Are British MPs More Boring Than They Used To Be?

CDS researchers examine variations in speech style at Westminster from 1935–2018

UK citizens often claim that Members of Parliament have become less distinct — more boring — in terms of speech style in recent years. Qualitative approaches to this claim have yielded ambiguous results, so CDS researchers built a new, data-driven measurement model for distinctiveness. Arthur Spirling, Associate Professor of Politics and Data Science, Leslie Huang, a CDS PhD student, and Patrick O. Perry, Senior Data Scientist, Oscar Health and Visiting Scholar at the Center for Data Science, applied a new model to over three million speeches delivered in the House of Commons from 1935–2018.

Spirling and collaborators relied on the principle of stylometry for their approach, which refers to the identification of “idiosyncratic markers” in documents by different authors. Stylometry is the foundation of the method used to determine whether James Madison or Alexander Hamilton authored disputed Federalist Papers. With stylometry in mind, the researchers mathematically derived a model to represent “evidence that a given speaker (relative to all others) produced the words she spoke — averaged over all words, all speeches and all possible pairwise comparisons to other members.” But Spirling, Huang, and Perry’s purpose for a stylometric approach is to identify variance among texts rather than determine authorship.

Their dataset included metadata that described party membership, ministerial roles, experience (calculated as number of sessions since first speech delivered), and a variable was introduced to denote any demotions. In aggregate, they found no evidence that speech style has become more or less homogenous in recent years which debunks the widely held assumption that MPs have become less distinct in style.

However, the researchers caution that aggregates can oversimplify results, so they also looked in detail at particular individuals who their model claimed were the most or least distinctive historically. Interestingly, they found that some of the most powerful Labour members today — including the shadow Chancellor and shadow Home Secretary — were some of the most distinctive backbenchers in the 1990s. So perhaps being ‘interesting’ is rewarded in the long term.

More generally, since the 1990s, it seems that senior members have become more distinctive relative to younger ones, in a reversal of historical trends. This suggests that older legislators are becoming more assertive than their junior colleagues who tend to sound more similar to one another.

In the future, the researchers hope to examine explicit differences not only in style (how something is phrased) but in substance (what ideas are being expressed). This would reveal more about variations in political ideology and how British MPs face the competing interests of satisfying national party leaders and satisfying local constituents. With debates about Brexit raging both in and out of the House of Commons, understanding what makes legislators argue the way they do is as important as ever.

By Paul Oliver