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Why voters love local MPs Carpetbaggers are viewed with suspicion

Local MPs for local people (The League of Gentlemen)

Local MPs for local people (The League of Gentlemen)


June 13, 2024   5 mins

You may not have heard of Ed McGuinness. The Conservative candidate for Surrey Heath this weekend posted a picture on social media of him holding a set of keys outside a front door. “Surrey Heath residents,” he said, “expect their MP to be a part of their community.” “Well as of today I am now a resident of St Paul’s ward!” It did not take long for someone to point out that the property in question was an Airbnb and so did not necessarily demonstrate the deep commitment to the constituency that McGuinness was anxious to prove.

On one level, this was just a low-rent campaigning story. Were it not for social media, it may not have been much noted outside of Surrey and perhaps not even noticed that much within Surrey. Yet it illustrates a broader point about British elections in recent years: the desperate desire of politicians to prove to their constituency how “local” they are.

Aside from the mockery of Mr McGuiness’s keys, over the past week I’ve seen a candidate attacked for not holding his birthday party within the boundaries of the constituency and another who tried to demonstrate his local roots by noting that it was where he had lost his virginity. Ok, I made the last one up, but the first is genuine and I do know of one Labour MP who talks about how he was conceived in his constituency, so it can only be a matter of time. Perhaps we shouldn’t give them ideas.

It’s been very clear from the selection contests this election that having some form of link to the constituency has been a key factor in determining who gets chosen to be a candidate, especially in many of the more winnable seats. The excellent Tomorrow’s MPs account on X, run by Michael Crick, found that around two-thirds of Conservative candidates are, or have been, local councillors. It’s all getting a bit too League of Gentlemen: local MPs for local people.

“It’s all getting a bit too League of Gentlemen: local MPs for local people.”

Just because you’ve lived in a constituency for a long time or have served as a local councillor doesn’t mean you have the required skills to be a decent parliamentarian. William Hague, for example, has complained that instead of would-be statesmen we will get glorified local councillors. “The House of Commons is being turned into Birmingham City Council on a bigger scale, and we all know what just happened to that.” 

But there is a reason candidates bang on about it so much. Because when you ask voters, being local comes very high up their list of what they want from an MP. It’s a collective action problem: we might well want a parliament bursting with talent and a decent number of statesmen, but that is not what voters want in their local MP. 

It is all very well pointing out that Churchill, for example, did not have exactly deep roots in the constituencies he represented in Oldham, Manchester, Dundee or Epping. Something similar, mutatis mutandis, could be said of Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair. But people don’t especially want to be represented by a Churchill, Thatcher or Blair. They want to be represented by someone they see as, well, representative.

For example, just before the 2010 election, I ran a survey in which I asked people about the characteristics they wanted from their own MPs. Being local was one of the most popular responses, coming only very narrowly behind having MPs who shared the same political viewpoint. Indeed, more than a third of respondents prioritised having a local candidate over one who represented their views, and another 21% ranked them as of equal importance. 

It’s worth pausing and thinking about that last sentence for a minute. We often think about elections in terms of ideas and policies. And yet fewer than half the respondents to the survey said that sharing these with their MP was more important than having someone who came from the same area. Lest you think that this survey is now old hat, pretty much the same thing comes through in other studies. 

Of course, there are lots of different definitions of being “local”. Is it birthplace? Residence? (And if so, for how long?) And one interesting feature of “localism” is that you can become local — or, as with Mr McGuinness’s keys, at least appear to be. He is certainly not the first candidate to rent a flat in the constituency. It almost certainly means different things to different people. And it probably also varies between types of voter. While we don’t know a lot about how voters conceive of localism, we do know enough to know that overall they do care about it in their MPs.

For all that we can be sniffy about this, you can see why it might matter to them. The local candidate might be thought to be more invested in the area; an out-of-towner can just “up and off” if it all goes south. They might think that a local MP will work harder or understand them more. Perhaps a local politician will share their own values, in a way the carpetbagger does not. I am dubious that any of this is true, but it is surely not too difficult to understand the perception. 

