Why understanding what makes MPs tick might help repair our relationship with politics

When Ipsos Mori published its annual veracity index in February last year, politicians emerged as the least trusted profession. Just one in five Britons said they trusted MPs to tell the truth, a fairly damning judgement when you consider the importance of trust in relationships and reputation.

In the wake of the expenses scandals, Chris Huhne’s perversion of the course of justice, contemporary perspectives of Plebgate and (probably most significantly) the long tail of political scepticism in the UK and beyond, the results weren’t much of a surprise.

Indeed, Ipsos’ own social trends data, shows that our suspicions simmered at the same level thirty years ago as they do today. However, if you look further back, our disenchantment with the political classes appears to have become more entrenched over time. In 1954, 38% of us thought that our MP was doing a good job. In 2012 that figure shrank to 15%, according to comparison’s made in Peter Kellner’s excellent Democracy on Trial.

In Decca Aitkenhead’s recent interview with Rory Stewart, MP for Penrith, she wonders why on earth this man would want to work in the House of Commons. Here is a diplomat, adventurer, bestselling author, philanthropist and polyglot, to name a few of his achievements. On this evidence he is (almost brutally) honest. Like those politicians interviewed in Tony Russell’s Commons People he hopes for the bauble of a ministerial post. Yet he believes that ‘anyone running a small pizza business has more power’ than he does as a constituency MP and he works for people who, on the whole, wouldn’t trust him (at least in the abstract) as far as they could throw him.

Which begs a second, more useful question: why would anyone in their right mind want to be an MP in that environment, particular someone demonstrably able to excel in other walks of life? In answer to which, you’ll find a morass of opinion. On the one side, MPs are lazy, bossy, dogmatic, power-hungry and narcissistic and the job description fits. On the other (less fashionable) side MP’s are motivated by high levels of energy, ideals of public service and an ambition to change people’s lives for the better.

There is little evidence available to silence the dull rumble of conjecture and supposition. While studies into political enfranchisement and participation among UK voter groups are relatively common, contemporary research into motivating factors among aspirant, current and former Members of Parliament is thin on the ground and primarily anecdotal.

Ipsos Mori investigated the changing demography of MPs after the 2010 election but haven’t studied MP motivating factors along these lines in recent memory, says research director Carl Phillips. Yougov, who interviewed over 5000 Britons as part of the Kellner study (and who, like Ipsos Mori, regularly survey MPs on behalf of clients) looked at what factors would demotivate members of the public from standing for election in a December 2012 study. Oliver Rowe, Yougov reputation research director, says that broader questions about MP motivations would be interesting and probably ones people would like to see answered. No member of the British Polling Council appears to have published a study of this type in the past decade*.

Democracies, so the saying almost goes, get the politicians they deserve. To what extent might our distrust of politicians deter aspirant MPs? How does it impact on the motivations of current incumbents, if at all? And how might this affect the types of people who want to become MPs and their performance in the role? Does our cynicism seal a vicious circle? A robust (anonymous) study among MPs, aspiring and past politicians would help us answer some of these important questions, replacing supposition with evidence.  Here’s hoping that the pollsters take up the challenge.

*I have tried my best to find them via an online and British Library search, and called up most companies to check, but if I’m wrong and there is something out there please let me know and I’ll blog about the results.