’t. 

Ah, you might say, sure, voters won’t know about individual issues, but they will pick up on a more general impression of whether an MP is a loyalist or a free-spirit, willing to kick against the pricks. But, again, the answer seems to be no. Looking at every general election between 1997 and 2019, a second recently published piece of research (here I must declare an interest as one of the authors) found no impact at all either. That was true whether you looked at aggregate election results or using surveys of voters to find if the ones with rebellious MPs behaved differently. 

We are therefore left with a puzzle. There is plenty of evidence that MPs are increasingly willing to break ranks and defy their party managers. British voters say they prefer MPs who demonstrate independence and who are willing to deviate from the party line. Yet they then don’t reward them. 

This is a useful reminder that we always need to be careful about polls that claim to tell us what voters say they want, and in which people well might say one thing, only to then act differently. And it is a reminder that any MP thinking that a bit of independence in the division lobbies is going to save them is likely to be disappointed. 

Your further reading for this week: C Hanretty, J Mellon and P English, Members of Parliament are minimally accountable for their issue stances (and they know it), American Political Science Review (2021); P Cowley and R Umit, Legislator Dissent Does Not Affect Electoral Outcomes, British Journal of Political Science (2022).

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

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