What do the academics say? The incumbency effect for MPs

Academics in caps and gowns - Some rights reserved by herkieWelcome to the latest in our occasional series highlighting interesting findings from academic research. Today – the incumbency benefit sitting MPs can build up, based on an analysis of the 1983-2010 general elections:

This note adapts two models commonly used to estimate the incumbency advantage that US members of Congress enjoy – the ‘slurge’ and the Gelman-King Index – to provide comparable estimates for UK MPs. The results show that Liberal Democrats enjoy extremely large such advantages on a par with those of US Congressmen of between 5% and 15% of the vote. Labour and the Conservatives have incumbency advantages at around 2% and 1% respectively. The note estimates that effects could have changed the outcome in as many as 25 seats in some elections, and that they cost the Conservatives the chance to govern alone after the 2010 election.

The piece goes on to explain those two methods of measurement in more detail. The slurge is:

It was observed that in districts where a sitting Congressman stood down and was replaced by a newcomer the sitting party would underperform. When the new Congressman had completed his or her first term, the in party’s vote would surge back up. Slurge takes the mean of this observed retirement slump and the first term ‘sophomore surge’ seen by the parties at each election.

As for Gelman-King, it is a regression equation based on changes in vote share, whether there is an incumbent and who wins.

Aside from the point quoted above about Liberal Democrat MPs having by far the biggest incumbency bonus, the analysis also finds a strong double-incumbency effect for new MPs who have taken seats off other parties. When up for re-election for the first time they now both have their own incumbency bonus and also are up against a rival party which has lost its incumbency bonus, giving a double bonus:

The double incumbency term is particularly strong at the 1997 election, showing that first term Labour MPs who took a seat off the Conservatives in 1992 outperformed other first term Labour MPs by 2.9%, and gaining a first term surge of 4.3%. Conservative MPs who took seats off Labour in 1983 and 1987 did similarly well at the end of their first terms.

You can read (a little) more about Timothy Hallam Smith’s article (and buy access to it for $19.95) here.

You can read the other posts in our What do the academics say? series here.

* Mark Pack has written 101 Ways To Win An Election and produces a monthly newsletter about the Liberal Democrats.

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4 Comments

  • The obvious question is why our MPs do so much better ? 2 explanations spring to my mind, a bonus for not being part of the establishment & a difference in how we work.
    If its our anti-establishment credential we can expect to take a hit for being in government.

    The 2nd explanation seems more likely, that we work much harder because we have to, that hasnt changed.

  • Matthew Huntbach 22nd Jan '13 - 3:55pm

    paul barker

    The obvious question is why our MPs do so much better ?

    Also because “But you HAVE a Liberal Democrat MP” tends to be a line that works against the argument “I’m not voting LibDem, it’s a wasted vote” even with people who carried on saying that and believing it right up till the point where a LibDem MP got elected.

  • Ian Sanderson 23rd Jan '13 - 8:59am

    A third thought is that because it’s so much harder to become a LibDem MP than a Labour or Tory one, the overall quality of MPs is higher. One of the things that strikes me when attending Conference is how many good people we have as candidates not yet elected as MPs. The larger parties have many safe seats where, as is sometimes said, you can stick the right label on a feather duster and get it elected.
    Even the few LibDem MPs who have rather colourful reputations tend to be people very well dug in locally before being elected as MPs.

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