MPs’ expenses scandal – little impact on elections


Over recent years there has been a steady decline in the levels of trust in politicians. The MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009 and 2010 seriously contributed to this trend. The British were very angry about the misuse of permitted allowances and over-claiming of expenses by Members of Parliament.

Citizens’ outrage was further provoked by MPs’ attempts to prevent disclosure under Freedom of Information legislation.

However, recent research has found that voters did not punish them electorally. Many MPs who were embroiled in the financial scandal were still re-elected in the 2010 election.

Risa Arai spoke to Dr Jessie Tarlov of the London School of Economics about her research on MPs’ individual political accountability and elections.

Dr Jessie Tarlov

Dr Jessie Tarlov

Dr Jessie Tarlov:  When the expenses scandal hit my co-authors and I, Dr Nick Vivyan and Dr Markus Wagner, decided that we could use the British election study, and specifically the panel survey data, to actually explore variation on an individual MP level to see if MPs were punished for their “bad behaviour”. The idea was to trace whether voter perceptions accurately reflect public information about an MP’s expenses claim and whether that translates into electoral sanction where MPs would be punished for their behaviour. So the chain of accountability includes the perceptions step where people form a coherent perception of their MPs behaviour and then we look at how that translates into how they behave [in the ballot box]

We find that public perception actually does respond to available information about individual MPs. That said, about half of the respondents that we studied didn’t actually know whether or not their MPs had overclaimed on their expenses. So there is still that issue, which is quite prominent in the literature, that people might not even know who their MP is.  But we do find that there is a relationship between the perception of MPs guilt, i.e. that they had overclaimed on their additional costs allowance and whether or not they were thought to be guilty.

But then when we move on to measuring whether or not that translates into sanctioning that MP, we find that individual British voters are only about 5% less likely to vote for their MP if they believe that they were implicated in the scandal. A 5% reduction in the odds is not actually that tremendous when you consider how much outrage there was over the scandal. Data from the British election study shows that over 80% of British voters were absolutely up in arms about the scandal – so you would think that should translate into more than a 5% reduction.

Others, aggregate studies have shown Johnston & Pattie (forthcoming, 2012) as well as MPs expenses scandal pixEggers and Fisher there was about a 1.5% loss for MPs who had been implicated in the scandal which is also not a tremendous amount when you think about the number of votes it takes to decide a race. So, generally it’s not an uplifting result for the status of individual political accountability in Britain. Largely we are still looking at situation where people make their decisions on the basis of national level, party politics – in other words, what party they want in power versus who they want to be their individual MP – because they are making a choice at the ballot box for both their MP and the government at the same time.

RA: Your research paper suggests that 93% of voters have heard of the scandal, over 90% said the scandals made them very angry and 80% of voters thought corrupt MPs should resign. But in reality, half of those MPs were still re-elected. That is very surprising. Why did it happen?

JT:  There was a high level of retirement at the selections. A lot of MP did stand down. But over 50% chose to stand again – so it is not as if everyone who was implicated decided not to run again.

There are number of factors that affect vote choice at any given election. In the end, [the expenses scandal] didn’t end up being a salient enough factor for people to base their vote decision on. Remember, we were in the middle of a recession, I guess we were in a double dip at that point. People were going to vote on the basis of the economy, who they thought would be in the better position to bring the UK out of the recession rather than who they thought had fiddled their expenses.

If you look at data on the trust level in politicians over the last 30 years, MPs are actually only trusted about 15-20-% to tell the truth anyway. So there’s a baseline level of distrust and distain for politicians generally that I think really informs this research. People might be upset about [the expenses scandal] or purport to be upset about it, but in reality it is not something that they feel is going to change culture, generally speaking, or something they feel they want to use their vote to affect. And this has been going on in the UK for some time.  My PhD research also looked at this in the 1997 general election when there was a whole slew of MPs implicated in scandals and controversies.  And it had very little effect on the election.  This is in keeping with a longstanding tradition in the UK of people reporting to be angry and outraged over MP behaviour and demanding inquiries and investigations into MPs’ behaviour but not using elections as a sanctioning mechanism to deal with that.

