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Where MPs sit in social networks matters

Where MPs sit in social networks matters

Parliamentary committees and meetings are a big part of how MPs socialise with their colleagues. The social networks that they develop as a result shape their interests and behaviour in Parliament. But what exact role they end up playing in these social networks determines  their level of engagement and influence over key political issues, argues Grace Cooper.

Most office workers tend to do much of their day-to-day socialising with colleagues. They meet over coffee, talk in corridors on the way to meetings, or grab a drink together at the end of a long day. These shared activities can have a significant impact on people’s behaviour and preferences. MPs are no different – Parliament is their workplace, and other MPs make up most of their social network. Their social interactions shape their preferences and behaviour, just like it would any other workplace. But the details matter for understanding how influential MPs can be, given their roles within their social networks.

How Parliaments institutions affect MPs behaviour

MPs spend the majority of their time in Westminster in meeting rooms for select committee hearings, in the chamber, in the division lobby or in All-Party Parliamentary Group meetings (APPGs). APPGs are less formal meetings where MPs and Lords meet to discuss certain topics, such as refugees, climate change or gender equality.  An MP’s primary social network is formed of other MPs they socialise with through being on a select committee or an APPG together.

My previous research has shown that these parliamentary institutions shape the degree to which MPs are engaged in different topics. For example, if an MP is a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee or Refugee APPG, they are more likely to raise questions about refugees in Parliament above and beyond their committee obligations.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that MPs who end up having several meetings on specific issues tend to then promote those very issues in Parliament.  What’s more interesting though is that what particular role an MP ends up playing within these networks goes on to impact their behaviour, such as the number of written questions they submit about a particular policy.

As part of my research, I looked at four types of MPs who had an important role in the network and tested to see how their relationships to other MPs affected their parliamentary behaviour.

Simply knowing more MPs or being involved in more parliamentary groups doesn’t mean an MP ends up doing more.

The middleman

This is the broker, the go-between. They have a structural advantage in the network and as a result an increased engagement with representative activities, such as submitting written parliamentary questions. This MP has a structural social advantage as they are the easiest person to access information from the select committees and APPGs and therefore captures this knowledge. They bridge the gaps of disconnected or uninformed MPs in parliament and connect the social network with the knowledge that they have as a key player in the network. This type of MP was found to submit more questions than their respective colleges in the same select committees or APPGs, indicating higher engagement with the issue.

The popular one 

This very important MP sits at the heart of the network. They have closer social access to other MPs in the network, highlighting connectivity and being at the centre of the flow of information. This centrality gives them easier access to the flow of information and as a result this social network influences their behaviour by being linked to a higher rate of raising questions within parliament. Some MPs worth noting are Kate Green, Tim Farron and Olivia Blake who were identified as key actors and as ‘Popular’ MPs. These MPs had the shortest pathways to other MPs in the network and therefore had a higher rate of written question submission.

The busy one 

This MP is in a lot of social groups, they are in select committees and multiple APPGs meaning they know a lot of MPs. Their social network is larger than those of other MPs in their network. In the refugee policy network, Afzal Khan was the busiest MP. However, surprisingly, there was no evidence that this gave them structural advantage. The assumption that knowing more MPs and having a larger network would mean MPs knew more, had access to more information and contacts, and therefore would encourage them to be more engaged in a specific policy area turned out not to be true. Someone like Afzal Khan was no more likely than his colleagues to submit written questions about refugees. Simply knowing more MPs or being involved in more parliamentary groups doesn’t mean an MP ends up doing more.

While being a member of a social network matters, it is the MP’s specific social, or structural position within this network that has the greatest impact on how they perform in their role.

The social climber 

This MP is well connected to other well-connected MPs, demonstrating that they are part of the ‘popular’ groups in the parliamentary system. Initially it was assumed that as this type of MP came into contact with other well-connected MPs, it would give them a structural social advantage, leading to more engagement in the policy world they were socialising in. In other words, the thought was that their more connected and involved network would lead to an increase in their engagement. This has not been proven to be the case, however, no matter what the size of an MP’s network. Simply being an MP of a party with a larger representation, like the Conservative party, and therefore having a larger network than the MPs of smaller parties, does not increase their activity.

Where you sit in the social network matters

While being a member of a social network matters, it is the MP’s specific social, or structural position within this network that has the greatest impact on how they perform in their role. Simply having a bigger social network and joining more groups doesn’t seem to have a great effect on an MP’s levels of engagement compared to their colleagues. However, occupying the right kind of structural position, such as being the middleman or popular MP can end up having a noticeable impact on how an MP conducts themselves within parliament and how they advocate for particular groups.

It’s not enough for an MP to be in a select committee or APPG if they want to have an impact – MPs have to position themselves carefully within these networks. Parliamentary researchers should continue to look into social network analysis if they want to better understand how the social world of MPs affects and shapes their influence.

All articles posted on this blog give the views of the author(s), and not the position of LSE British Politics and Policy, nor of the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Image credit: Claudio Divizia on Shutterstock


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