What do the academics say? The voters want local candidates

Welcome to the latest in our occasional series highlighting interesting findings from academic research. Today – the repeated finding that voters like local candidates:

Surveys have consistently found ‘localness’ to be one of the main criteria voters say they want in an election candidate. In each of five surveys between 1983 and 2005, voters ranked ‘to be from the local area’ or ‘to have been brought up in the area he or she represents’ (the precise question wording differed from survey to survey) as either the most important or the second most important characteristic that they were looking for in their MP.

More recent polling shows that the preference for the local trumps sex in voters’ priorities, even among women. In 2008 the polling company YouGov asked a sample of British adults whether they would prefer their MP to be a candidate of the same sex but who came from outside their area to a candidate of a different sex but who was local. Overwhelmingly, they said that they preferred the local over the outsider. Men preferred a local woman (76 per cent) to a man from outside the area (6 per cent), with 18 per cent don’t knows. Women preferred a local man (75 per cent) over a woman from outside the area (5 per cent), with 20 per cent don’t knows. In other words, women said that they would prefer to be represented by a man as long as he was local rather than a woman if she came from outside the area, by a factor of 15 : 1. These findings were consistent, no matter what sub-set of voters was considered. Whether broken down by party support, age, social class or region, in every subgroup voters preferred the local candidate, even if they were of a different sex, to an outsider of the same sex.

That’s from The Politics of Local Presence: Is there a Case for Descriptive Representation? by Sarah Childs and Phil Cowley. As they go on to say,

It is obviously difficult to provide a definitive definition of what ‘local’ means in this context. Is it dependent on place of birth? Or schooling? Or residence? (And if so, for how long?) Or place of employment? Or service on the local council? Or even, as with some MPs, a dynastic link to a seat that their parents or grandparents previously held? And is it coterminous with the precise borders of the constituency, or with some broader area, such as a city or a region? The ‘local’ may also mean different things – and with a different intensity – in different parts of a country.

In practice what that means is that candidates who weren’t born in the area, or who even still live outside the area, are sometimes viewed by voters as “local” because they are seen in the area, they pick up issues in the area, they go to meetings in the area, they regularly talk to people in the area and so on. Local isn’t just what your birth certificate or house keys say; it’s what you do.

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  • I guess there is a potential flaw with this, interesting as it is: it is based on what voters say rather than, perhaps, an analysis of how ‘parachuted-in’ candidates do against local challengers. As we are learning from the behaviour (and current polling success) of the No campaign in the Referendum, whilst people might say they hate negative campaign it clearly works.

  • Martin Marprelate 30th Apr '11 - 11:35am

    I agree. I have already voted in the coming May5 Referendum as I have a Postal Vote.

    The Referendum was easy, YES2AV, a no-brainer for me.

    However I was stymied when it came to the Local Council Election. The Party I really wished to vote for is not contesting any wards in my Borough. Of the 4 on offer I was left with a Conservative who doesn’t even live in the Borough and must be depending on a occupational or property qualification to stand. I also had not heard of the guy until I received the Postal Ballot Paper. I rejected him. The incumbent Labour Councillor who lives in the town, but NOT in the ward, I cannot abide so he was out. The Lib-Dem Candidate also lives in another part of the Borough and although I am posting here I am NOT a Lib-Dem. Finally the one candidate who does live in the ward, the Green. As I do NOT agree with the principles and tenets of the Green Party so I could not vote for her either. In the end I spoilt my paper as I believe that one has a Civic Duty to vote in any election where one is eligible to do so and I always have since I was 18.

    To me a Candidate whether for Parliament and especially for Local Government being Local or having a strong connection to the area is very important. Luckily my MP is a local man and I did vote for him last year at the 2010 General Election. Perhaps removing the Occupational/Property owned qualification for local council candidates and making this residential in the Borough, District or City in question is the way to go.

  • Simon McGrath 30th Apr '11 - 1:36pm

    I wonder if this is just one of those things people say without it affecting their actual votes.
    Not good news in encouraging greater ethnic diversity among candidates.

  • Martin Marprelate 30th Apr '11 - 7:59pm

    To Simon Mc Grath @1:36pm. I would say from 40 years political experience as a foot soldier that most people probably vote for the Party, especially in Parliamentary Elections, but in the Locals be that County or Borough/District , the local aspect if any of a Candidate could alter their voting intention. I might just have voted for the Conservative standing in my ward had he lived in the town and even more so had he lived in the ward but he is from outside the Borough so he lost out there.