RA:  So, you mean that the fact that the MPs were involved in corruption does not really become a striking factor for their voting decisions?

JT:  The economy is always the most salient factor in someone’s decision as to whom they are going to vote for. It’s just that, when push comes to shove, there are things that are more important to people. And they don’t necessarily believe that the political class is ever going to become better. They have, as I’ve said, an overall negative perception of the institution and that is unwavering. Scandals like this, I believe, do damage to the system but at the same time you look at results like this and what actually happened at the election doesn’t reflect that. This is the most egregious British political scandal,certainly in the last few decades, and there was almost no electoral effect. So you have a very disengaged and cynical electorate that is not going to be voting on this basis, no matter how angry they are. How much money they have in their pocket is going to be way more important than whether they think their MP over-claimed.

Now, obviously, there are instances where it did affect voter’s choice but overall you certainly cannot say that and I do not see that becoming a prominent factor in a voters’ choice anytime soon.

RA:  If the public wants to exclude corrupt MPs, what should they do?

JT:  The easiest answer to that is that they should use their votes that way. They should take a stand. But at the same time when you think about the institutional design, there’s not really a lot of room for people to be able to make that decision. If you are a voter thinking about the important issues to you out there like the economy, education, the NHS, etc., you are going to have a very strong opinions based on whether you are Conservative, or Labour or Liberal Democrat. Right now, we have a coalition government (which I think actually will be the case again in 2015) so you can encourage people to vote on that basis. But it is a hard argument to make that you should vote out your MP or vote for an MP on this basis when you feel so strongly about issues that might more directly affect your daily life, like much money you are going pay in taxes.

Things that could be done in order to engender more trust in politicians, and in the government more generally, including having more competition within parties or local primaries and encouraging MPs to do more constituency work so that they become more closely connected to the average British voter.  I believe that would then better make the case for personal connection between an MP and a voter. But I don’t think that is likely to happen. These ideas are thrown around but it doesn’t seem at this point anything is going to be done.  In 2011, we had the AV referendum, which got shot down, and people are very attached to the Westminster system. They don’t want to change it in that way but continue to be very angry about the system. It is a difficult position to be in, to be advocating for change that people are clearly not going to go for.

RA: So the voting system can be said to contribute to the small measure of individual political accountability in the UK. You are saying that the system clearly prevents people from using elections as a sanction mechanism. Is there any comparable research in other countries with different systems? Do they provide different levels of accountability?

JT: It depends what other countries you are talking about. It would be different in the US, for instance. If you look at the House banking scandal, you would find a dramatically different result. Previous studies in the US found that people who have scandals lose between 6% and 11% at the polls.  In the US, the system is very candidate centered. So, people have opinions of individual politicians and also take the time to find out about the personal decisions that their Congressmen and representatives have taken. In the UK, that’s not the case. It is very costly to gather information, and as our paper shows, over half the people don’t even know the answer to whether or not their MP over-claimed in the expenses scandal. So when you start with low level of information, it is really not surprising that we have results like a 5% reduction in the probability of voting for the MP at the next election. The British institutional system does not encourage people to individually punish MPs. It encourages them to vote for parties more generally. So, yes, I will expect that it would have a different result based on the way the system works on the per country basis. The British system is incredibly rigid this way.

RA: Do you expect this research to have an impact on the public’s political behavior?

JT:  I think people should think about this gap – what happens between constituents developing perceptions of MP behaviour and then not feeling able or inclined to sanction them at the polls and what the effect of having a party dominated system is on the level of individual political accountability. Everyone would say they want individual politicians to be held accountable for their behaviour. But the way the system works just does not encourage using elections as an accountability mechanism for representatives’ misconduct. I think this is a tremendous problem.  We need more discussion and research into ways we can reform the system in order to encourage that. That’s my wish and hope.

RA:  I hope you enjoyed this programme. Thank you for listening. See you soon.


The featured image is a photograph of one of the effigies at the Lewes Guy Fawkes celebrations (November 2012). The copyright is owned by Peter Trimming and is licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 license.