MPs' expenses: are voters still bitter?

Written by Andrew Hawkins on 20 November 2012 in Opinion
Rehabilitating Parliament: Andrew Hawkins examines how far the expenses row and other scandals have damaged voter confidence and Westminster’s reputation

This article is from the December 2012 issue of Total Politics

The danger of living in the Westminster village is that it’s easy to misjudge the mood of the nation; politicos are often sent into paroxysms of rage by something which the rest of the country regards as trifling. Witness the outrage at the arrest of Damian Green inside Parliament in 2008: Magna Carta, it was said, had been ripped up and our ancient liberties stymied. But the country couldn’t care less.
The greater danger, however, is that politicians underestimate the impact ‘out there’ of political events and fail to respond with sufficient urgency or humility.  Look at the 2009 expenses scandal, the most significant parliamentary upset in the modern era. The assumption at the time was that it would take a general election and plenty of time for the wounds to heal, so, three years on, to what extent has parliament been rehabilitated in the eyes of voters?
Its broad impact has been an erosion of trust in politicians generally and in MPs especially, but the extent to which it also affected voter engagement is more difficult to assess. The expenses row was midwife to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), currently conducting a consultation on MPs’ pay and pensions, and IPSA commissioned some opinion polling to help understand the relationship between MPs and voters. The results shed much light on the mood of the nation three years on.
First, voters are not put off engaging with the political process, although it will take many more years to gauge whether the scandal has poisoned the youngest generation of voters, who are the most cynical and disengaged of all age cohorts in the study.
Political engagement overall, though, appears pretty healthy: around one in four claims to have written to or emailed their local MP or researched how they voted on a particular bill. Older voters are twice as likely as their younger counterparts to take political action; see the graph on the left.
 Two-thirds also claim to know who their local MP is, ranging from more than 80 per cent among the 65-plus age group to around 40 per cent of 18 to 24-year-olds. Only one in five doesn’t know the political colour of their constituency.
But the real expenses hangover question is whether the public still thinks MPs have their snouts in the trough. On this measure, results are more mixed. One obvious yardstick is the extent to which voters feel MPs are overpaid. Benchmarks are tricky here, because asking the question in 2009 would have been pointless, given the public mood at the time. Currently, views are fairly benign: when asked how much backbench MPs earn before tax, 22 per cent answered correctly, while 34 per cent respectively said they thought MPs earned less and more. Just 10 per cent said they thought MPs earned over £100,000 and 13 per cent said less than £40,000.
We then asked what the annual basic salary of an MP should be. The headline result – 64 per cent said it should be less than it is – appears at first to indicate disquiet, but this is a better score than it would have been a few years ago. In relation to other public sector pay, MPs are not wildly out of kilter. For instance, 61 per cent think MPs should earn the same or more than head teachers (MPs earn around £10,000 more); see graph below.  
When MPs’ actual salaries are quoted and voters are asked directly whether that’s too high, around one-third say it’s ‘much’ too high, but this is skewed towards younger people, for whom £65,738 is of course a higher multiple of the average salary. On the issue of MPs’ pensions, there’s little sign of anger: more than eight in ten people think they should be broadly in line with other public sector pension schemes, although most probably think (incorrectly) that average public sector pensions are significantly lower than those of the private sector.
Irrespective of scandals, voters will never volunteer that MPs should be paid substantially more, nor are likely to volunteer that MPs offer good value for money for the taxpayer. There is, however, some evidence of the local/national disconnect that we see in other areas of polling, such as, “My local hospital offers great service, but the NHS generally is going down the pan”. People’s perception of their own MP is almost always better than their views of “MPs generally”.
The worst aspect of the scandal is that trust levels in politicians remain at rock bottom, along with bankers and journalists. But if you’re an MP looking for ways of enhancing your standing locally, the polling offers some advice: constituents place less importance on you speaking to local media than anything else you do. The most important thing is that you are seen to vote on issues that affect the local area, and respond to their correspondence. Being a good constituency MP is not damning you with faint praise but the key to valuing what you do.
Andrew Hawkins is chairman of ComRes

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