Fake letters to politicians: the timing may be bad but it’s OK to test whether MPs reply to constituents

Fake letters to politicians: the timing may be bad but it's OK to test whether MPs reply to constituents

UK Parliament , CC BY-NC

You may have heard about the research project which involved sending MPs emails from imaginary people, just to see how they might respond. It involved sending marginally different letters to test whether a certain type of person might be more likely to receive a response from their MP than another.

But I don’t mean the one that MPs are in uproar about right now – with the House of Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle publishing a letter criticising the academics involved and saying he is “deeply concerned” about their conduct.

I mean this project, carried out in 2019 with a very similar research design and which ended up in one of the top academic journals in its field. It found British MPs had a really high response rate to queries from their constituents, with 91% responding (good news), albeit with some bias in their responses, depending on who it was they thought was writing to them (less good news).

Another similar project, also published in 2019, in this book, also found a very high response rate (89%, with 70% replying within a day), albeit again with some bias in the responses. There are multiple similar studies published based on the responses of politicians in other countries.

If parliament isn’t your thing, you may have heard about studies which find organisations and companies discriminate against people based on their ethnicity, sex or age – which they can prove because researchers sent out what were otherwise identical CVs, save for details like the name or the age, only to find the white, or male, or younger candidates were more likely to be invited to interview.

The most recent study took a similar approach. Letters were sent to MPs from imaginary people who came from different age groups and had names that might suggest a particular ethnicity. The idea being that this might help show if certain people got a faster response from their representative.

The key difference between this and the other studies, though, is its timing. This most recent experiment was conducted while MPs offices are already dealing with a huge increase in casework as a result of the pandemic. Their staff will be under the COVID cosh – working from home, stressed, juggling home schooling, and so on. Discovering right now that someone has chosen to increase your workload, however marginally, as part of an academic study must smart.

The project was conceived, and funded, in a pre-COVID era – and had already been delayed once, when the pandemic broke out – but it’s difficult not to think that, in the circumstances, it might have been better had it been delayed again, or even nixed entirely.

A letter from the Speaker

But when Hoyle wrote to interim chair of the research council that funded the work, he deprecated the research project far beyond arguing merely that the timing was bad. He rules out this sort of work on parliament ever, even (and at this point things get a bit surreal) potentially viewing it as a form of contempt of the House.

On its own, this will be enough to deter most researchers dipping their toes into this particular research pool any time soon. But the principle of this research is fine and needs defending. If we accept this type of research method elsewhere (and any MP who has ever quoted one of those CV studies has implicitly done so), then it is difficult to see why politicians should somehow be considered out of bounds.

It is precisely because the work that MPs do in their constituencies is so important that it deserves proper study. The constituency face of the MP’s role has become ever more important over the last few decades, with far greater engagement between MPs and their constituents than ever before. The days when an MP would swan into the constituency every couple of months, if that, and receive about a dozen letters a week are long gone. If it matters that people may be being discriminated against because of their sex or race when it comes to housing, it also matters if politicians do it, even if any bias is unconscious.

An extract from a letter sent to research funders warning that the Speaker of the House may take action over future research projects that
An extract from the letter Hoyle has sent to the ESRC.

None of this is to argue that there are not ethical issues involved in work like this. Anyone who has tried to get projects involving any element of deception through university ethics committees will already be well aware of them. Indeed, one concern must be that the fallout from this row makes ethics committees even more ultra-cautious than they already are (and, boy, are some of them cautious).
It can already be difficult to get British politicians involved with academic work and there must also be a risk that they will also become even harder to reach. All this would be very unfortunate. It would be a real shame if the timing of an otherwise justifiable study made research on parliament harder to conduct.

MPs say that they take constituents’ queries seriously, that partisan issues don’t affect how they respond, and that everyone gets a fair shake of the stick. The evidence from the existing research certainly shows that British parliamentarians respond much quicker than politicians in most other countries – so one of the many ironies of this row is that I suspect British MPs would have come out of this study really well. But we’ll now never know.

The Conversation

Philip Cowley has previously received funding from the Leverhulme Trust, the Nuffield Foundation and the Economic and Social Research Council.