Born Politicians? Testing Multiple Explanations of Political Ambition in Britain

Project: Research council

Project Details


This project will answer the question of why some people hold ambitions to run for political office, at any level, whilst others do not. This research will examine different explanations for why some British people are politically ambitious and others are not and assess which factors hold the greatest influence over, and interrelate, to affect individuals' levels of political ambition. The four key explanations that I focus on are the personality types of individual people, the way that they came to know about politics as a child, what they can learn about politics from political elites, and the availability of political offices to actually run for, seeking to understand how these drive political ambition. Alongside these, I will take into account individual, compositional and contextual influences, such as sex, ethnicity, age, education, and information about the areas that people live in, like their socio-economic profile and geographic location.

Robert Louis Stevenson said that 'politics is perhaps the only profession for which no preparation is thought necessary', yet despite this, it seems that it is the same kind of people who always run for political office. The last thirty or so years has seen the House of Commons come to be dominated by a middle class, highly-educated, largely male and largely white group of individuals, often referred to as the 'political class'. The same story can be seen on local councils. In the context of increasing levels of political disillusionment and declining electoral turnout, it is important that we ask why a more diverse group of people aren't putting themselves forward to be politicians.

To answer this crucial question, I propose to collect high-quality data from a representative sample of the British population on levels of political ambition across the country. Within the framework of a conceptual model that distinguishes between having the intention to run for political office and actually doing so, I will use novel measures of factors such as the 'Big Five' personality traits and early-life socialisation to assess how different experiences and characteristics affect the process of emerging as a political candidate. I adopt advanced statistical models to examine whether other compositional and contextual factors, such as the socio-demographic profile of the area or whether or not you live near London, affect your levels of political ambition. In short, this project will for the first time in Britain ask why some people are politically ambitious and others are not, and in the process, allow us to highlight ways in which we can make our political life more diverse, inclusive, and democratic.

Planned Impact

I identify five stakeholder groups who might benefit from the research I propose to undertake. The first stakeholders are academics within my discipline of political behaviour. For greater detail on the academic impact of this research, please see the Academic Beneficiaries section.

I identify four further non-academic stakeholder groups who are likely to benefit from, or take an interest in, the proposed research project. These are 1. Political parties, 2. Think-tanks and third sector organisations, 3. Members of the general public who might consider running for political office, 4. The media.

The overall impact will be to raise awareness about issues surrounding the development and cultivation of political ambition and to ensure that those involved in the business of politics better understand the reasons why some people have an interest in running for political office while others don't, and why some people act on this interest and actually run while others don't. The empirical findings of the research will identify specific barriers that prevent or dissuade many people from running for political office in addition to offering potential solutions to remove these. If adopted by the stakeholders detailed above, these findings and solutions could have a transformative effect on representative democracy in Britain today, potentially re-engaging large numbers of disenfranchised citizens and encouraging them to participate once again in the political process, possibly even by running for office themselves. In short, by identifying the barriers that prevent a broader range of people from attempting to enter the 'political class' themselves, this research may open the way for those barriers to be removed, and for the backgrounds of those who sit in Parliament to better reflect the reality of the world outside. This broader impact can be broken down across the four stakeholder groups.

First, I intend for political parties to take interest in the research and utilise it in the design of new policies for the recruitment of prospective political candidates at different levels of politics. The findings of this project will identify specific barriers that prevent many members of the public from either considering, or acting on an interest in, running for political office. With clear evidence about these obstacles, political parties will be best placed to engage and encourage those individuals who traditionally do not run for political office, something of clear democratic value to British political life. Second, I intend for think-tanks and organisations such as the Electoral Reform Society, Hansard Society, Catch22, and Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) to build on the findings of my research and engage with political parties and myself. Together, we will develop policy solutions that can be used to overcome the barriers identified in my research and encourage a broader range of people to run for office than those who generally do. Third, I intend for members of the public to reflect on the reasons why many of them choose not to run for political office. Potentially, this reflection could result in some seeking out more information about running for office, and then actually doing so. Finally, the media will benefit from the findings. They will be able to supplement existing discussions of the 'political class' and political recruitment that are based largely on anecdote or are polemical, with quantitative evidence and robust findings.
Effective start/end date1/09/1730/09/18


  • Economic and Social Research Council

UN Sustainable Development Goals

In 2015, UN member states agreed to 17 global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all. This project contributes towards the following SDG(s):

  • SDG 5 - Gender Equality


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