Representation in Britain: Learning about parliamentary candidates and their experiences

Photo.001On 18 June, the Constitution Unit and the Hansard Society co-hosted an event in parliament marking the launch of Representation in Britain, a four-year ESRC funded study of parliamentary candidates standing in the 2015 and 2017 general elections by the Representative Audit of Britain (RAB) team. Lotte Hargrave offers a summary of what was said. 

The event shared research and insights into key questions around selection, campaigning, and representation in Britain: who are our parliamentary candidates; what motivates them to stand; how much does it cost to run; and are candidates representative of the constituents they serve? The event was chaired by Dr Jennifer Hudson, with presentations from Professor Rosie Campbell, Dr Sofia Collignon Delmar, Dr Stefanie Reher, Dr Javier Sajuria, Professor Maria Sobolewska, and Lord Hayward, the last of whom served on the Political Polling and Digital Media Committee. In this blog, we summarise key insights from RAB research on a range of topics.

Professor Rosie Campbell,  Professor of Politics at Birkbeck, University of London

Professor Campbell began by introducing the motivation for the study, citing the need for a reliable source of data on the profiles, motivations, and opinions of parliamentary candidates. The RAB began as a study of candidates standing in the 2015 general election, however following Theresa May’s decision to instigate a snap election, the team also surveyed candidates standing in 2017. Campbell noted the survey’s response rates – 57% in 2015 and 51% in 2017 – figures comparable with, and in some cases higher than, previous candidate studies. Alongside the survey, in 2015, 44 qualitative interviews were carried out that proved invaluable for reinforcing the robust nature of the quantitative data. Campbell highlighted that the purpose of the Audit was not to offer policy recommendations to parties or parliament, but to provide an independent and reliable source of data on the attitudes and experiences of UK parliamentary hopefuls.

Speaking about the selection processes in 2015 compared to 2017, the elections were very different beasts. The 2017 snap election resulted in a more centralised process. For example, Campbell cited that in 2015 63% of respondents from Labour stated there had been a postal or online vote of party members, compared to just 2% in 2017. Similarly, in 2015 96% of Labour respondents reported a meeting of members was held to determine selections, compared to just 14% in 2017. Another impact of the snap election was that fewer candidates of all parties, excluding the SNP, reported having incurred any selection expenses. On average, across parties, in 2015 65% of respondents reported having incurred expenses, compared to just 25% in 2017.

Turning to campaigning, Campbell noted that in 2017 there had been an increase in candidates spending a significant amount of time campaigning on social media sites. In 2015, on average across parties 3.8% of respondents reported spending 20 or more hours a week campaigning on social media, compared to 19.1% in 2017. However, Campbell emphasised that a rise in time spent campaigning was also found in traditional activities, such as leafleting, or door-to-door canvassing. Therefore, the snap election witnessed candidates dedicating more time to campaigning across all activities; this was true in both safe and marginal seats.

Dr Sofia Collignon Delmar, Lecturer in Political Communication at Royal Holloway, University of London. 

Dr Collignon Delmar presented on research gathered on 2017 candidates in relation to harassment and intimidation. She began by sharing a shocking quote from Sheryll Murray, MP for South East Cornwall, on her experiences of harassment:

Over the past month I’ve had swastikas carved into posters, social media posts like ‘burn the witch’…, and someone even urinated on my office door. Hardly kinder, gentler politics’.

Collignon Delmar’s presentation answered four questions: how often and how widespread harassment is, which emotional responses it triggers in candidates, what the most frequent forms of harassment are, and what can be done about harassment.

Turning to the first question, Collignon Delmar reported that 32% of candidates and 68% of MPs reported having experienced some kind of harassment. Speaking about the differences between male and female candidates, women were more likely to have received abuse (38%) than male candidates (30%). Moreover, harassment triggered an emotional response in candidates, and again there were differences between gender: women felt more fear and annoyance as a result of harassment than men. Collignon Delmar spoke about the kinds of harassment candidates had received. The most frequent form was via social media (74%), but thankfully, both physically abuse and sexual harassment occurred rarely, 8% and 3% respectively. Again there was a gender difference here, female candidates were more likely to report physical abuse or sexual harassment than male candidates.

Finally, Collignon Delmar spoke about what candidates believed could be done to lessen this kind of behaviour, emphasising it was felt actions needed to be taken in combination, and that no single measure would suffice. Some of the most commonly mentioned actions cited included allowing candidates to access training on responding to threats, parties fostering healthier environments, and social media companies doing more to identify and remove abusive comments.

Dr Stefanie Reher, Lecturer in Political Science at the University of Strathclyde

Dr Reher presented unique insights into the numbers of disabled candidates standing in the 2015 election, before examining the extent to which disabled candidates represented disabled citizens by mapping positions on key policy issues. Reher began by citing that 1 in 5 people in Britain live with some kind of disability. It is commonly believed the proportion of MPs with disabilities is significantly lower than this, however official data is limited. In order to investigate the numbers and orientations of disabled candidates, respondents were asked to say whether they considered themselves to have a disability. Reher reported the figures for self-declared disabled candidates across parties in 2015, which revealed significant variation, from 18% of UKIP candidates to 0% of Conservative candidates. When estimating how these responses might scale up to MPs, Reher cited this would amount to 3.8%, a higher figure than is commonly expected. However, Reher cautioned these figures were estimations only, with relatively high margins of error.

