Never heard this stat before, and no idea where it is from (he doesn’t give the source), but yesterday in the Independent David Goodhart claimed that ‘about 60% of Britons live within 20 miles of where they lived when they were 14’. He argues this explains some of the gap between representatives and represented – since ‘most non-graduates are less mobile and draw their sense of themselves much more from place and group’. Exhibit B, presumably, would be today’s story on Labour Uncut that the candidates for Labour’s selection in St Helen’s South are all competing with each other to be most local. A poll in the St Helens Star has found 74% of readers wanted a candidate with ‘strong St. Helens ties.’
Goodhart’s half right (well, maybe more than half). Voters do want representatives with local roots. It comes very high up on the list of most voters. This study (£, alas) in 2009 found that some 41 per cent of respondents prioritised their MP having the same political views over coming from the same area, but there were almost as many (38 per cent) who gave a higher priority to the geographic area. Or see this paper, using survey experiments (and which is free to access), and which also finds a huge preference for ‘local’ candidates.
Where Goodhart’s wrong is that whilst that demand is higher amongst working class respondents, the difference isn’t great. The truth is that most people have a strong sense of place and want the same from their MP – that is, working and middle class, young and old, men and women. Almost everyone ranks being local as one of the most important characteristics they want from their MP.
We lack a similar stat to Goodhart’s for MPs, but we know enough about their background to know that they will be less local than their voters. Just under half of British MPs represent a constituency in the region of their birth (although regions are pretty big places…).
The stats that might be just as revealing, though, would be that for those who write on politics – both academics and journalists. You’d get good odds on many academics living within 20 miles of where they did when they were 14. Writing on this subject for a few years, it was interesting how dismissive many academics were of it. Perhaps it is because academics, who frequently lack deep roots in the communities in which they live, sometimes struggle to understand the importance that locality can have for individuals with deeper roots.. As Richard Fenno noted in Home Style, the classic investigation of US House Members and their relationship with their voters:
Compared to academics, nearly all House members are locals. Compared to a university, most congressional districts are less cosmopolitan. Members tend to be rooted in the values and the institutional life of local communities. They belong; they know where they belong; and it is the very strength of our representative institution that they do. The academic, on the other hand, is likely to be less locally rooted, more mobile, more attached to free-floating academic communities, an outsider in any context beyond the scholarly one.
It’s one reason why so many academics don’t understand this connection; the same is almost certainly true for many political journalists.