What things affect how a person votes?

I wrote about this issue on another website some time ago as lots of mud was being thrown as to who had what right to do what following the formation of the Coalition.

For those who take the active decision to place their cross in a given box, I came to the view that there are a number of broad themes that impact where that cross goes:

  • They like an individual person who is standing in their area
  • They agree with the values of the political party that they are voting for
  • They think that the leader of said political party would make a good prime minister
  • Their family/friends are tied to a candidate/party through historical/religious/cultural links
  • They want to keep out a certain candidate and go for the person most likely to keep them out
  • They’ve read through all of the manifestos in detail and have chosen the one they think will be best for them and/or society
  • They are voting on a uniquely local issue that cannot be modelled for or replicated elsewhere
  • The state of the economy
  • The performance of a specific party if/when it was last in power.

There may be others – the above-list isn’t definitive.

When people express astonishment at how individual MPs or councillors got elected, we have to remember that, despite what people (especially party political types) say, all votes listed cannot be attributed to the personal qualities of an individual candidate. Ditto with the quality of leader, state of a party, quality of opposition or quality of manifesto.

The problem is that it is very difficult to attribute what the reasons were as to people voting the way that they did. For example, how many people voted Labour or Conservative at the last general election despite the leaderships of Gordon Brown and David Cameron respectively? How many people chose to vote for the Liberal Democrats specifically because of their party’s policy on tuition fees? How many people voted tactically to keep out one or another party? How many people voted for a specific party despite (or because) of its candidate? Is a candidate with a reputation for not towing the party line more likely to gain votes than lose them?

My point in all of this is that it is a risky business attributing a single reason to raw numbers – especially when it comes to specific policies. This is what makes me nervous about the idea of justifying policy actions purely on ‘manifesto commitments’ alone (rather than continuing to make the case post-election based on evidence) because this assumes that the majority of people have read all of the manifestos and have made their votes according to their judgement on said manifestos.

In terms of the tuition fees debate, the two main parties hid behind the ‘Browne Review‘ which was not due to report in full until after the election. This major policy decision on bringing in the extended top-up fees was taken as a result of a review that spent only £68,000 on research. For a policy that is going to have such a seismic impact on a large section of our economy and society, the size of the research budget is pathetically small. As far as the ‘manifesto’ argument, no one voted for that policy – because no major party stood on an election platform explicitly containing it.

In the 2010 election, I sent emails to every single candidate standing in my local area with a list of identical questions so as to compare their answers. I also made it my business to go through at least the summaries of all of the manifestos of the political parties that were standing in my area. (I’m also a canvasser’s worst nightmare (or biggest challenge) at national election time – ultra-familiar with the workings of Whitehall and Westminster but also a floating voter who has never been attached to any one political party). I suspect most people have got other things to do…

…in which case, do parts of the population take a view that they will vote for the party based on values similar to theirs and then expect them to ‘get on with it’ if said party is elected to govern?

We also have MPs that have multiple functions, which complicates things even more. An MP is expected to:

  1. Represent the interests of ALL of his or her constituents
  2. Scrutinise the executive (the government of the day)
  3. Help scrutinise and (if a member of the governing party) pass new laws
  4. If on a select committee, undertake detailed scrutiny of a specific department, along with scrutinising other individuals or organisations that fall within its competency (think #Hackgate and the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee, or the banking crisis and the Treasury Select Committee)
  5. If appointed to ministerial office, serve as a minister of the Crown.

My take is that roles 2 and 5 are incompatible; there is a massive conflict of interest for an MP to be a member of the same organisation it is charged with holding to account. It is also why if you have an MP who is a member of the government of the day, you will never see them standing up in the House of Commons asking oral Parliamentary Questions or taking part in Parliamentary debates.

Given that the UK has almost 120 ministers (of which some sit in the Lords) that means about 1/6 of the members of the House of Commons cannot perform their full duties – i.e. scrutinising the government of the day as they are members of that very same government. This means that in any ‘whipped’ vote (i.e. one where governing party officials ‘tell’ their MPs which way to vote – either by asking nicely, merits of the vote, persuasion (“The PM might offer you a junior ministerial post in the next reshuffle”) or threats (“Wouldn’t it be awful if the tabloids found out about that!!”) [I’ve let my imagination run away, but you get the point] will automatically get around 100 votes in favour of the government’s view before everyone else has even considered the merits or otherwise of what’s been voted on.

Yet one of the arguments often made about having ministers being MPs in the House of Commons is that ‘we’ have voted for them. Well…one constituency has voted for them – the entire country, perhaps with the exceptions of the party leaders did not vote for individual ministers. I can’t recall anyone saying “Yeah – I’m voting for them because they’ve got this politician who’d make a cracking parliamentary undersecretary at the Department for Transport!” It just doesn’t wash. Also, we all have our own views on the quality (or otherwise) of individual MPs in the House of Commons. Conservative-watchers of this blog probably don’t rate a number of leftwing MPs just as the green-left watchers of this blog probably don’t rate those Conservative MPs who they view as being so right wing as to be off the pavement.

Personally at present I prefer a system that separates legislature from executive (where the leader of the party that wins the election becomes Prime Minister & appoints the best people s/he thinks best fit to ministerial posts), while still maintaining a system of monthly departmental question times, select committee hearings and bringing in confirmation hearings for ministerial appointments – so that Parliament has to formally approve the PM’s appointments. (I reserve the right to change my mind if any sound evidence put in front of me persuades me otherwise – no hostages to fortune!)

Yet having said all of the above, I’m missing one very big thing in all of this:

Strong data

Yep. In all of the bullet points I’ve used in this article, I have no idea what the percentages of people might vote in the way that they do for the reasons that they do. Given the importance elections have to underpinning our parliamentary democracy, I’m surprised that there’s little research in this field. Either that or if there is lots of quantitative and robust data in this field, that it has not been given anywhere near the level of publicity that it deserves. For example:

  • What’s the point on trying to debate manifesto points with people in a given constituency if the biggest influence on the way they vote are the personal attributes of a party leader?
  • What’s the point on trying to persuade how strong your party leader is to people in a different constituency if the party that this person leads happens to conflict strongly with that person’s values?

There’s also the issue of “safe” seats – why bother voting if historically the area you live in is a ‘safe as houses’ constituency for a party that you do not support? This is one of the arguments behind those in favour of voting reform.

This isn’t the post to get into the merits or otherwise of voting reform. It’s more a call for more research to find out what are the factors that influence people to vote in the way that they do, and to get a spread from across the country so as to take account of things like rural/urban, affluence/deprivation, mobility of population, age, health, education etc and other demographics to get a feel for whether there are any patterns that emerge. I for one would be fascinated to see the results of a widespread and in-depth study of this nature. But I can’t see anyone wanting to fund it in these times of austerity. Oh well. 

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5 Responses to What things affect how a person votes?

  1. hapsci says:

    You would think it would be in the interest of the political parties to do the research and collect the data. It could after all be used as a really effective tool to target their marketing and efforts. It’s how everyone else works out how to target and sell to people… If they really aren’t doing it at the moment, they are missing a trick!

  2. Jen says:

    Political parties do do this to an extent – see the use of focus groups. But the nature of the electoral system means that a relatively small number if voters in a limited number of constituencies are the only ones who really affect the overall election result. Their views on everything from leaders’ personalities to party politics are noted and acted on when parties hone their message. Whilst it might be interesting to see an overall picture with all the variables highlighted above, it’s not necessary for parties seeking office.

  3. Gail says:

    Or whether people vote at all!

    Thanks for writing this, a lovely plain english explanation.

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