Voters who Disagreed with Their MP about Brexit Rarely Kicked Them Out of Office

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Frank Wyer, covers the new article by Chris Hanretty, Royal Holloway, University of London, Jonathan Mellon, University of Manchester, and Patrick English, University of Exeter,Members of Parliament Are Minimally Accountable for Their Issue Stances (and They Know It).”

For nearly five years, Brexit dominated British politics. The issue fostered deep and bitter divides between citizens who wanted the UK to remain part of the EU, and those who wanted it to leave, with the two campaigns trading accusations of elitism and xenophobia. Given the issue’s significance, it might be tempting to assume that voters would care deeply about where their representatives in parliament (MPs) stood on Brexit. Yet a new study from Chris Hanretty, Jonathan Mellon, and Patrick English in the American Political Science Review finds that MPs faced minimal consequences for taking positions on Brexit that were unpopular with their voters. The theory and findings of their article shed new light not only on the politics of Brexit, but also on the broader issue of how voters in democracies can hold politicians accountable

A core premise of representative democracy is that citizens will hold elected officials accountable for their policy positions at the ballot box, and numerous studies of the United States Congress have shown that indeed, voters tend to elect representatives with whom they agree, and kick out politicians who support unpopular laws. This view of accountability relies on two key assumptions: first, that voters will choose representatives who agree with their views on key issues, and second, that the threat of losing office will push politicians to enact policies popular with their constituents. In their study of Brexit, Hanretty and his coauthors question these two assumptions. First, did citizens who supported leaving the EU vote against MPs who supported remaining in it? And second, did these MPs actually worry about being out of step with their constituents?

“The results suggested that in general, MPs did not believe that aligning with their electoral district’s majority view on Brexit would win them significantly more votes.” To address the first question, the authors used data from surveys of over 25,000 voters to identify whether they agreed or disagreed with their MP on Brexit, and then estimated the effect of disagreement on their choice of candidate in a 2017 general election. They estimate that voters who disagreed with their MP about Brexit became less likely to vote for them, but only by an estimated 2.5 percentage points. The effect of disagreement was slightly larger, but still only 4 percentage points, in elections where voters had a choice between a challenger they agreed with and an incumbent MP with whom they disagreed. Because agreeing with some voters means disagreeing with other voters, the overall effects are much smaller, and the results of these analyses suggest that the ability of voters to hold their MPs to account for their positions on Brexit was real but limited.

To address the second question, the authors performed a survey experiment among roughly one hundred British MPs. This survey presented hypothetical scenarios in which MPs changed their positions on Brexit to align with the majority view in their electoral districts, asking the respondents to estimate how many votes they thought the MPs could gain by switching. The results suggested that in general, MPs did not believe that aligning with their electoral district’s majority view on Brexit would win them significantly more votes.

In sum, on one of the UK’s most significant and controversial policy issues—Brexit—not only did MPs positions’ have little impact on their support from voters, but MP’s also saw little electoral value in aligning with their voters on the issue. This finding has significant implications for the study and practice of representative democracy. In policy terms, the authors argue that electoral systems like the UK’s, in which districts choose a single MP by a plurality vote, do not adequately incentivize politicians to listen to their voters. While the article offers no simple solutions to this problem, its innovative methodological approach provides a blueprint for scholars seeking to understand and diagnose problems of democratic accountability.