Daniel Hannan: Proposals to restrict MPs’ outside work run up against the same problem. What are good and bad jobs?

10 Nov

Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.

When the epidemic hit, Maria Caulfield didn’t hang around. The good-natured Tory whip swapped her parliamentary attire for scrubs and rushed to help on the Covid ward at the Royal Marsden. It was the state of hospitals in Sussex that had brought her into politics in the first place and, after being elected as the MP for Lewes in 2015, she carried on putting in shifts as an NHS nurse.

Does anyone think that the country would be better off if Caulfield had had to give up nursing on being elected? I don’t just mean that it is handy to have an extra nurse (though it is). I mean that Parliament is enhanced by her front-line perspective. She is like one of those uniformed MPs one sees in images from 1940 making a last contribution before being deployed.

Of course, in their day, it never occurred to anyone to complain about MPs having “second jobs”. Indeed, few people thought of being an MP as a job. Rather, being elected to Parliament was thought to confer a privilege (speaking in the supreme counsels of our nation) with commensurate responsibility (representing everyone else).

The professionalisation of politics is a recent phenomenon. Well into the 1970s, we still cherished the idea of citizen-legislators bringing outside interests to the table. It was in the late 20th century that attitudes began to shift. Some MPs – often Liberal Democrats – made a big deal of promising “to work full time for you”. Parliamentary salaries rose. Then, starting in 1995, MPs began to be invigilated by various committees rather than, as had been the case for the previous seven centuries, held to account by their constituents. Before long, keeping your hand it as a lecturer or solicitor became known, at least in newspapers, as “moonlighting”.

Has the quality of our MPs materially improved in consequence? The country is conflicted on the issue of outside work, torn between two contradictory impulses. On the one hand, voters think that (as Labour’s Jon Trickett put it on Monday) “being an MP is a full time job: if you’re doing it properly you wouldn’t have time to be doing a second job”; on the other, they complain that we have “too many career politicians”.

It is the second impulse that is correct, as can be easily enough demonstrated. Easily enough, because lots of MPs hold down other jobs in a way that doesn’t bother anyone, even Jon Trickett. That is, they serve as ministers. Being a minister is far more time-consuming than being a barrister or serving on a company board. It also involves an inescapable conflict of interest, since the role of a minister is to exercise state power and the role of an MP is to constrain it.

You might say that we should make an exception for ministers. Fine, but you have conceded the principle that an MP is capable of holding down a full-time job. All you’re doing is privileging a particular kind of job, thereby making MPs more dependent on the state and less in touch with the private sector.

All proposals to restrict outside work run up against the same problem, namely the presumption that there are “good” jobs and “bad” jobs. You might think that it’s fine to work as a nurse or an army reservist or a minister, but not as a consultant. But who gets to decide, and what basis?

On Monday, The Guardian listed 30 MPs who would be affected by a ban on consultancies. Among them was Labour’s Khalid Mahmoud, who is a Senior Fellow at Policy Exchange, working on Islamist extremism. Again, does anyone seriously think the world would be a better place if Khalid, who was Britain’s sole Muslim MP for a time, in which role he served as a level-headed representative for his co-religionists from around the country, was not allowed to put that experience to good use?

The reasonable approach, it seems to me, is to ban, not the holding of any particular job, but the lobbying of Parliament on behalf of outside paymasters. And you know what? That is precisely what we do. Pretty much everything that could be written about l’affaire Paterson has been written.

But, whatever view you take, one thing is undeniable: we enforce the ban on paid advocacy. You can argue that Paterson was harshly treated given that he believed he was behaving correctly and made no effort to hide his actions. Or you can argue that that’s hard cheese and dura lex sed lex and so forth. What you can’t argue is that we show the slightest tolerance for paid lobbying by MPs.

Sadly, that distinction is being lost as, from a combination of opportunism, populism and envy, commentators and even some MPs deliberately give the impression that private sector work per se is discreditable. It is not a new phenomenon. The increasing intolerance for outside jobs was one of the factors that drove the editor of this website out of Parliament – not because he was impacted personally, but because he foresaw that it would lead to a decline in the quality of MPs.

