Understanding and explaining the representation gap in Britain

UoM administered thesis: Phd


In a democracy, how people perceive the quality of political representation is important. In Britain, representation is organised and often conceptualised on a territorial basis and, as most people feel attached to their communities, they want to see their areas represented. This is a question both of structure and agency: a disadvantaged structural position, or political representatives who fail to act in satisfying ways, can both result in representation 'gaps' in perceptions of whether the local area is well-represented. Understanding these attitudes is especially urgent given substantial and rising levels of political discontent; a growing concern with geographic inequalities and 'left-behind' places; and changes in the behaviour of Members of Parliament. This thesis analyses the contribution of three factors. First, what is the role of communication, which may raise the profile of MPs and thus contribute to satisfaction? Second, does it matter whether one's MP has a local or national focus? Third, how might economic conditions (objective, subjective and relative deprivation) be related to perceived local representation? Using high-quality British Election Study survey data, linked to secondary data measuring the local context and activities of MPs, I carry out empirical analysis. In Chapter 3, I find evidence that communication, in the media and through expense spending, boosts the name recognition of MPs and that this in turn is linked to better perceptions of local representation. In Chapter 4, I find that the more constituency focused an MP is, as measured through their House of Commons speeches, the more they are trusted champions for their local community; though, crucially, focus only boosts MPs when they are known by constituents. In Chapter 5, I show that people who a) live in low-income areas, b) have negative views of their community's economy and c) perceive their area to be worse-off than the country at large, have greater tendencies to feel unrepresented. These findings contribute to an understanding of geographic 'representation gaps', alongside the better-understood individual-level gaps of class, generation etc. They have implications for several key fields in political science, namely political communications, parliamentary studies and political geography. Despite its limitations, this thesis opens doors for future research, as I suggest various avenues in Chapter 6. Likewise, the conclusion explores implications for policy, reform and practice. I draw attention to the need for effective structures to facilitate communication, for consideration of incentives around MPs' focus, and I comment on whether targeted investment to 'left-behind' places may reduce discontent. This thesis, I hope, will be of service for not simply understanding, but acting on, the many dimensions of the representation gap.


Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
Award date31 Dec 2020