Polling: Not love, actually

Written by Philip Cowley and Rosie Campbell on 17 September 2013 in Opinion
What does the population really feel about its MPs, local and national? Philip Cowley and Rosie Campbell dig beneath the ubiquitous press and public hostility to ask the questions that matter

We’re willing to bet you’ve heard the claim that while people don’t like politicians, they do like their own MP. It’s become a bit of a comfort blanket for MPs battered by years of press and public hostility. They can reassure themselves that it’s nothing personal, that while other politicians may be disliked, they, personally, are OK. The problem is, the claim is only partly true and it masks huge differences in the way members of the public see their own MP.

On 1-2 July 2013 we asked YouGov’s online panel two questions about satisfaction with politicians (N = 1,758, with all answers weighted according to the company’s normal weightings). We asked a question about satisfaction with MPs as a group (‘Are you satisfied or dissatisfied with the way MPs in general are doing their jobs?’), and an identical question about ‘your local MP’.

Respondents had five options, but for the sake of brevity we’ve grouped those who said that they were ‘Very Satisfied’ and ‘Fairly Satisfied’ together, ditto for ‘Fairly Dissatisfied’ and ‘Very Dissatisfied’.

Just 16 per cent of respondents who had a view said they were satisfied with MPs, compared to 58 per cent who said they were dissatisfied. That’s a net score – those satisfied minus those dissatisfied – of -42.  By contrast, the score for satisfaction with ‘your own MP’ was -6. That’s significantly better, and it confirms other similar findings in other polls, but it’s worth noting that even when asked about ‘your local MP’ the responses were still negative.

Even when it comes to their own MP, we’re still talking about under a third of respondents who say that they are satisfied with what they do (just 6 per cent said that they were very satisfied), and more were dissatisfied than satisfied. There’s a famous saying – famous in academic circles, anyway – that Americans hate Congress but love their Congressman. Whatever it is that the British feel about their own MP, it’s most definitely not love.

The response also differs depending on which party the MP belongs to. The net score among respondents with Labour MPs was -5, and among those with Conservative MPs -13, slightly worse than the national average. Liberal Democrat MPs, however, scored +14. The ability of that party’s MPs to dig in to their constituencies appears to have survived the various traumas of coalition politics. 

And it differs hugely depending on how the respondent intends to vote. Of respondents with a Labour MP, and who said they were intending to vote Labour, the net score was +12, but respondents whose MP was Labour and who were not voting Labour generated a net score of -16. For those with a Conservative MP the partisan difference was even more striking, from +31 among respondents who were going to vote Conservative to -31 for those who were not. 

These differences may not be all that surprising: if you’re a Conservative and you have a Labour MP, you can be forgiven for being predisposed to being dissatisfied with what they’re doing, and vice versa.

But Lib Dem MPs appear to be able to reach across that divide.  Even among non-Lib Dem voters, Lib Dem MPs scored +7. Amongst Lib Dem-voting respondents who had a Lib Dem MP, the score was an astonishing +61.

We need to be cautious here: once you cut the data in a normal-sized survey down to focus just on Lib Dem voters (of whom there are currently not many) and who have Lib Dem MPs (of whom there are even fewer), you’re soon down to very small numbers of respondents and large margins of error.

Still, while all MPs do better among those who will vote for that party than those who won’t, Lib Dems appear to be able to connect with non-supporters in a way that neither Labour nor Conservative MPs can.

Lastly, responses differ depending on whether someone has contacted the MP or not, and, even more importantly, on how satisfied they are with the response they get. Based on data from the 1970s, Ivor Crewe once wrote that familiarity appeared to breed content. Partly.  Around 21 per cent of respondents said that they had contacted their MP in “the last two or three years”; among that group the net score was +5 – of those who hadn’t, the net score was -8 – but we also asked whether those who’d contacted the MP were satisfied with the response, and this provoked the biggest differences of all. The graph shows the huge range of responses:

Of those who had contacted their MP and were ‘Very Satisfied’ with the response, 86 per cent said that they were satisfied with the MP, and just 3 per cent were not, a net score of +83. At the other end of the scale, of those who had contacted their MP and were ‘Very Dissatisfied’ with the response, 93 per cent said that they were dissatisfied with their MP, a score of -93.

In other words, the views of those who’ve contacted their local MP about that MP are almost entirely dependent on how satisfactory the contact was. This relationship holds true regardless of the party leanings of the constituent.

Unsatisfactory contact, it would seem, produces a worse outcome than if they had never contacted the MP in the first place.

Rosie Campbell is senior lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London

Tags: Issue 62, Polling

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