In a new blog from our Making Sense of Parliaments conference, Lawrence McKay investigates the effects of how MPs communicate on constituents’ awareness of their MPs.
In recent years, a contrast has been drawn between the extraordinary lengths most MPs now go to for constituency service and the public’s apparent lack of gratitude. As Speaker Bercow put it upon taking his role, ‘It is a cruel paradox that at a time when MPs have never worked harder, their standing has rarely been lower’. Over the years of the Audit of Political Engagement surveys, people’s satisfaction with their local MP has dipped from 41-13 in 2003 to 35-19 in 2016: a decline that parallels falling satisfaction with Parliament as a whole.
This is in spite of the fact that what MPs do objectively meets public expectations in terms of prioritising the constituency and spending most of their time on constituency business. The dominant perspective appears to be that local MPs are victims of the overall downhill trend in political trust – although they start from a position of higher public esteem, they are relatively helpless in the face of a generalised ‘anti-politics’ mood. Does what MPs do, then, actually matter, or are they whistling in the dark when they try to reach their constituents?
Certainly, MPs appear to think that their communication is worthwhile – albeit that they have a gradualist conception of how it works. They believe that when they communicate, they are working to establish their ‘political legitimacy’ from the ground-up. In the first instance, their efforts ‘signal their presence’ and create the basis for name recognition. In time, they hope, this will mature into a sense of trust, but this is not their immediate objective. From the MP’s point of view, one (if not the only) relevant output of communications is simply ‘do my constituents know who I am’?
As such, my research focuses in on a rather fundamental connection: between communication and constituent awareness of their local MP. The research that exists, albeit limited by ‘sketchy and unsystematic data’, does suggest a link. When people report contact with their MP, they are more likely to correctly recall or recognise their name in a survey. Furthermore, it did not matter whether this contact was personal, such as meeting them in person, or impersonal, such as receiving mail, reading about them in the media, or exposure through radio and TV. However, the self-report data utilised in these studies has intrinsic limitations. It is unclear how far objective phenomena – what MPs actually do – underpins the results identified.
This is more difficult to directly evidence. A reasonable amount of research exists, but it is one step removed from this process. For instance, recognition of candidates at elections is clearly related to their local campaign activities. Campaign spending and the time investment that candidates put in is valuable: especially, it seems, if it goes into ‘classic’ campaigning activity such as flyers and posters. However, it cannot be inferred that MPs’ activities, in their period in office, have identical effects. Political interest surges at election times, and voters may make genuine effort to hear from their candidates: whatever MPs say in office instead arrives to a much more muted atmosphere. Furthermore, the repertoire available to a sitting MP may be profoundly limited in a way that it is not at election times. For instance, Westminster MPs cannot deliver constituency newsletters out of their expenses.
Meanwhile, the literature on media effects does suggest that constituent awareness of sitting representatives is influenced by the amount of local newspaper coverage that mentions the member: three studies from the U.S. have replicated this finding (Schaffner, 2006; Snyder and Stromberg, 2010; Hopkins, 2018). Yet limitations exist here, too. This research has treated media coverage as, by and large, a quirk of geography. Members win coverage, here, because their district happens to be ‘congruent’ with a media market: the Congressman’s constituents are the main audience for the local newspapers or television station. Yet the evidence, including in the UK, suggests that MPs personally drive much of their coverage: local newspapers are ‘news-hungry’, possessing for themselves few journalistic resources. As such, they run most stories that a local MP feeds them. Nothing in the methodology of these studies can take account of the coverage driven by effort as opposed to happy accident: they cannot comment directly on whether communication matters.
How can we take up these challenges? On the one hand, we can look at how the deployment of the MP’s resources – as opposed to their party campaign resources – matters to awareness. I collect data from the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) on parliamentary expense claims. I focus in on two types of spending: surgery advertisements, and constituency ‘contact cards’ with the MP’s details. These are chosen because much of the communication an MP does – for instance, letter-writing – is reactive: that is, it will be a response to someone who, by definition, knows their identity. These kinds of communication, crucially, are not. To arrive at the independent variable, I sum the total spending per MP from 2010-15 on each type of activity and, due to the extreme skew, take a logged value of spending.
On the other hand, we can look at media coverage in a more deliberate way, teasing out coverage that is driven by communications effort. My approach is to identify stories where I have reason to believe the MP supplied a quotation to the newspaper: cutting out stories that might mention or concern the MP but have no input from them. I use only those sources which Ramsay and Moore call ‘dedicated’ local newspapers. These have a clear local focus and sell relatively well locally. The result is a count, for each MP, of the number of stories with a quote from them in the period of the 2010-15 Parliament.
I link both ‘inputs’ to survey data on individuals: the huge British Election Study Internet Panel (BESIP). Using data from 2014-15, I take three distinct dependent variables: spontaneous name recall, list-based name recognition, and ‘learning’ (the change in recognition between survey waves). In my analysis, I control for a wide range of potential confounders. Some of these relate to the MPs themselves, taking account of, for instance, if MPs who communicate more have certain characteristics that also mean they are better known (seniority, size of majority, and so on). I also control for a wide range of individual-level factors, most importantly those relating to respondent engagement such as political attention and knowledge. I specify binary logit models, both single-level and multilevel.
First, I test the effects of resource deployment. Each test delivers a positive result and at the least, significant at the p<.05 level. Spending, taken from its minimum to its maximum, increases the probability of name recall from .45 to nearly .6. The longitudinal model, meanwhile, shows that people who do not initially know their MP’s name are more likely to have learned it by a later time, should the MP spend more between those two time-points. The null hypothesis can be rejected: communications spending does indeed matter.
What of the media effects? Here, too, the expected effects are found and likewise, all are significant at p<.05. Taken from its minimum (no quotations at all) to its maximum (1,200 over five years), the probability of name recognition increases from around .77 to .90*. As an attempt to confirm the mechanism, I assess whether the effect size depends on the respondent’s media use. If the media effect is real, it should by-and-large apply to those for whom the local media is a major source of news. As such, I introduce an interaction between the respondent’s main newspaper (local/national/none) and the number of quotes from the MP. This expectation was confirmed, although the effect was not zero even for those whose main source was not the local newspaper. Again, the null hypothesis can be rejected: communication in the local media matters.
We began by noting the pessimism with which some commentary on MPs was tinged. Does anything they do reach the public consciousness? At this point, we can respond in the affirmative. By restricting our gaze to the more modest – but real – aim, of making constituents aware of them, we can see that what MPs do matters.
However, we must, still, end on a relatively downbeat note. In certain ways, the ability of MPs to communicate with constituents has become restricted. The stringent limits placed on permissible communications outlawed staples of communication such as the newsletter. MPs may also use their resources too sparingly, given that, since the expenses scandal, they understand every penny is under media and IPSA scrutiny. Meanwhile, the precipitous decline of local media may cut MPs off more and more. While social media may point to a bright future, its limits as a tool for constituent communications have been repeatedly highlighted in the literature. Communications might, theoretically, serve to build the MP-constituent relationship, but are they reaching their potential, and will their effectiveness be maintained in the years to come?
* (The probability of name recognition is on average much higher than name recall, because it is a much easier test to recognise one’s MP from a list than to recall it spontaneously).
Lawrence McKay is a doctoral candidate at the University of Manchester studying political representation and public discontent with politics. His work is supported by the Hansard Society, with whom he works on design, analysis and interpretation of the annual Audit of Political Engagement surveys. He tweets at @lawrencemckay94