You can agree or disagree with him. My view, for what it’s worth, is influenced by my having become a working peer in February. There are few arguments in favour of how members of the House of Lords are appointed; but there are plenty in favour of how they are remunerated. Peers are not paid a salary (though they get a per diem allowance), but are instead expected to have real-world jobs.

There are various elected chambers around the world, from Texas to Switzerland, where something along these lines pertains – that is, where legislators are given some compensation in recognition of their time, but expected to carry on with whatever they were already doing. They share the ups and downs of the economy and, as a bonus, they spend less time sitting, leading to fewer laws and so to higher growth.

I accept that we are unlikely to replicate (or, more correctly, return to) that approach. But let’s not make matters even worse. Instead of complaining about “second jobs”, let’s treat being an MP as your second job and bring back citizen-legislators.

Rob Sutton: Introducing the top 50 Conservative MPs on Twitter

29 Jun

Conservative MP Twitter power rankings: the top 50

Rob Sutton is an incoming junior doctor in Wales and a former Parliamentary staffer. He is a recent graduate of the University of Oxford Medical School.

Amongst the social media giants, Twitter is the primary battleground for political discourse. It’s also one of the key avenues by which MPs convey their message, and has near-universal uptake by members in the current House of Commons.

The effectiveness with which Twitter is utilised varies considerably between MPs, but it is difficult to compare like-for-like. How does one take into account the differences between, for instance, a freshman MP and a veteran Cabinet member? Length of service in Parliament and ministerial rank give a considerable advantage when building a following.

In this article, I have compiled a power ranking of MPs in the current Parliament, with the top 50 shown in the chart above. The MP’s follower count was adjusted by factoring in their previous experience, to better reflect the strength of their following and their success at engagement on the platform.

Being Twitter-savvy is about more than just a high follower count: any Secretary of State can achieve this just by virtue of the media exposure their office brings. Building a Twitter following based on thoughtful commentary and authentic engagement requires skill ,and can be achieved by members across all Parliamentary intakes and ranks of Government.

Though the top 10 is still dominated by MPs holding senior ministerial offices, the composition of the list beyond it is far more variable. A number of prominent backbenchers are in the top 20, and four members from the 2019 intake make the top 50, beating longer-serving and higher-ranked colleagues.

I hope that this list serves as recognition of the skill and contribution by Conservative members to public debate and engagement, beyond ministerial duties which so often dominate any mention in the media.

Building a model of Twitter power rankings

Success is judged by number of followers, with higher follower counts indicating greater influence on Twitter. The follower count was adjusted using three key parameters:

  • The number of years since an MP was first elected to Parliament.
  • The number of years the MP’s Twitter account has been active.
  • Their highest rank within Government achieved since 2010.

Higher values for each of these would be expected to contribute to a higher follower count. I built a model using the open-source Scikit-Learn package, and fitted it to data from the current Parliament.

The model was then used to predict how many followers a given MP might expect to have based on these three factors. The steps taken to produce a final “Twitter power score” were thus as follows:

  • Using these three factors, multiple linear regression was used to calculate the expected number of Twitter followers an MP might have.
  • Their true follower count was divided by the expected follower count to produce a single number which represented the MP’s performance at building a following.
  • Finally, a logarithm was taken of this ratio to make the number more manageable and to produce a final Twitter power score.

The final step of taking a logarithm means it is easier to compare between MPs without those who have very high follower counts (such as Boris Johnson) making the data difficult to compare, but it does not affect the order of the ranking.

Compiling the data

Having decided which factors to correct the model for, I collected the required information. All three factors were easy to find reliable sources for. The Twitter page for each MP displays the date the account was created, and the Parliamentary website provides the date of their first election to Parliament and previous government posts.

