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Sex, Drugs, Money and Old School Ties - Which Bits of MPs' Lives Really Matter?

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Which bits of MPs' lives really matter? The real scandal can be found on a politician's CV...

One of the bugbears of being a politician is the risk that a controversy might erupt at any time about things that have little or no direct connection with their day-to-day work. Recently David Cameron has been criticised for surrounding himself with alumni of his own school, Eton, who (so the charge runs) cannot understand the day-to-day lives of normal people. Other stories down the years have concerned politicians' finances, sexual affairs, family connections and youthful indiscretions.

What really irritates voters? YouGov set out to find out in a survey for The Times. We listed fourteen characteristics that might be considered to disqualify someone from becoming a leading politician, and asked people to identify the three or four (if any) that mattered most. The vast majority ticked at least one of them: only 12% did not. The table below shows what we found.

Q. Here are some characteristics that some people feel are unsuitable in leading politicians.

Which three or four of these, if any, do you think are most unsuitable in a leading politician?

%
BACKROUND
That they had never had a "real" job outside the worlds of national politics/think tanks/journalism/local government before becoming an MP  55 
That they went to Eton and don't understand how normal people live  38 
That one of their parents was an MP and so they had the right connections when they wanted to enter politics  20 
That they are interested only in politics and not in anything else (music, theatre, cinema, sport etc)  12 
MONEY
That they have a few million pounds and use legal methods to minimise their tax bill such as setting up trust funds for their children 41 
That they worked as an investment bank, earning more than a million pounds a year, before becoming an MP 24 
That before becoming an MP they went through a period of bankruptcy because their business failed  9 
SEX
That since becoming an MP, they had an affair with someone else's wife/husband  17 
That they campaigned to be an MP as a happily married heterosexual, only to admit later that they were gay  14 
YOUTHFUL INDISCRETIONS
That they belonged to a far-right party in their youth  15 
That they took cocaine or heroin when they were young  13 
That they belonged to the Communist Party in their youth  10 
That they posed in the nude for an adult magazine when they were young   5 
That they were caught shoplifting when they were a teenager   5 

Having been to Eton comes third. By far the biggest concern is leading politicians who never had a 'real' job outside politics and associated trades before becoming an MP. Fortunately, or unfortunately, for the main parties, this applies to all three leaders of the main parties. Ukip's Nigel Farage comes closest to passing this test, having been a commodities trader; however it is a moot point these days whether a previous career in finance impresses voters more than having been in public relations (Cameron), the office of a Labour front-bencher (Ed Miliband) or the European Commission (Nick Clegg).

The second biggest irritation is rich politicians 'using legal methods to minimise their tax bill such as setting up trust funds for their children'. On this, as on having been to Eton, there is a notable political divide. It is not Left-Right, but possibly more intriguing. Conservative and Liberal Democrat voters are more relaxed on both things, and Labour and Ukip voters more offended. This adds to the evidence from other recent YouGov research that Ukip appeals not just to people who are to the right of the Conservatives but also to many voters who feel alienated from the world of Westminster politics.

Two other factors concern between a fifth and a quarter of all voters: having become a millionaire as an investment banker before becoming an MP, and having the right political connections because one of their parents was an MP.

After that, the numbers tail off. Most voters refuse to get worked up about three kinds of characteristics:

  • Sex: adultery and a gay past concern few people - even when MPs seek to conceal their sexuality by campaigning as happily married
  • Past business failure – only 9% pick a period of past bankruptcy as a major factor
  • Youthful indiscretions, whether concern sex, drugs (even cocaine), shoplifting or extremist politics. One Labour frontbencher recently admitted to having posed topless when she was a teenager. This disclosure has not harmed her career. This is not surprising: very few voters mind.

Not only do the results of this survey demonstrate a clear differences between those things that matter to voters and those that don't; they also explode some myths. The over-sixties are NOT more censorious than younger voters about MPs who commit adultery or who went a bit wild when they were young (though older voters do tend to be more concerned about MPs who get elected by concealing their sexuality).

Nor are Londoners significantly more 'metropolitan' in their liberalism than men and women from other parts of Britain. Their attitudes to, say, adultery and to past cocaine use, are in line with the national average.

The one issue on which there is a distinct regional pattern concerns the controversy that triggered this survey in the first place: the cluster of old Etonians around the Prime Minister. This offends Londoners least. Dislike of this phenomenon rises the further people live away from London, and his highest of all in Scotland.

The big picture, though, is fairly straightforward. For most people, what matters are those things that influence the capacity of senior politicians to understand normal people, empathise with their difficulties and tackle their problems. Other stories, especially to do with sex and anything that happened long ago, might excite news editors and amuse their readers and viewers, but don't really persuade voters to dump the targets of such disclosures.

See full poll results

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