For all that each election creates arguments about parachuted candidates — just as this one did — the trend is actually in the opposite direction. Between 2010 and 2019, there was an increase in every election in the number of MPs who sat for constituencies in the region in which they were born. That applied to more than half of the House of Commons that just ended. Labour MPs have been more local than Conservatives, but the increase is true across the board. 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. And while it is always unwise, before a single vote has been counted, to make too many predictions about the composition of the next House of Commons, there seems little doubt that, after 4 July, the 650 MPs sitting on the green benches will have deeper local roots than the parliament they replaced.

What’s driving this? In part it is the same pressures that have led MPs to spend more and more of their time working the parish pump much harder than they did 40 years ago. MPs are not only more likely to come from the constituency, they are more likely to spend time working for it. In part, it’s because the electorate is becoming more volatile. If voters behaved with bovine obedience, then it wouldn’t matter too much who the candidate is. To a certain extent this is still true, in that candidate effects are still pretty secondary in British elections compared with the effect of the party, but marginal effects can matter in marginal seats. It’s also obvious that the tendency to play the local card heavily is strongest at by-elections when there’s so much more focus on individual candidates and the area. 

I think it is also in part a response to the rise of identity politics, the idea that who you are is as important — sometimes more — than what you believe in. Some readers will deprecate this trend but it is a difficult one to ignore in contemporary politics. All candidates seeking election or selection will deploy whatever resources they have and if you can claim, however tenuously, to be local it would be difficult to understand why you wouldn’t stress it. When the Conservatives tried to diversify candidate selection under David Cameron, they allowed parties to consider local candidates “in exceptional circumstances” alongside the sex-balanced priority list. There were rather more “exceptional” local men than had been expected. Nearly half of the initial selections turned out to be local — and they were nearly all (86%) men. But that should not have been surprising. Male candidates are more likely to play the local card, simply because in a competition about presence it may be the only card some of them can play. 

And being local isn’t just one card to play among others. With the benefit that almost all of the target audience will relate to it, in a way that most other characteristics will not, it really can be an ace.


Philip Cowley is professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. His books include volumes on each of the last three elections.

philipjcowley

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Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
1 month ago

“If voters behaved with bovine obedience, then it wouldn’t matter too much who the candidate is”. Demanding and voting for a national party with an ideologically coherent policy platform is not bovine. Sending local busybodies to the national parliament to fixate on matters which would be better left to the district council is bovine. It will and has lead to a decline in the quality of national governance. And if MPs are all drawn from their own local region, then Conservatives from Scotland and the north, and Labour supporters from the south, have little chance of being selected, further reducing the already extremely shallow talent pool from which legislators are drawn.

Saul D
Saul D
1 month ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

MPs are sent to Parliament to ensure the local area has a say in the writing of laws that might affect it. The MP is not someone governing a local area, but is there to ensure an area is heard within the national debate. Examples would be rural communities with farm interests, or mining, or fishing communities ensuring laws and subsidies do not just benefit metropolitan areas.
The counter-point of the ‘professional’ politician who is supposed to be a great legislator overlooks the need for the law to consider a wide variety of circumstances and edge cases. It is not ‘theory’ for great intellectuals, but a practical task of balancing a broad set of needs. And first you need to know what those broad set of needs and views are, and then shake them up and, then, come to a compromise ‘all things considered’.
In systems which embed the party as the unit of representation, rather than geography, (for instance through PR lists) what you discover is that the party barons – the hidden high-ups – pick and choose who goes where on the list. They remove counterviews and ensure dogmatic purity, instead of bringing a broad set of practical ideas to bear. In geographic-based systems you get rebels, and rebel constituencies with a much greater sense of ‘muddle along’. It lacks the clean grandiose sweeps of the political theoreticians, but that’s good, because those grand theories might look great superficially, but fail in detail. It’s precisely the detail that a geographic-based system brings with its cross-section of experiences and needs.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
1 month ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

