The claim that whilst people don’t like politicians as a species they do like their own MP has now become a political truism. You hear it a lot from some MPs, for whom it has become a bit of a comfort blanket; battered by years of press and public hostility, they can reassure themselves that the animosity is nothing personal, that whilst other politicians may be disliked, they personally are OK. Like most truisms, though, it’s only partially true. For sure, there is a difference between how people view MPs in general and their own MP, but the difference is often exaggerated.
For example, Table 1 below shows the responses to two questions about satisfaction with politicians, which were asked by YouGov in July 2013 (N=1758). The figures on the left are from a question asking about satisfaction with MPs as a group (‘Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way MPs in general are doing their jobs?’), those on the right are from an identical question about ‘your local MP’. Respondents had five options, but for ease of presentation I’ve grouped those who said that they were Very Satisfied and Fairly Satisfied together; ditto for Fairly Dissatisfied and Very Dissatisfied.
Just 16% of respondents who had a view said that they were satisfied with MPs, compared to 58% who said they were dissatisfied (26% said they were neither satisfied nor dissatisfied). That’s a net score (those satisfied minus those dissatisfied) of -42. By contrast, the right-hand set of data shows the scores for satisfaction with ‘your own MP’, and this time the score is -6. That’s significantly better, but it’s worth noting that it is still negative. Even when it comes to their own MP, we are still talking about under a third of respondents who say that they are satisfied with what they do, and more were dissatisfied than satisfied.
You see something similar with the latest release from the British Election Study, with its massive sample of over 20,000 people (N=20878). They asked about trust (‘How much trust do you have in Members of Parliament in general?/ ‘the MP in your local constituency’), rather than satisfaction, and on a seven-point scale, rather than a five-point one, but the results are very similar. Again, for ease of presentation, I’ve grouped responses into three categories (Table 2). As with the 2013 data on satisfaction, you see better rankings for trust in local MPs (a net score of -4) than for MPs in general (-34), but even the former is (again) still negative.
(You might notice, in both tables 1 and 2 that the N for ‘your MP’ is lower than for MPs in general. That’s because a sizeable chunk of people feel confident about expressing an opinion on MPs, but don’t know enough to say anything about their own MP. In the question about satisfaction, just 3% gave a ‘Don’t Know’ response to the question about MPs, but 15% did so to the question about their MP. For the question about trust, the figures were 3% and 12% respectively).
There is a famous article – well, famous in academic circles anyway – by Dick Fenno called ‘Why We Hate Congress but Love Our Congressman’. Whatever it is that the British feel about their own MP, it is most definitely not love. A more accurate way of discussing this is not to say that respondents like their local MP more than MPs in general, but that they are on balance less hostile towards them.
The other thing is that whilst these general and local responses are not identical, they are not entirely independent either. For example, with the 2013 question about satisfaction 45% of people were more satisfied with their MP than they were with MPs in general – but almost as many (43%) had exactly the same level of satisfaction with their MP as they do MPs in general, and some 12% were actually more satisfied with MPs in general than with their MP. Even when respondents did give different responses to the two questions, the responses aren’t usually all that different. The 2013 question used a five-point scale, and 81% of respondents gave an answer that was either identical or at most a point different to both questions.
You see something very similar with this year’s BES, asking about trust. The figure below shows the relative trust respondents had in politicians (that is, the score for MPs in general minus the score for local MPs). Those with a positive score trust MPs in general more than they trust their local MP; those with a negative score trust their local MP more than MPs in general. There were more respondents with a negative score (45%) than a positive score (16%), but almost as many (40%) trust them both exactly the same. And again, the differences really are not all that great: using a seven-point scale this time, a full 70% gave an answer that was either identical or at most a point different to both questions.
So when we say that ‘people’ are more positive about their MP than MPs in general, we are only talking about a minority of people, albeit a minority sizeable enough group to shift aggregate scores. And there are actually very few people who ‘hate’ MPs but ‘love’ their MP. Given the way the issue is often discussed, you might expect some people to be very dissatisfied with MPs but very satisfied with their own MP. How many respondents gave such an answer? Out of the 2013 survey, just three out of a sample of over 1750 (that is, 0.2%). Or to really distrust MPs but really trust their MPs? Of the 2014 BES survey just 48 out of a sample of over 18,000 gave a score of 1 for MPs but 7 for their MP (that is, 0.3%). Identifying the causation here is difficult: do people who (dis)like their MP then go on to (dis)like other MPs more? Or is it that people who (dis)like MPs are more predisposed to (dis)like their MP? Either way, these are clearly not independent responses.
Drawing on two different questions, asked in two different surveys, and in different years, reveals an almost identical set of findings. The idea that we really rate our local MP whilst hating MPs in general is wide of the mark. Most people rate their local MP pretty much the same as they rate MPs in general, and a minority are a bit more positive about their local MP than they are about MPs in general. This isn’t half as snappy, but it’s much closer to the truth. And whatever else is going on, there’s not a lot of love. If they want love, politicians should get a spaniel.