When examining whether disabled candidates represent disabled citizens, Reher examined political ideology, perceptions towards cuts to public spending, cuts to NHS spending, and reducing income differences. Ideologically, disabled citizens were more left-wing than non-disabled citizens, however there is no difference between citizens and candidates. Examining attitudes towards public spending cuts, both disabled citizens and candidates are more likely to be against cuts. Similarly, both disabled citizens and candidates believe cuts to NHS spending have gone too far. Finally, both disabled citizens and candidates are more likely to support measures to reduce income differences, however the difference between disabled and non-disabled candidates were marginal.  

Overall Reher concluded disabled people are numerically underrepresented in British politics, but potentially less strongly than previously thought. On certain issues, disabled candidates better represent the views of disabled citizens.

Dr Javier Sajuria, Lecturer in Politics at Queen Mary University, London 

Dr Sajuria presented insights into the question of whether being from the local area  improves a candidate’s electoral prospects. Sajuria stated that localism has been a key component of British politics since the 1960s, and in 2015, 57.6% of candidates lived in the constituency they represented. It is widely acknowledged that being a local candidate can and does improve electoral chances. However, Sajuria emphasised it is not only important whether a candidate or MP is local to be successful, but that constituents know and perceive them as local. When examining how living in the constituency affected people’s perceptions of localism, Sajuria reported there was a 3% increase in the probability of being elected. However, when voters were unaware and lacked the knowledge of a candidate’s localism, there was no difference their to electoral chances. When examining differences between incumbents and non-incumbents, incumbency was the main predictor of perception. For incumbents, only 15% of a constituency need perceive them as local to improve changes of getting elected, whereas for non-incumbents 40-45% was needed.

In concluding, Sajuria emphasised perception matters more than residency itself, and that perception may be driven by a series of factors, including residency. However, incumbency is the main predictor of perception. Overall, localness matters provided voters are aware of it and there is no strong incumbent challenger.

Professor Maria Sobolewska, Professor of Political Science at the University of Manchester

Professor Sobolewska presented on the relationship between BAME candidates and voters, and the extent to which BAME voters’ interests are represented. Historically BAME MPs have been mainly Labour and have represented seats with a significant proportion of ethnic minority voters. However, since 2010 this has changed significantly. There is almost no difference between BAME representation in the Conservative and Labour parties, and many BAME MPs now represent ‘white’ seats (seats that are not particularly ethnically diverse).

Sobolewska presented three theories on why it is expected that BAME representatives might ‘act for’ BAME voters. Firstly, they have greater understanding of minority issues as they themselves are among that minority. Secondly, it is recognised that there is a ‘duty’ as an ethnic minority representative to represent minority interests in parliament. Thirdly, ethnic minority MPs who represent ethnically diverse constituencies will naturally receive more casework tackling minority issues. Therefore, there is an electoral incentive to dedicate greater time to these issues.

Turning to the data from the 2015 survey, Sobolewska examined differences between ethnic minority and white candidates. Overall, 42% of non-white candidates strongly agreed that ‘non-white people are held back by prejudice and discrimination’, compared to just 20% of white candidates. Similarly, 62% of BAME candidates believe being BAME creates a responsibility to represent BAME voters, compared to 42% of white candidates. Finally, when examining perceptions in seat diversity, amongst white candidates there are only minor differences between perceptions in diverse seats and white seats, 22% and 19% respectively; amongst BAME candidates there was a significant difference, 53% in diverse seats and 26% in white seats.

Sobolewska concluded that BAME candidates have a greater perception of common BAME interests and feel they have a responsibility to represent BAME voters. Furthermore, candidates are more responsive to the ethnic make-up of their seats. Additional findings from this research (with Rebecca McKee and Rosie Campbell) can be found here.

Lord Hayward, member of the Political Polling and Digital Media Committee

Lord Hayward provided a thoughtful response to the report as well as each of the presentations. Focusing on two points, Lord Hayward first reflected on the issues of harassment and intimidation of parliamentary candidates. He noted Sheryll Murray’s experiences of harassment, emphasizing that if behaviour of this sort happened to a well-established MP in a rural constituency, it left him to only imagine the kinds of abuse less well-established MPs and candidates in urban areas experienced. He believed there should be further investigation into the growth of harassment amongst Scottish parties, as he feared the situation might have worsened following the 2014 Independence Referendum.

Second, Lord Hayward commented on disability representation, querying the difficulties surrounding representatives’ willingness to declare disabilities. He raised questions about how candidates’ and MPs’ willingness to declare disabilities, in particular as defining oneself or identifying as disabled, may vary from person to person. Lord Hayward expressed surprise at the absence of disabled Conservative candidates, as he was aware of disabled candidates that had stood for the party. He therefore speculated whether there were a range of reasons this might have been the case.

Lord Hayward concluded the event by congratulating the research team in answering many ‘fascinating’ questions within the report, however emphasised that many more questions had also been raised as a result and that he looked forward to hearing these answers too.

About the author

Lotte Hargrave is a Research Assistant at the Constitution Unit.

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