Mike Kane, the new MP for Wythenshawe, takes his seat in the House of Commons today. In the run-up to the by-election The House magazine asked all of the candidates what they would bring to the job. Kane’s reply: ‘I’m a local guy – I was born in Wythenshawe hospital and have lived all my life in this constituency – so I would bring a deep knowledge and understanding of local issues to Westminster’. His answer to the question ‘Who is your political hero?’ included the line: ‘I grew up in a council house in Wythenshawe’. His answer to what one thing he hoped to influence or change? ‘I want a fair deal for our local hospital…’. As political messaging goes, it wasn’t subtle.
Being local matters to voters. Take, for example, this study, published in 2012. One battery of questions asked respondents how important it was that their MP shared various characteristics with them. These characteristics included their sex, their class, their age and so on, and respondents could grade them on an eleven point scale anything from 0 (not at all important) to 10 (very important). One of the conclusions you could draw from the findings was that, on the whole, people don’t give much priority to such things when it comes to their own MP. Of the nine characteristics which were tested six scored a mean of less than 3.0 out of a possible 10. (This doesn’t, however, mean that they don’t care about the composition of the Commons as a whole – where the results were somewhat different). But the other conclusion was that some things do matter. The two factors that came top were ‘has the same political viewpoint as you’ (a mean of 6.1) and ‘is from the same area as you’ (a mean of 5.7).
Perhaps the most surprising thing to many observers will be that these two scores are so close to one another. The former – having politicians who share the same political viewpoint as you – is usually meant to be one of the fundamental purposes of representation. There was, overall, a slight preference for MPs who shared one’s ideological beliefs (41% of respondents gave that a higher rating than they did for ‘area’). But some 38% rated area as being more important, and just over one in five respondents gave equal rankings to these two measures. For those who believe that politics is about choosing between political alternatives, or a clash of ideologies, it is worth reflecting that this means that when it came to their own MP almost six out of ten people either preferred someone who was local to someone who shared their views, or was at least ambivalent between the two.
You can create a simple measure of the relative importance someone gives to ‘views’ over ‘area’ by subtracting the score for the latter from the former. A positive score means more importance is placed on sharing ideas than location, a negative score means more importance placed on being local. As the figure below shows, this creates a normal distribution, centred neatly around the zero mark (with zero being the modal response).
Importance of ideas relative to local area
But not everyone reacts in the same way. Amongst those who left education at 15 or earlier, a plurality (43%) prioritise place over ideas, compared to 36% who prioritise ideas over place. This is also true of those who left school at 16, 17 or 18. But of those who left education at 20 a plurality (48%) prefer representatives who share their views compared to 31% who prioritise area. The same is true (just) of those who left education at 19.
It is important not to over-state these differences. It is not that graduates think ideas are important and localism unimportant. Or that those who left education early think that being local is the only thing that matters. Amongst all groups, there are relatively few who think either factor completely unimportant (look, for example, at how few people score at the extremes in any of the graphs). There are plenty of people who left school at 15 and who gave a higher priority to ideas than to locality and plenty of graduates who value place over ideas. But rising education leads to political ideas becoming more important and your area becoming less important.
David Goodhart had an interesting piece in the Independent recently, in which he argued that British political elites did not understand this sense of place amongst voters:
The political elite used to represent a range of experiences and interests. Now, MPs may have different starting points but, like other members of the upper professional class, they mainly leave home in their late teens to go to university and thence into a world of physical and social mobility with an identity based on career and achievement. Most non-graduates are less mobile and draw their sense of themselves much more from place and group. (About 60 per cent of Britons live within 20 miles of where they lived when they were 14.)
We’d add: neither do most academics.