Rich man, poor man, politician man

What sort of people do we want to become MPs?

This paper, just published in the British Journal of Politics and International Relations (and currently free to access), used a survey experiment to ask respondents to choose between two hypothetical election candidates. The income and background of one of the biographies was altered to assess whether voters are sensitive to the relative wealth of candidates.

There are two good reasons for examining income.  The first is practical: it is a more easily testable measure than the notoriously difficult, and contested, notion of social class.  The second is topical: in Britain, and elsewhere, the wealth of politicians has become a live political issue.  A combination of the economic situation, the government’s response to that situation, and the personal wealth of some members of the government, has meant that the question as to whether wealthy politicians can represent the interests of ‘ordinary’ people has become widespread in the news media.

Income also provides a good test for an old saw of the political representation debate – the idea that voters are not otherwise worried about issues of representation and will simply prefer the ‘best candidate for the job’ (however that is defined).  One reading of this last claim is that voters might reward candidates who have achieved higher incomes, valuing financial success as an indicator of competence – on the basis that someone who had succeeded for themselves might be exactly the sort of person you would want advocating for you.  Conversely, the identity politics or descriptive representation literature would theorise that voters will punish those with high levels of income, because voters want a representative who is ‘like them’, someone who has experienced what they have experienced, and that as a candidate’s income level rises to beyond that familiar to most voters so they will be less favourably disposed towards such a candidate.

The paper shows that voters prefer the self-made businessman to the financier, but regardless of occupation they react negatively to financial success. As the amount earned by these hypothetical candidates increased, so their popularity declines.  Wealth appeared to be an especial negative for women, for working class respondents and for Labour and Lib Dem respondents.  Conservative respondents are less put off by wealthy candidates, although they draw a sharper distinction between the source of income than others.

The experiments provide support for the identity politics claim that voters want a representative who is ‘like them’; and suggests that political scientists should pay more attention to the representation of wealth and social class.