Literature Review: The effect of geographical distance on representation

FOTO CREDITS: Market Street Railway

Willumsen, D. M. (2018) ‘So far away from me? The effect of geographical distance on representation’, West European Politics (online first). DOI: 10.1080/01402382.2018.1530887.

Not all representatives work under the same conditions. The geographical distance of MPs’ districts to the capital is a key factor creating systematic inequality and often overlooked in studies of representation. In his recent paper in West European Politics, David M. Willumsen gets involved with the different legislative behavior of MPs as a consequence of the time it takes them to travel between the two work places in their constituency and in parliament. Assuming that long-distance commutes reduce the time available for representative and legislative tasks, the author disentangles parliamentary actions according to the time they consume: while voting is said to be time demanding because it requires attending a session at a specific date, Early Day Motions require a signature only. Making use of novel data for the British House of Commons (2005-2015), the paper reveals how the remoteness of MPs’ constituencies correlates with these two distinct types of activities. The findings show that those legislators who have to travel back home for several hours are less likely to attend votes, in particular at the end of the week. If frequently absent, legislators try to compensate by signing Early Day Motions – independent of whether their nonattendance is caused by long travels to parliament or other reasons. Representatives from peripheral constituencies even use Early Day Motions more frequently than their colleagues from more central districts if they manage to attend many votes. This indicates a distinct role perception of legislators representing center and periphery. MPs from more remote districts use their legislative activity to communicate their efforts to promote local issues nationally to their electorate that they barely ever see.

The empirical evidence presented in the paper depicts in a very convincing manner that even in the 21st century and given modern technologies, geography matters for representation. I was, however, wondering whether alternative causal mechanisms might be at play. The assumption that travel time is “wasted” (p.4) might have been appropriate in earlier decades but seems harder to justify given that people might work on computers while traveling, often even with a functioning internet connection. Instead, the main difference between the two legislative activities under study seems to be legislators’ capacity to participate, independent of where in the country they are working. While representatives need to attend a vote, thus be physically present, Early Day Motions might be signed from anywhere and at any time. As often in studies of legislative behavior, the causal mechanisms build on complex assumptions concerning representatives’ intentions about which we actually know rather little, making me wonder how one might be able to get a better grasp on why representatives act the way they do.

By Corinna Kroeber in December 2018

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