Superior national governance is an admirable thing. When exactly are we going to get there.
Still and all, when we are on the way to the garden of eden, it doesn’t help you that much if the place you actually live is unlivable. The person representing you needs to know that.
Heres an example. My grandparents had a house in a blue collar section of Regina Saskatchewan, which they had owned since the 1910’s. Some time around the mid seventy’s the government decided that it was too expensive to provide medical and other government services to Indigenous communities, which are scattered around Saskatchewan, so they decided to buy up houses in Regina to facilitate the provision of these services.
What were the consequences to these government actions?
The price of housing in the area collapsed going from ~$45k to $15k. Also, living there was impossible. Every three months they would be “‘home invaded”. TV’s and VCR’s mostly. You couldn’t have them in the house. Those are the trivial elements. Having your back door chopped down with an axe early Saturday morning is hard to ignore. Most dangerous area in North America for a while was also a detriment to the quality of life.
And there are a few more episodes I have personal experince of even though I was there maybe a week a year. The point is that government tried to solve a problem. Indigenous communities deserve government services. But government doesn’t really want the consequences in their back yards. Their neighborhoods are still flourishing.
Which is why they need to live where the rubber hits the road.
1151 Cameron Street if you are interested. Google maps has a very nice picture of it. It looks like things are a lot better.

David McKee
David McKee
1 month ago

Judging from the dates, this could be a consequence of the expenses scandal. Do selection committees and voters think a local boy/girl is more honest? It’s a thought.

It might also be a reaction to Blair’s habit of parachuting cronies into safe seats – Mandelson in Hartlepool for example.

Another possibility is that we tend to see our MPs as glorified citizens advice bureaux, so we want someone who knows his way round the locality. MPs’ postbags get heavier and heavier. It’s not a positive development. MPs are meant to be scrutinising legislation and holding the government to account, not sorting out wayward disability claims.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
1 month ago
Reply to  David McKee

“we tend to see our MPs as glorified citizens advice bureaux”

this is a huge point of contention for my jurisdiction. The local politicians feel they dont have to represent the whole of the electorate as long as they are a great community activist for their narrative of choice and act as an expensive social worker.

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Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
1 month ago
Reply to  David McKee

True but the days of MPs such as Murdo Macdonald are long gone. He was a Colonel in the RE under Allenby’s in WW1 in Egypt/Palestine.
Murdoch Macdonald – Wikipedia

Right-Wing Hippie
Right-Wing Hippie
1 month ago

Perhaps if the electorate had more faith that the feckless globalized elite had their best interests at heart, they’d be less inclined to demand their representatives be “local”.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
1 month ago

Its a no brainer as far as I can tell. At a minimum, they need to live where they represent.

2 plus 2 equals 4
2 plus 2 equals 4
1 month ago

I forget where I heard this story, but it goes that a Labour candidate in the 1945 election defeated a longstanding Conservative MP.

A few days after the election he arrived at the constituency by train and was greeted by the station-master who politely asked him whether he intended to make his annual constituency visit on the same day every year, as had been the custom of his predecessor.

I’m sure there are more than a few MPs who secretly yearn for those days when the job was a bit less like a glorified Citizens Advice Bureaux.

JOHN KANEFSKY
JOHN KANEFSKY
1 month ago

IIRC Palmerston only ever visited his constituency of Tiverton on polling day.

Point of Information
Point of Information
1 month ago

The British parliamentary system is based on local representation – has been for six centuries before universal franchise. Not only were regional lords and barons represented in parliament, but Knights of the Shire and Burgesses as towns and cities grew.

The whole two party/party political system might be disolved tomorrow and the UK could still have a functioning government (elected MPs would have to propose a leader who would then select ministers to form a government).

While it doesn’t matter where an MP comes from prior, once in parliament an MP is first and foremost a representative of his or her geographically defined constituency, not of a political party – parties are informal non-statutory arrangements. This is why MPs are expected to live in their constituency and not elsewhere (having family living nearby cements that attachment). In the worst case, in the event of civil war or secession of part of the UK, that constituency would not be left without representation.

So by all means get a talented Tory Scot to stand in Hampshire, but he or she must be willing to stay (to “stand”) there, with family, come what may, while representing those constituents.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
1 month ago

That is not what an MP is or should be. Edmund Burke described it better: “Parliament is not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates; but parliament is a deliberative assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole; where, not local purposes, not local prejudices, ought to guide, but the general good, resulting from the general reason of the whole. You choose a member indeed; but when you have chosen him, he is not member of Bristol, but he is a member of parliament.”

