Through the looking glass: controversy, scandal and political careers

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Through the looking glass: controversy, scandal and political careers

  • Ja Political Science (General)


This work measures whether MPs are held individually accountable for their actions through a novel analysis of the 1997 and 2010 UK general elections. Previous research suggests that MPs’ behaviour has little effect on their careers; however, developments in the media’s aggressive reporting style, the rise of personality politics and decline in traditional voting patterns indicate that this is an opportune time to examine the effect of political controversies (including scandals) on MPs’ careers. This analysis focuses on three crucial stages that form a chain of accountability: (1) exposure: the media publicises the controversy and a perception is formed; (2) internal sanction: an MP retires before an election; (3) electoral sanction: voters punish MPs at the polls. Data on MP-specific controversies between the 1992 and 1997 and the 2005 and 2010 elections was sourced from The Times, The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph and their respective Sunday editions. This work also contains an original analysis of the 2009–2010 MP expenses scandal that utilises British Election Study panel survey data to examine how information on MP malfeasance affects voters’ perceptions of MPs. The findings indicate that political controversy is linked to whether an MP retires, with those MPs from the governing party driving the result in both the 1997 and 2010 elections. Overall, voters do not hold MPs responsible for their actions at the polls. Analysis of the expenses scandal supports these general findings: constituent perceptions of their MPs’ expenses behaviour respond to public information, but do not translate into election results. Internal sanction is shown to be the most powerful form of political accountability in the chain. While identifying any individual MP accountability is novel, the overall results are in line with traditional analyses of the strength of party politics, and indicate the importance of electoral system design for accountability.

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