Out of touch and out of time? A Cross-Temporal and Cross-Level Analysis of the Social and Ideological Distance between UK Voters and Political Elites

Lead Research Organisation: University of Strathclyde
Department Name: Politics

Abstract

Politicians are increasingly perceived as 'out of touch' with voters. The distance between voters and the political elite appears to have grown over recent years and is seen to contribute to the rise of 'populism' and anti-democratic attitudes. Has the gap between elites and public grown so large that politicians are 'out of time' to be accepted as legitimate representatives of the electorate, or could these processes be reversed? What can political parties, policy makers and politicians do to close the gap with voters?
To answer these questions, we need to understand how the "disconnect" between politicians and their voters emerged in the first place. There has been no study on the dynamics of elite-voter congruence in the UK, but the data for such an analysis are available in the shape of a series of candidate studies (1992-2015) which can be matched with electoral studies on voter attitudes. Similar candidate and voter studies are also available for the elections to devolved representative bodies in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and thus it is also possible to address the question whether and why voters and elites are more or less disjointed across different levels of government. The project seeks to combine all existing data gathered on candidate surveys in the UK. Such a dataset can then be joined with data on voters and the general public, collected in the British Election Study and its regional equivalents, to provide the basis of a dynamic study of the interaction between voters and elites in the UK. With the help of this combined dataset, we will be able to analyse a number of questions that have been of central importance in debates about representation and the workings of electoral institutions in the UK. The main focus of the analysis will be on changes over time and their interrelationship. Have candidates standing for elections become more or less 'representative' of their voters over time? What caused any movement towards decreasing representation? What influence have candidate traits such as gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, occupation and local residence had on the chances of being elected, and how has this changed over time? What is the link between these changes in social background and changes in political congruence? For example, does an increase in candidates and MPs who come from the local area they represent have an impact on the congruence in policy preferences with voters?
A particular innovation of this project will be the ability to compare the attitudes and policy positions of candidates over time. Can we find evidence of a political 'life-cycle' effect with political activists taking up more radical position at the beginning of their career and then mellow as a result of age and experience? On the other hand, younger politicians might be more ambitious and thus have a greater incentive to tow the party line and suppress any more radical stances. Different policies on the selection of candidates may be considered in the light of our findings, depending on the preferences of political parties.
The project will not just focus on Westminster politics but also analyse developments as a result of devolution. Many proponents of devolution thought that the elected bodies created in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales would be more representative of the people than the House of Commons. We will be able to analyse, for the first time, whether devolution has in fact produced a more representative political elite. If the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales are somewhat more representative in terms of its social make-up, what has been the effect of these changes on political congruence? This analysis of change over time will be particularly interesting in terms of attitudes to devolution. Have the political elites in these nations embraced the new institutions, or do pre-devolution conflicts still persist?

Planned Impact

Our study is the first to systematically investigate the extent to which UK politicians have become 'out of touch' with voters. This research will have direct relevance for politicians and parties who need the support of voters to maximise their electoral potential. It will also be of relevance for the general public as a healthy relationship between the general public and policy-makers enhances the quality of policy-making as well as policy compliance.
Our aim is to produce specific policy recommendations on measures that could be taken to close the 'elite-voter' gap. These recommendations may be taken into account by political parties, by individual election candidates and elected representatives (MPs, MLAs, MSPs, AMs), and by regulatory institutions and policy makers concerned with elections and the regulation of political parties. We plan to write a "Representation Manual" which will not only document the social and ideological divisions between UK voters and political elite but also, based on our statistical analysis, provide practical suggestions on how to overcome them. This documentation will address a range of possible agents of political change.
For political parties, our findings may have important implications for their current candidate selection policies. For example, a lot of debate has focused on candidate traits such as gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, occupation and local residence, but does an increase in 'descriptive' representation actually have a positive impact on closing the gap between parties and the public on major policy issues? Perhaps the effect is positive, but perhaps it varies between different candidate characteristics. Other candidate selection policies may have an impact on polarization. Would it be better for parties to select older candidates with career experiences outside of politics? If their chances of being elected are at least the same as for younger candidates but their 'moderation' takes the party closer to voters, then selecting older candidate may have a positive effect. For actual and potential candidates, our data analysis may be relevant for decisions on the selections of constituencies and political positioning. For example, how long does it take and what determines a female candidate to be placed in a safe seat? How beneficiary is it for a candidate to change his/her views and get closer to the median voter in the constituency? For legislators and policy makers, the data may provide some important conclusions on the impact of particular electoral provision and institutions. For example, to what extent is a possible higher degree of substantive representation in devolved polities due to institutional differences, or does 'first past the post' actually produce a better level of 'connect' between a constituency MP and his/her electorate?
The analysis will be undertaken in close co-operation with a number of non-academic users. These include all the major political parties. The data should also be of interest to the research units of the House of Commons, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Scottish Parliament and the National Assembly for Wales. Beyond this, other organisations engaged in the political debate about key aspects of political representation, such as the Hansard Society and the Electoral Reform Society, have confirmed their interest in the project. Once the data merger is ready, we will engage in detailed discussions with non-academic users about possible avenues of avenues of research that will be of particular interest. As the project proceeds, we will keep in regular touch with non-academic users and further disseminate our research through blog posts and our project website. Dissemination events will be organised with the help of the House of Common Library and the Hansard Society.

Publications

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