Parliamentarian swap

30th April, 2005

Dear Economist,

I would like to be able to judge whether my MP has done a good job over the past few years. Can you suggest criteria by which this can be done objectively?
— Steven Slaughter, Henfield, Sussex

Dear Mr Slaughter,
In the internet age, there is no shortage of data. Check for your ex-MP, Howard Flight’s, voting record and for details on anything from his ski chalet in France to the likelihood that he will respond to a fax within a fortnight (76 per cent). But since he has just been sacked by his own party, go easy on him.

What about a table ranking all MPs on such criteria? The trouble is that the table will omit important variables. Is it fair to condemn Alex Salmond for attending fewer debates than Martin Linton, since Salmond lives in Scotland and Linton in London? Diane Abbott seems slower at answering faxes than Ann Widdecombe – is this laziness or are the problems of Abbott’s inner-city constituents more intractable than those in sleepy Maidstone?

Fortunately, economists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Poverty Action Lab have pioneered the technique of randomised trials. New drugs have long been tested this way; now we can apply the technique to policies, organisations, and even MPs.

After the election, what we need to do is mix MPs up at random. Abbott might go to Maidstone, Widdecombe to Scotland, and Salmond can see how Scottish nationalism goes down in London. Labour will represent the rural shires and the Conservatives can try Sheffield. At that point a simple regression analysis should untangle geographical effects from your MP’s personal characteristics, unmasking the slackers.

All we need now is the reality television show. “Parliamentarian Swap”, anyone?

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