Socialising new British MPs: the role of good advice in cultivating legislators’ loyalty norms

How do new MPs learn the institutional norms and practices of the Commons when they are first elected? Nick Dickinson, University of Exeter, discusses a new model for parliamentary socialisation.

All institutions face a ‘new members’ problem. If they are to successfully renew themselves, they must have the ability to recruit appropriate new members. Yet this presents a number of challenges. New members are by definition outsiders with little experience of ‘how things are done here’, and as such are a potential threat to established practices. Conversely, experienced from the point of view of a new member, entering a new institution presents the problem of adapting to an unfamiliar role. This problem is managed via the process of organisational socialisation – the transmission of behavioural norms from established members of a community to a new generation over time.

Parliaments and legislatures face these problems in a particularly acute form, with new members entering in large numbers at a time of maximum institutional disruption around elections. Qualitative work therefore frequently suggests a link between the socialisation experiences of new members and the norms of loyalty and deference to senior party colleagues, which are essential to parliamentary work. As one study put it

‘[some MPs] remembered the experience as… comparable to starting at a new boarding school… not only the atmosphere and surroundings, but also the rules in place and the sense of hierarchy that exists between the new arrivals and the more established Members’.

As a result of such testimony, socialisation is frequently discussed as one of the main drivers of party loyalty in legislative politics. The extensive literature on party cohesion shows a number of factors contribute to loyalty, from disciplining mechanisms incorporating electoral and legislative incentives, to spontaneous ideological agreement resulting from exogenous preferences. By contrast, socialisation suggests a fourth mechanism in which preferences are shaped after organisational entry by social interactions between old and new members.

Nick blog figure 1Yet while scholars have now marshalled extensive evidence for the other three mechanisms, this has not been the case for socialisation. Most existing work examines the problem by seeking to uncover a link between loyalty and legislative tenure – the amount of time an MP has been in parliament. Though it seems clear that MPs’ loyalty norms are important for cohesion, studies tend to attribute differences in these norms to party identification not tenure. A recent overview of the topic in the British context likewise found no tenure-related effect on loyalty for new parliamentarians.

In a new article for Parliamentary Affairs, I develop a model for parliamentary socialisation which moves away from the tenure framework, and shows that socialisation effects on loyalty do exist for British MPs. The model draws on Peter Blau’s classic sociological text Exchange and Power in Social Life, which characterised organisational socialisation as a form of mutually beneficial exchange between new and established members. As new members seek information about how to do their jobs, they rely on receiving advice from established members. Because they have few immediate resources with which to reciprocate, however, they do so by showing loyalty to the senior colleagues from who they have received the most valuable advice. In a parliamentary context, this implies that new members who are most satisfied with advice received from senior party colleagues will subsequently be the most loyal to party leaders.

To test the model, I used data from the Study of Parliament Group’s (SPG) surveys of the 1992 and 1997 cohorts of new MPs in the UK House of Commons. The SPG surveys are unique in their attention to MPs socialisation experiences, including satisfaction with advice received from various sources. The SPG also recorded how loyal to party leadership and knowledgeable about parliament MPs rated themselves before, during and at the end of their first term in parliament.

As predicted by the informational model, results showed that members who were more satisfied with advice from senior party actors were indeed more loyal. Using predicted probabilities, we see that an MP who consistently rated party advice as ‘very useful’ was almost three times as likely to report high levels of party loyalty than one who only rated advice as ‘quite useful’ (0.72 vs 0.25). Conversely, an MP who consistently rated party advice as not at all useful was most likely to report a low level of loyalty (0.55). MPs satisfied with party advice also rated themselves as more knowledgeable about parliamentary procedure, strongly suggesting exchange informational exchange was indeed occurring in advice-giving interactions. These results held even when controlling for initial levels of loyalty, as well as other factors such as government status, ministerial ambitions and party identification.

Nick blog figure 2

Instead of using legislative tenure as a proxy for socialisation, therefore, scholars should instead conceptualise the process as an information exchange in which loyalty norms emerge as a by-product of the social learning process which new members undergo. Scholars may therefore have been looking in the wrong place for socialisation effects in the past. These conclusions have potentially wide-ranging implications. Given recent calls for greater institutional provision for parliamentarians’ professional development, the conclusion that existing informal learning mechanisms play a role in maintaining party loyalty should cause us to think more deeply about the potential effects of such modernising reforms on party cohesion.


Nick Dickinson is a doctoral researcher at the University of Exeter, focusing on the regulation of the salaries and expenses of members of parliament in Westminster democracies. Follow him on Twitter: @NickSDickinson

Advice Giving and Party Loyalty: an Informational Model for the Socialisation Process of New British MPs was published by Parliamentary Affairs in September 2017.

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