Chris Game

 

This is unashamedly a LEWD blog – a Local Elections Withdrawal Drug, a kind of methadone substitute.  Normally this past weekend I’d have been studying the West Midlands borough council election results, plus this year the Mayoral and Police & Crime Commissioner elections, eagerly awaiting Rallings and Thrasher’s Sunday Times analysis, and writing my Thursday newspaper column.

 

This year’s elections, however, despite Downing Street openly flirting with both possible options in the course of a single morning, were postponed for 12 months – almost certainly one of its better Covid decisions.

 

President Macron’s almost coinciding decision that the French municipal elections – by comparison, a massive, double-weekend affair – should go ahead seemed perverse at the time, and was shown to be when the second round of voting had to be postponed until, at present, late-June.  

 

Several elections have taken place, though – Queensland, local; Wisconsin, Democratic primaries; and, most notably, South Korea’s Presidentials – as Ingrid Koehler documents in her useful Local Government Information Unit (LGIU) round-up.

 

In South Korea President Moon Jae-in’s case, being head of government during a pandemic brought him the biggest National Assembly majority since the country’s 1987 transition to democracy.  Whether it would have worked with a death toll of, say, 32,000 and rising, rather than 229, who knows – or, indeed, given the past weekend’s news, how final even South Korea’s figures are.

 

Then there was Poland, which, evidently impressed by our PM’s “show them your flexibility” decision-making style, was going ahead with Presidential elections on Sunday May 10th – until late on Wednesday 6th, when it suddenly wasn’t.

 

However, fun as this electoral globe-trotting is, it seemed a shame if our voters, at what should have been their democratic moment of power, were deprived of the politician-judging pleasure altogether by an irritating virus thingy.  So I revisited a recent attempt to assess and score the performance not of local politicians but – even better sport – of our MPs.

 

I refer to the People-Power Index launched by the petition website Change.org in the final stages of last December’s General Election.  Change.org, despite its potentially misleading ‘public interest’ domain name, is actually run by the California definitely-for-profit Change.org.Inc. – which may account for the disdain it at least initially seems to attract from some academic colleagues.

 

Ever since my own academic career was effectively launched/salvaged by working on probably still the most comprehensive study of political roles in the Commons, I’ve been a sucker for this kind of stuff. 

 

Demos’ 2009 Power Gap Index was good. Methodologically sophisticated, it measured the distribution of various ‘power indicators’ across constituencies, except that the indicators were all conceptual – education, income, health, even voter turnout and marginality – but not, though named, the MPs themselves.  Result: limited popular local interest.

 

More fun, therefore, were the regular league tables (yes, their term) that mySociety Limited’s WriteToThem website used to produce, feeding back data on how MPs dealt with communications from their electors.

 

WriteToThem was specifically designed back in 2005 to enable constituents to write, for free, to the local and national politicians who represent them, even if initially they’ve no idea even of their names.

 

For their MPs surveys they would count all messages thus sent – over 90,000 by 2015/16 or an average of nearly 140 per MP – then contact the sender after a few weeks to check whether they had received a reply.  The end-product was a big, fascinating table, ranking all MPs from those with 90+% response rates to those below 10%.

 

Obviously, corresponding with constituents is a limited single dimension of an MP’s role. It is surely, though, an important one – and it certainly sorted them out. Top in 2015/16 were Conservatives Jason McCartney (Colne Valley) and Tracey Crouch (Chatham & Aylesford), and Labour’s Grahame Morris (Easington), all with impressive 94%+ response rates. 

 

It was at the other end of the table, though, where many of the seriously big names would congregate: Lindsay Hoyle (611, 20% – now, but not then, Commons Speaker, and setting an apparently rather dubious example), Boris Johnson (612, 19%), Jeremy Corbyn (629, 14%).

 

Change.org’s People-Power Index (PPI) is also personal, but quite different. While similarly focusing on MPs’ constituency role, it measures it far more rigorously than WriteToThem’s data permitted. Indeed, its ‘Parliamentary health check’ uses ten data sources, covering three key features of MPs’ work during the 2017-19 Parliament.

 

First, availability to constituents (30 possible points): having a constituency office (4 points), holding regular constituency ‘surgeries’ (7), employing a caseworker (5), using email to engage with constituents (6), use of social media (3), oh yes, and whether “distracted by having a second (or third) job” (No: 5; Yes: 0).  That seems fair – I could be distracted just counting, say, Boris Johnson’s £543,778 or William Rees-Mogg’s £260,847.

 

Second is the MP’s Parliamentary participation (10 points): percentage of votes attended (4), frequency of constituency mentions in Hansard (6).

 

Third is how an MP “listens to the wider general public” (10 points): bringing mass public campaigns or petitions to parliamentary attention.

 

The 50-point score is then complicatedly converted to a percentage, chiefly as a get-out for Government or Shadow Ministers whose jobs constrain them from speaking freely on other issues. In summary, therefore, whatever business suspicions one may have of Change.org, you can’t fault their earnestness of purpose.

 

Nor, of course, their timing. Naturally, they wanted to maximise their PPI’s impact, which meant publishing in early December within days of the General Election, and it worked.  Dozens of local papers had virtually print-ready articles about how good, active, awful, diligent, media-savvy, etc. were the incumbents currently scurrying around seeking our votes.

 

It's almost irresistible, and I can’t, not completely.  So here are my half-dozen illustrations, scrupulously balanced: 3 Con, 3 Lab: (1) Wayne David (Lab, Caerphilly); (31) Preet Gill (Lab, Birmingham Edgbaston – my MP); (96) Rishi Sunak (Con, Richmond, Yorks.); (550) Keir Starmer (Lab, Holborn & St Pancras); (643) Priti Patel (Con, Witham); (650) Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Con, The Cotswolds) – remember the chap whose “inappropriate” behaviour at last year’s Conservative Party Conference led to a temporary lockdown of the Manchester Central Convention Centre? That’s him.

 

My impression, though, is that that’s about as far as most of the coverage went, with little academic attention or input – though I apologise if I missed items.  Of course, the PPI people might have helped their cause if they hadn’t left said academics to do any additional sums themselves.  After all, if these are the attributes of the ‘good’ MPs we’re presumably seeking to elect, where are they likely to be concentrated?  Most basically, who, on these measures, make the better constituency MPs: which party, which sex?

 

Change.org had all the data.  It would have been so easy for them, but they didn’t.  We had to wait for a Covid-19 lockdown, and my calculator.  Here, then, is my own exceedingly modest contribution – and remember, these are rankings, so lower numbers are better.

 

Median (average) Conservative MP’s ranking: 366; Labour 267; Lib Dem 186; SNP 313. Quite some difference!  Men: 378; Women 264.  Pretty conclusive, I’d say.

 

Chris Game is an Honorary Senior Lecturer at the Institute of Local Government Studies at the University of Birmingham. He is the joint-author of the best-selling introductory text on Local Government in the United Kingdom. Image credit: UK Parliament/Flickr.