Point of Information
Point of Information
1 month ago
Reply to  Stephen Walsh

He is the member “for Bristol”. Ref. Hansard.

Stephen Walsh
Stephen Walsh
1 month ago

Oh well, you know best.

Liam F
Liam F
1 month ago

he’s the MP for Bristol, but his primary responsibility is to act in the interest of Great Britain, his secondary responsibility is to act in the interest of Bristol.

Alan Bright
Alan Bright
1 month ago
Reply to  Liam F

How about “He is to represent Bristol in acting for the interest of the UK”?

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
1 month ago
Reply to  Liam F

An MP should do both. World events impact on a constituency. It is the inability of politicians, civil servants, academics, teachers and union leaders to understand how the World has changed since 1919 is reason why we have declined. The inability to realise how the German Industrial Miracle of 1948 to 1963 and Japan 1945 to 1975 would impact on British industries are the main reasons why they collapsed.

Tony Price
Tony Price
1 month ago

Where you have the FPTP system exclusively for discrete local areas then inevitably the voters are assuming that ‘their’ MP is representing them and needs to have a decent connection with their constituency. Perhaps that could be helped by having a mixture of local and regional MPs, or even making the House of Lords more relevant, which might be possible if it wasn’t such an embarrassment of cronyism.

The system is a bit like the constitution of the USA, very relevant when initiated but sadly not terribly appropriate to the modern world.

Howard Royse
Howard Royse
1 month ago

It’s pretty clear that we cannot find 650 people with sufficient skills and moral compass to be politicians. The idea of the constituency MP needs to be consigned to history. Paying about 100 people the same amount gives the country more chance of attracting candidates that are actually good at something and have achieved something. Isabel Hardman’s book “Why we get the wrong politicians” sets out the difficulty of finding time and funds for campaigning – so why not cut out the campaigning? Just publish candidates’ CVs, split the country into (say) ten areas with potential ten winners each.

David McKee
David McKee
1 month ago
Reply to  Howard Royse

D’you know, that sounds very like Britain’s contribution to the European Parliament?

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
1 month ago
Reply to  Howard Royse

There is saying in boxing ” Train hard, fight easy”. Ever since we started the Industrial Revolution, those countries who have been most innovative in using resources have been economically dominant. From the devlopment of the heavy chemicals industry in Germany in the 1850s the ability to apply basic maths, physics and chemistry to industrial production in an innovative and flexible manner has been vital. Since the 1870s British people of all classes have rested on their laurels and failed to undertake the prolonged hardwork needed to learn and apply the basic maths, physics and chemistry needed for industrial development. This inability to perceive the technological and industrial development of other countries by politicians, civil servants, academics, teachers and trade union leaders and many business owners is the reason why we have fallen behind.
In areas where people realise the hard training required to remain at the forefron,t Britain is World class namely, Commando/Airborne Special Forces, pure science, theatre, technical aspects of film production, vaccine and biotechnology, jet engines, Grand Prix and top cars, Savile Row, Imperial, Kings, LSE, UCL, Oxford and Cambridge universities , satellite manufacturing, The City, international consulting engineering, Olympic Sports, cuisine – top chefs, niche engineering, car production, etc.
While the British people believe we can be world class with no prolonged hard work, innovation and risk and vote for MPs who tell us we can achieve this goal, we will have problems.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
1 month ago

The option to a local candidate is normally a carpet-bagger promoted by central office for services rendered in the corridors of Westminster.

John Tyler
John Tyler
1 month ago

I suspect parliament and government would work better if MPs were ineligible if they: have never served as a local councillor; have never been employed by or for a politician ; have paid PAYE for at least 15 years; and are over the age of 45. That’s the gist, though details would need careful working out to close loopholes.

Bret Larson
Bret Larson
1 month ago
Reply to  John Tyler

Lets just get rid of half of them and see how they do.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
1 month ago

Between 1295 and 1660s, the MP came from and represented the constituency; there were no political parties. Up to the mid 18th century MPs took more heed of local opinion than party opinion. Strong party loyalty dates from mid 19th century nd especially post 1945.
Where an MP earns more from politics than other sources, loyalty to the Party will be very strong.
Where the MP owns land or a business, they can afford to go against the Party.