Members who are newly returned to the backbenches following governmental duties (such as Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt) are scored at their highest government rank since 2010 to recognise this. I was able to find the Twitter accounts and required information for 319 Conservative MPs who were included in this ranking.

To build a model based on this data required incorporating the highest government rank numerically. To do this, I assigned scores according to their rank. These grades recognised their relative seniority and media exposure associated with the office, with higher scores assigned to more senior positions:

  • Prime Ministers, Secretaries of State, Speakers, Leaders of the House and Chief Whips are scored 3.
  • Ministers of State, Deputy Speakers and Deputy Chief Whips are scored 1.
    Parliamentary Under-Secretaries of State, Parliamentary Private Secretaries and Whips are scored 0.5.
  • Backbenchers score 0.

When assigning these values, I considered the typical sizes of follower counts of MPs in each category. When comparing Secretaries of States to Ministers of State, the median follower count is around twice the size, but the mean follower count is around eight times the size, as a handful of very large follower count skews the results upwards.

Deciding on weightings requires a (somewhat arbitrary) decision as to which measures to use when comparing between groups, and the scores I decided on were ultimately chosen as a compromise across these different measures, which produced stable results when used in the model.

It is also worth explaining why Prime Ministers are grouped with Secretaries of State, despite the far higher media exposure and seniority of their post. When deciding on the respective weighting for different levels of government post, a sufficiently large pool of MPs was needed to produce a meaningful comparison. The only data points for comparison of Prime Ministers are Boris Johnson and Theresa May, so it is difficult to give them their own weighting without it being either unreliable or arbitrary.

While grouping them with Secretaries of State and other senior positions might be perceived as giving them an unfair advantage in the weighting, I felt it justified given these challenges in determining the “fair” weight to assign them. With this done, I had three parameters for each MP on which to build a model to calculate the expected number of Twitter followers.

Calculating the number of expected Twitter followers

I built a model to calculate the expected number of Twitter followers using the Scikit-Learn, a popular machine learning package in the Python programming language. The model used multiple linear regression to fit the input parameters to the known follower count.

The input data was prepared by removing extreme high outliers in the data which skewed the fit toward high numbers and away from the vast majority of MPs before fitting. Once fitted, an “expected value” of Twitter followers could be calculated for each MP, based on the year of their first election to parliament, the number of years on Twitter and their highest government rank since 2010.

Including more parameters increases the ability of the model to describe the difference between MPs’ follower counts (the variability). By increasing the number of input variables included in the model, more of the variability is captured:

  • One variable captures between 20.3 per cent and 36.1 per cent of the variability.
  • Two variables capture between 39.1 per cent and 43.1 per cent of the variability.
  • All three variables capture 48.7 per cent of the variability.

These three variables are therefore responsible for almost half of the variation between MPs in their follower counts. The remainder of the variability is likely due to a range of factors which the model does not include, of which the MP’s Twitter-savviness is of particular interest to us. I discuss these factors further below.

Limitations in the model

There are multiple other parameters which could be included in future iterations which I did not include in this model. In particular:

  • Membership or Chairmanship of Select Committees.
  • Previous election to a council, assembly, devolved legislature or the European Parliament.
  • Membership of the Privy Council.
  • Government positions prior to 2010.
  • Prominent positions within the Conservative Party, such as the 1922 Committee or European Research Group.
  • Twitter-savviness and effectiveness of their comms team.

Another limitation was not accounting for the perceived relative importance of various governmental departments: a Great Office of State or Prime Minister is scored the same as any other Secretary of State. The difficulties involved in ranking governmental departments were beyond this first model. The length of service in a given government post was also not considered.

Finally, the choice of model to fit the data may not be the optimal choice. Multiple linear regression assumes, per the name, that the distribution is linear. But the large outliers might be better described by a power law or Pareto distribution, or the non-linearities of a neural network.

During next week, ConservativeHome will produce profiles of six individual MPs who have performed notably well in the power rankings, and who reflect the contributions brought by members beyond their ministerial duties, if they have any.