Nick Palmer on “What price incumbency?

Nick Palmer on “What price incumbency?

(According to the UK Polling Report seat guide the Nottinghamshire seat of Broxtowe is Tory Target number 42 and requires a swing of just 2.35%. Yet can Nick, who became the first MP poster prepared to contribute here under his own name four years ago, manage to hold on? In one sense he is honoured for his constituency is the first where betting has now opened. So the subject of incumbency is pretty close to Nick’s heart and he has written this guest slot – Mike Smithson)

Is it worth a bet on him making it?

One of the big unknowns about the next election is the extent to which (if at all) incumbents will be able to buck any national trend against their parties. Given the current polls, we’re obviously talking Labour and LibDem incumbents at the moment, but it may be interesting to revisit the whole issue of incumbency in today’s un-ideological climate. I’ll try to do it in a non-partisan way that will also apply to future elections with varying party balances, and I’m not offering many predictions about the next election in particular.

There was some pretty detailed work on the effect of a well-known candidate (normally the incumbent) in the 1960s in the famous series of election studies by Butler and King, who looked at the effect when a sitting MP stood down. My recollection is that their conclusion was that a well-known and presumably popular MP could improve his or her party’s score by no more than a 5% swing. That doesn’t sound a lot, and if a party has a national lead of 20% at an election they can shrug off any such factors as far as the majority goes, but in specific seats it remains interesting. Butler and King found that the effect peaked after the first re-election, then gradually declined as people moved from ‘you’re doing a good job’ to ‘you again, eh?’

The other extreme is seen in the USA, where incumbency re-election is commonly over 90%. However, this reflects two things: gerrymandering of boundaries, and unlimited spending, with donors tending to gravitate to the current congressman (because he’s the one who can get them a tax break or whatever).

Has anything changed since Butler and King? Yes, several things:

• The narrowing of the differences between the party programmes makes many voters feel it’s not a life or death matter which party gets in, whereas in the past people almost thought literally that – one Labour activist did commit suicide after the 1992 election, and the stark difference in elections like the ‘Who governs Britain?’ battle after the first miners’ strike will have made it seem frivolous to vote for Fred the local chap because he’s such a nice fellow. If people feel the parties are much the same ideologically, the personal factor has more scope: who will do the best job for Bognor?
• The controversial Communications Allowance makes it more feasible for incumbents to keep voters informed of their doings despite the general decline in the number of activists willing to stuff leaflets through doors. This is mostly more than balanced by the Ashcroft money in marginals where the Tories are the main challengers, but there will be seats where the incumbent does have more resources.
• Modern MPs mostly spend vastly more time on constituency issues than used to be the case. Parliamentary legends abound of MPs who said things like, “The less I see of my constituents, the happier we both are”, and the intensive 365-day campaigning that active MPs pursue nowadays would I think have seemed bizarre in the 60s. For example, I’ve been organising a campaign against some proposals from local developers that I think greedy: to my astonishment, this has generated over 3000 individual letters of support from constituents, and over 300 non-party volunteers who have proved willing to deliver not only updates about the issue but also my newsletter all over the constituency. You can’t buy that sort of involvement. I’m sure that some of them won’t vote for me, and there’s no reason why they should feel the need to, but if I wasn’t the incumbent they wouldn’t have got involved in helping me to anything like that extent, and if you help someone in a campaign there is more likely to be a sense that you’re ‘on their team’ – it certainly makes it harder to attack the incumbent personally.
• LibDems in particular are supposed to be hard to dislodge. Apart from their real or perceived personal qualities, this may reflect the well-established poll finding that lots of people say they’d vote LibDem if they thought the party could win. If you’ve got a LibDem MP, then obviously they can.

As many incumbents are coming up for their fourth successive election, the ‘oh you again’ factor is presumably growing. Overall, though, I suspect that the scope for the incumbency factor has grown since the Butler and King days, and we are likely to see quite varied swings as a result. It is not, after all, invariably an advantage to be well-known. It depends what you’re known for.

Nick Palmer

Comments are closed.