    I feel that Political Parties should, whever possible field a local man or woman in a local election.

  • I took the first 10 from the list of new MPs and looked at their biog (couldn’t do more than 10 because my sadometer blew up), proves nothing obviously and I’m not about to start looking at the other candidates:

    Peter Aldous – Fairly local (lives in county) + Local councillor
    Heidi Alexander – Local councillor since at least 06
    Rushanara Ali – Local most of life
    Stuart Andrew – Not originally from area but has been City Councillor since 03
    Louise Bagshawe – Not originally from area but was candidate in 06, so prob lived local for some time
    Steven Baker – Not originally from area but was councillor in 03, so prob lived local for some time
    Harriett Baldwin – Lived in county since 2006
    Stephen Barclay – Don’t think he was local before election.
    Gavin Barwell – Lived in area most of his life

  • Interesting findings, and food for thought.

    I am not sure whether the impact on ethnic minorities will be particularly great (few MPs are first-generation immigrants, and I’d guess that ethnic minorities aren’t more likely to move around a lot than other Brits?); but I am wondering about an ongoing cultural shift towards more mobility.

    I’d have thought at least that people are becoming increasingly mobile – many more people have been going to university, moving away from home, with (perhaps) a higher probability of another move, once they have left home already.

    In a world where jobs for life are becoming rare, and looking for work is more complicated, people are also becoming more mobile.

    If the emphasis on local candidates (at least if we take ‘local’ in a fairly narrow sense of ‘born and bred’) is so strong – will we increasingly miss out on potentially good people (in all parties), simply because more people are choosing to be more mobile?

  • @ Maria Posted 1st May 2011 at 12:06 am

    That is quite interesting actually, as 2 of them seem to match your thoughts exactly (from what little info I’ve looked at that is):

    “I’d have thought at least that people are becoming increasingly mobile – many more people have been going to university..”

    Stephen Barclay – Left school and joined the army so would have moved about, but the army then sponsored him at university (at Cambridge – so although I can’t tell if he lived local prior to the election, he had some experience of the area).

    “I am not sure whether the impact on ethnic minorities will be particularly great (few MPs are first-generation immigrants ,,,,,,,”

    Rushanara Ali – Came to the UK with her family when she was 7

  • Louise Shaw Posted 1st May 2011 at 10:29 am

    “For me, not so good news”
    I don’t think that it may be as bad as that, of the 9 (I think I missed one somewhere) I’ve listed 4 were councillors, one had been a candidate previously, 2 had lived locally most of their life and one had lived there for about 4 years,
    the final one (I can’t really tell if he was local) was actually selected through an open primary.

    So as the final paragraph may imply, getting yourself known is probably more important than being “local”, whatever local actually means – good luck.

  • Old Codger Chris 2nd May '11 - 10:42am

    Local is good but all parties are finding it increasingly difficult to get people interested in politics, let alone to stand for election to the local council. Check out the average age of the candidates in your area – in 20 years time there’ll be hardly anyone left.

    In parliamentary elections commitment to the constituency is more important than local connections. Many great statesmen of the past had little connection with their constituency and some of them flitted from one area to another – Churchill is a prime example, he never set up home in north-west England – or Scotland – or Essex!

  • Matthew Huntbach 3rd May '11 - 11:32am

    The problem is people will not necessarily hold coherent views. If you ask them “Do you want strong government?” they will say “Yes”. If you ask them “Do you want MPs to think for themselves and vote on that basis?” they will say “Yes”. If you ask them “Do you think MPs should vote as their parties tell them?” they will say “No”. If you ask them “Do you think its is good if parties are divided and their MPs vote different ways?” they will say “No”. If you ask them “Do you think political parties should be controlled by rich people who give money to them?” they will say “No”. If you ask them “Do you think political parties should be funded by taxpayers’ money?” they will say “No”.

    It seems the referendum on AV will be swung by a significant number of people who simultaneously think it is bad for third parties to have an influence on government (the main “No to AV” argument) and bad for the leader of the major third party not to have had more influence on the current government (so they are voting “No” to punish him for that).

    To me, voting “No” in the referendum because you think Nick Clegg has not done enough to stop Tory policies is like voting BNP as a protest against racism – it is voting for the very thing you say you are against.

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