What do we need to know to judge our representatives?

This blog post is part of our Repowering Democracy series. This year we will be publishing a series of short pieces of writing from mySociety staff and guest writers who are thinking about how our democracy works and are at the frontlines of trying to improve it.

This week Professor Kate Dommett, writes about different ideas about how MPs represent us, and the implications of that for how sites like TheyWorkForYou create and display information about representatives.

Key points:

  • People want different things from representatives…
  • …but it’s not as clean as that: people see the value of different representation styles at different times.
  • Sites like TheyWorkForYou shouldn’t assume a one-size-fits-all approach, but cater to different possible lenses.

Why do we want information about how our politicians behave? This answer to this question initially appears simple – we want to hold our elected representatives to account. And yet it’s not at all clear that people want the same information, or that they use it to evaluate representatives in the same way.

Some people might want to know whether their representative delivered on a promise to defend the local hospital; another might want to know if their MP has stuck to the party line when casting votes. Another may wish to know not about voting, but about whether their MP has taken on a second job, whilst a different person might be interested in knowing how much time their representative spent contributing to debate in the chamber.

The information that we want can vary, but currently citizens tend to be given a relatively uniform set of insights. In this blog post, I want to think about the different types of information that citizens may desire, and the alternative ways that a site like TheyWorkForYou could present information.

What do we know about elected representatives?

Given you’re reading this post, you’re likely to be familiar with the format of TheyWorkForYou and have previously looked at the information the site provides about recent votes, news and upcoming debates in your chosen Parliament. You may even have used the ‘Find out more about your MP’ search function and looked at your representative’s voting record and register of interests. Yet what you may not have considered before is why you are being shown those particular pieces of information.

Sites like TheyWorkForYou are making a series of assumptions about what people may want or need to know about their representatives. They have decided that people should know how MPs vote on key issues, whether they tend to vote with their party or not, what debates they are contributing to and what their interests are. These are all important insights, but the choices made raise a series of questions: why are we being presented with this specific information? What else could we have been shown? And why might we want to know different things about what MPs do?

Styles of representation

Representatives might be judged on the data presented, and academic scholarship has suggested that people can make a range of different types of calculations when they determine how to vote. Some people vote in accordance with party ties, others focus on future promises, whilst others make choices based on how a representative performs. It is this latter, evaluative style of judgement that is of interest here, and academic research has shown that evaluations can be based on many different types of evidence.

One way of thinking about the information citizens might use to make an evaluation about their representatives is a framework originally offered by the 18th century MP and political thinker Edmund Burke. Burke’s ideas have been developed to distinguish three different styles of representation:

  • Delegate – Representatives should act as a conduit for citizens’ desires
  • Trustee – Representatives should not seek to simply reflect and respond to citizens’ whims, but should instead exercise their independent judgement and act as ‘trustees’ of citizens’ interests, which might involve taking decisions which, though in constituents’ and/or the national interest, would be opposed by citizens themselves
  • Partisan – Representatives should act in accordance with the goals and objectives of a particular party agenda or ideology

These different styles of representation are interesting because they provide alternative metrics on which representatives can be evaluated.

Previous polling on these styles of representation suggests that when you ask people which style they prefer, the ‘delegate’ style of representation comes out on top. Indeed, in a poll by YouGov which asked whether an MP should vote in accordance to his or her judgement, or according to the majority view of his or her local electorate, the latter (delegate style of representation) was favoured by 58% of respondents, while 29% supported the trustee model (with 13% ‘Don’t know’). This kind of representation can be overtly offered, indeed Andrew Grey – a recent candidate at the Selby and Ainsty by-election offers an interesting case in point.

From this, people appear to primarily want information about the degree to which MPs act in line with their own (or their local area’s) preferences. And yet, when people are not asked to choose just one representative style, it becomes clear that people can value all three forms of representation. Indeed, my own research has shown that equal numbers of survey respondents think that representatives should act as delegates and trustees (72% of respondents), whilst partisan representation is favoured only slightly less (66%). People value multiple styles of representation and hence are likely to want information on representatives’ performance in each category.

Evaluating representatives

Thinking back to what’s covered on TheyWorkForYou, we can see some useful information about MP’s representative styles. The pages provide insight on partisan voting behaviour, revealing whether or not the MP votes the same way as other MPs from the same party. And yet, there are not clear indicators of the degree to which the MP acts as a delegate or trustee.

Whilst finding indicators of these representative styles is challenging, there are some possibilities. It would be possible, for example, to look at the degree to which MPs made pledges to their local constituency and monitor the degree to which they then honour those pledges in office. One MP who has done this previously is Gisela Stewart, who provided a personal manifesto alongside the party manifesto.

It’s also something done by local councillors who often provide local place-based manifestos that outline pledges to their local area. These provide useful metrics of the degree to which representatives are acting as delegates in line with their pledges, and sites such as TheyWorkForYou could capture such pledges and then trace the degree to which an MP’s voting record matches these promises.

To monitor trustee behaviour, it would also be possible to highlight the number of times particular votes were introduced or justified as important for advancing the national interest, looking at the justifications given for particular votes and the degree to which these claims were contested in debate.

Taking multiple approaches

Whilst the precise metrics require refinement, the principle of measuring and reporting different styles of representation chimes with the idea that people can draw on different types of information to make assessments about their representative’s performance. Recognising this, sites like TheyWorkForYou could create different filters when presenting information, asking users which type of information is most important for them, and presenting data accordingly. An individual concerned with partisan loyalty could therefore receive detailed breakdowns about party voting and where and why representatives depart from the party line. Alternatively, someone placing equal value on trustee and partisan representation could be shown performance information on both metrics.

The value of thinking about what information citizens want and need when evaluating their representatives opens the door to an important debate about the different metrics that can be used to judge MPs. It allows closer reflection on how and why different information can be presented to users, suggesting that a uniform strategy may not always be suitable.

Yet, it also encourages recognition of the very different standards that can be used to evaluate representatives and, in so doing, it highlights the challenge of being an MP. Far from having to comply with one standard of behaviour, MPs have to balance a range of different imperatives and are hence unable to satisfy everyone. But at the moment MPs rarely shape expectations about how they plan to act in office and what representative style they intend to follow.

There is a case for MPs themselves to take some additional responsibility in shaping expectations, making it clearer to citizens how they intend to behave and which metrics are therefore most appropriate for evaluating their behaviour in office.

From this perspective, websites such as TheyWorkForYou can make it easier for citizens to evaluate representatives, both by presenting a range of different metrics and clearly signalling to citizens how and why they might want to look at different pieces of information. But they can also encourage MPs and other representatives to be clearer about how they choose to work, helping to establish clearer expectations of representative politics.

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Image: Atanas Chankov on Unsplash.