Research by Åsa von Schoultz and Hanna Wass reveals reveals a high level of congruence in representational preferences by elites and voters in both the UK and Finland. This suggests that preferences are not contextualised and may in fact travel across different electoral systems.
A recent study by Rosie Campbell and Joni Lovenduski demonstrate that MPs and voters in the UK have relatively congruent preferences for the representational role of MPs. From a pre-defined list, both groups prioritised constituency-orientated activities, although such an emphasis was slightly more popular among voters than among MPs.
While this is a very promising observation concerning the functioning of the representational process in the UK, the authors remark that preferences are likely to be contextualised. This means that the results do not necessarily travel across different electoral systems. In addition, the fact that all MPs included in the survey were backbenchers might have biased the results in favour of the constituency orientation.
Interestingly, our analysis of Finnish candidates and voters also reveals a high level of congruence in representational preferences. This is perhaps even a bit surprising since Finland can be perceived as a critical “least likely case” in this respect. Contrasted to UK single-member constituencies, the Finnish open-list proportional representation (PR) system with mandatory preferential voting offers a wide range of potentially important foci of representation. This leads us to expect a rich diversity. In our analyses, representational foci are classified as national representation of all citizens, geographical representation of one’s own constituency, party representation and interest representation of various religious, social, economic and ideological groups.
As in the study by Campbell and Lovendusky, we matched two surveys including identical question concerning the focus of representation. While voters’ preferences were measured in the Finnish national election study 2011, the data on candidates is based on the Finnish candidate study (FCS) 2011. FCS forms a part of the Comparative Candidates Survey project, carried out by post-election questionnaires that were sent to all 2,317 candidates nominated in the 2011 parliamentary election. A total of 915 candidates participated in the study (39 per cent), of whom 907 are included in the current study. The data was weighted according to party size within each category.
The most popular focus among both candidates and voters turned out to be the national perspective, reflecting the constitutional principle of citizen representation. Unlike in the UK, constituency-orientated representation was only the second most popular alternative within both groups. The fact that less than a third of the voters ascribed the highest priority to constituency-oriented representation was puzzling when compared to our earlier findings, which suggested this focus to be by far the most popular alternative. However, we expect this result to be related to deviating operationalisations since the collective perspective of the nation as a whole was not offered as an option in our previous study.
Party seems to be downplayed in the Finnish context. Given the central role of parties in the parliamentary decision-making process, which include high levels of party cohesion, the proportion of candidates (8 per cent) who consider the party as their primary focus is surprisingly low. Representation of specific interest groups was the least popular alternative, which only a marginal share of candidates and voters regarded as the first priority.
Based on the overall ranking of the different foci made by candidates and voters, we also calculated many-to-many congruence using a measure recently developed by Golder and Stramski. This indicator takes into account the distribution of preferences among the two groups under comparison instead of simple location in terms of a mean or median position. Results were in line with our preliminary conclusion. On average, the distribution of preferences for each of the four representational foci was strikingly similar between candidates and voters. The highest level of congruence, which is close to an identical preference distribution (ranking), was found for the party focus. The lowest, although still remarkable, level of congruence concerned the constituency perspective.
Overall, both our findings from Finland and those from the UK are surprisingly positive when contrasted with the level of congruence on some policy issues. Whereas studies of issue agreement have detected a good correspondence between parties and voters on issues closely related to the left-right dimension, and especially on issues which are salient to voters, noticeable discrepancies have been observed concerning EU, immigration and foreign policy issues.
A high level of congruence is perhaps even more noteworthy given the ongoing discussion on a potential legitimacy crisis that contemporary representative democracies are suffering from. This is often argued to be manifested by citizen disappointment with the dominating structures of representation. Based on these results discussed here, it seems that mismatch in representational preferences should not be included among the sources of dissatisfaction.
Some caveats are in order, however. As role preferences and real-life decision-making situations are two separate matters, congruence in preferences as such cannot be taken as an implication that the actions of MPs are necessarily in line with the expectations of voters. It merely indicates that both have similar normative conceptions of representation. More objective measures of the behaviour of MPs include such things as analyses of deliberations within parliamentary standing committees, roll-call voting or plenum speeches.
In addition, especially MPs’ preferences might be sensitive to social desirability bias. This is particularly relevant in relation to the low priority given to party representation in the Finnish context. As in most parliamentary democracies, parties dominate the political life in Finland. Instead of reflecting the status quo, MPs’ views may in fact demonstrate cross-pressures. Loyalties towards both the party and voters in a situation where conflicting interests occur can cause challenging situations for MPs, increasing their frustration with party-orientated representation. Campbell and Lovenski address the same issue by asking to what extent MPs can represent local issues given the constraints of the party and to what extent voters are aware of various operating constrains that MPs face?
Regardless of these caveats, the fact that two studies from such different political contexts draw relatively similar inferences is reassuring for the legitimacy of representational process. This is especially the case since Finnish system provides conditions for much more dispersed preferences. We thus hinted that the match between candidate and voter preferences in Finland could imply that the situation would be at least as good in other contexts. As the findings might still be sensitive to a number of institutional-level characteristics, studies from other electoral systems are warmly encouraged.
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Åsa von Schoultz (née Bengtsson) is a Professor of Political Science at Mid Sweden University. She is PI in the Finnish Candidate Study 2011 and 2015, and a member of the steering committee for the Finnish National Election Study and the Comparative Candidate Study. She has studied various aspects of political behavior, including economic voting, political participation and preferences for political decision-making processes. Her work has been published in journals such as European Journal of Political Research, West European Politics, Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, Parliamentary Affairs and Scandinavian Political Studies.
Hanna Wass is an academy research fellow in the Department of Political and Economic Studies at University of Helsinki. In her current project ‘Equality in electoral participation and vote choice, funded by the Academy of Finland, she studies turnout and representation from various perspectives. She is a member of the research project ‘Health and political engagement’ and the steering committee for the Finnish National Election Study. Her work has been published in journals such as Electoral Studies, European Journal of Political Research, Journal of Elections, Public Opinion & Parties and Parliamentary Affairs.