Scott Kelly is a Lecturer in Politics, New York University in London and Chief of Staff to John Hayes MP.
We will shortly see an election in which local issues and individual candidates count for more than national party politics or the performance of the executive; in which the advantage held by incumbents is often the crucial deciding factor, and in which campaigning is concentrated in a declining number of swing seats.
Whilst it’s the Congressional mid-term elections in less than a fortnight that I have in mind, this description could almost equally be applied to the British general election next May. The decline in political parties in Britain has in important respects “Americanised” British politics.
While Tony Blair’s personally-based politics made the idea of “Presidentialism” a fashionable way of understanding how the executive works, at least during his time in office, it is actually Parliament that is being changed most fundamentally by the decline in political parties. What we are currently witnessing is not the rise of a British Presidency, but the emergence of what could be termed a “British Congress’”.
What is already well understood is that MPs from the main political parties are becoming increasingly rebellious, defying their Whips on a regular basis. Philip Cowley from the University of Nottingham has been at the forefront of analysing this trend, which goes back the turbulent days of the 1970s.
In the first three years of the Coalition, Government-supporting MPs rebelled in 39 per cent of divisions, a rate that beats the previous post-war high of 28 per cent during the 2005 Parliament. What has been given rather less attention are the reasons behind this trend.
It is no accident that growing rebellion – which could perhaps be more usefully described as the rise of MP independence – coincides with the professionalisation of the job of being an MP and, in particular, the amount of time that MPs now dedicate to constituency work. The local focus is both giving MPs more freedom from their party but also placing them under new pressures. In the tug-of-war between the national party and the local constituency for an MP’s attentions, it is the constituency that increasingly has the greater pulling power.
This constituency focus is a relatively recent phenomenon. Back in 1963, only a third of MPs held constituency surgeries at least once a fortnight, a fifth of MPs held no surgeries at all, and some only went to their constituencies of special occasions and were treated like visiting dignitaries. This relationship had been transformed by the end of the 1970s, with only a handful of MPs declining to hold surgeries on a regular basis.
American practice, in which “grass-rooting” was already an established way for Congressmen to build personal support, was an important impetus for the growth in constituency work. While an incumbency advantage based on personal service and name recognition is taken as a given in US Congressional races, British elections are still often portrayed as party based contests in which national swings ultimately determine the outcome. This picture is hopelessly out of date.
Prior to the rise of the constituency-focused MP in the 1970s, most studies of the incumbency factor in the UK estimated that the effect was small – typically around 0.5 per cent of the vote. By the end of the decade, the 1979 Nuffield election study noted that this factor had increased, estimating that Labour MPs had enjoyed an incumbency advantage that equated to 1.5 per cent of the vote, with between seven and ten Labour MPs being saved from defeat as a result.
It’s the Liberal Democrats, pioneers of a grass roots strategy in the UK, who have gained most from incumbency. A study by Timothy Hallan Smith estimates that, in several general elections in the1980s and 90s, the incumbency advantage of Lib Dem MPs was higher on average than that of US Congressmen.
Of the two main parties, Labour has gained more from incumbency than the Conservatives. Hallan Smith concludes that Labour MPs have enjoyed an advantage in most elections since 1983 of up to 2.5 per cent. By contrast, Conservative incumbents enjoyed an advantage no greater than one per cent in elections in the period up to and including 1997.
This differential possibly reflects a greater reluctance in the past on the part of many Conservatives MPs to devote time to constituency work. A 1970 study found that Labour members were more likely to emphasise their “welfare officer” role than their Conservative colleagues, particularly the older ones. Since 1997, the performance of Conservative incumbents has improved, in the last three elections Conservatives have enjoyed an incumbency advantage of up to 1.8 per cent.
The incumbency effect is one factor that helps to account for the way many sitting MPs have built up majorities big enough to ensure that they are unlikely to lose – whatever the national swing at a general election.
According to the 2010 Nuffield Election Study, the number of marginal seats has fallen from 150 in the early 1970s to just 85 at the last election. In practice, these factors mean that individual MPs no longer have good reason to believe that their own electoral fortunes are inextricably bound to that of their parties. Whereas once a small national swing against a party could have a devastating impact on the electoral fortunes of a significant percentage of MPs, this is no longer case. As a result, an appeal to unity by leaders is less likely to be an effective rallying cry when most MPs do not perceive their own position to be in peril.
Local concerns now vie with party considerations in the minds of MPs, impacting on the way they behave at Westminster. Where once MPs may have been able to effectively compartmentalise casework-based constituency service from their Westminster role, the immediacy of modern communication and social media make this far more difficult.
It was notable than during the days running up to the vote on intervention in Syria in 2013, MPs were inundated with phone class and messages from constituents opposing any action. Several MPs, in particular those opposing intervention, mentioned the views of their constituents in the debate.
It was the Great Reform Act of 1832 that elevated the role of national parties as a way of mobilising a mass electorate and, consequently, their power over MPs. General elections were transformed from a series of local contests into a national choice between prospective parties of government. Thirty years after the Act, Walter Bagehot was able to confidently proclaim that the “nearly complete fusion of executive and legislative powers” in the Cabinet was the “efficient secret” of the English constitution.
The decline in the power of parties over MPs shouldn’t be overstated: most MPs vote along party lines in most divisions. Yet, in an age where constituents increasingly expect to communicate directly with their representative, parties must find a way of accommodating the new pressures on MPs. As the American system demonstrates, the results may not be efficient but they will, at least, be what people increasingly demand.
‘”The slow death of the ‘Efficient Secret’: the rise of MP independence, its causes and its implications” will be published by the Constitution Society.