Can we Escape Political Brands? The Problem with ‘Vote for Policies’

At this point in the British electoral cycle (informally known as the “holy crap, there’s an election really soon!” point), social media get filled up with various websites and applications designed to quiz your political views and then tell you which political party you’re closest to. There are the usual suspects – the always-interesting Political Compass assesses the main parties’ electoral platforms and places them on its classic grid, while VoteMatch asks you to agree or disagree with a series of statements to give you a sense of who you agree with.

aisles

Vote for Policies works slightly differently. It simply puts up each party’s own description of its policy platform in a series of key areas – “from the political parties themselves – in their own words”, the website says – and fully anonymises them. You are asked to read each description of policies and pick your favourites. At the end, you get told who you actually ended up supporting.

Commentators are taking notice of the fact that there are some interesting outcomes emerging from people’s usage of the site. Craig Ling at Grayling describes how a quarter of the tens of thousands of respondents found themselves agreeing most with the Green Party (currently setting up lasting residence at about 6% support in most national polls).

In general (and somewhat like Political Compass and the rest), these findings may not indicate much more than the existence of a left-wing bias around politically interested internet users. But Ling describes a different virtue to this approach. By removing these stated policy positions from the ‘brands’ of the parties that produced them, we might get closer to actually finding out about people’s political beliefs, and who they would support in the absence of such biases:

Now of course, there is no guarantee that users of the site are entirely representative of the UK population, but 400,000 is a hell of a sample and frankly puts the Ashcroft Polling to shame. And it’s interesting to see what happens to people’s voting intention once the party leaders are removed from the equation and the public are forced to look beyond Ed Miliband’s bacon sandwich incident, David Cameron’s Eton image, and Nick Clegg’s U-turn on Tuition Fees. Is there a case to be made for online voting in this model?

But there is a deeper problem revealed by Vote For Policies’ approach, and shared to some extent by the other sites and apps that try to give people a sense of which party they should be voting for. Simply put, it relies too heavily on the idea that an attractive policy can provide sufficient grounds for the formation of a political preference. The truth is that stated policy objectives will often never be realised in government, or may involve complexities in terms of funding and trade-offs in other areas.

In other words, the realism of these political platforms is not taken into account, or even presented as a relevant consideration, while people are choosing between manifestos on ‘Vote for Policies’.

It’s a bit like someone buying products in a supermarket based simply on what’s written on the back of their packets, or choosing which supermarket to visit based on the claims set out in their advertising. Like it or not, ‘brands’ can communicate far more information than advertising bumpf, and allows us to consider our own understanding and existing knowledge about the products in question.

Brands send certain signals, and allow us to access our experience and memory about a certain product. These associations can be positive or negative – nasty party seems to be an inescapable association for the Conservatives, years after that descriptor was first applied – but they nevertheless are important parts of the reasons we have to vote the way we do. What’s the point of finding myself in strong agreement with the policies of a Green Party that has literally no incentive to take political realities into account while writing its manifesto? Isn’t it important to bear in mind what I’ve learned about the competence and capability of a given party when assessing their positions?

‘Vote for Policies’ and other sites are providing a service, and may encourage more (and more thoughtful) voting overall. But they also operate from the assumption that policy platforms are the most important of the reasons to cast our votes, and this may be a mistake.

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Political Ignorance and the British Public

This is the draft of a piece whose definitive, considerably better final version has been published on the LSE British Politics and Policy blog as On the Complex Relationship Between Political Ignorance and Democracy.

Public ignorance is a central consideration in my academic work, which encourages the idea that politics, at least in part, is best understood as throwing up considerable ‘knowledge problems’; problems that are pervasive at every level of participation and administration in contemporary democratic states. The justification of democracy must, if it is to have meaning, take the political ignorance of democratic citizens seriously.

sheep

The media occasionally pick up on and discuss the depth and significance of the most obvious kind of political ignorance – that displayed by would-be voters. Naturally enough, these concerns can make for attention-grabbing headlines as our minds are concentrated by the rapid approach of a general election. The Independent‘s buzzfeed-imitating ‘i100’ site recently pointed out some recently-accumulated evidence:

46% of respondents were unaware that a general election is taking place this year

57% of respondents were unaware of what a general election is

59% of respondents could not name the current British Prime Minister

How trustworthy is this evidence? Well – not very trustworthy at all, methodologically. As i100 noted, the 1900-odd respondents were an unweighted sample, quizzed via email by a voucher codes website. We’re learning a lot about the political ignorance of the savings-savvy with a bit of time on their hands, perhaps, but should be wary of extrapolating such information into a generalised indictment of the state of public political knowledge.

But are these statistics outliers? Do they fail to correspond with existing (more sound) empirics on similar questions? Would an expert on public opinion be surprised by these findings?

Absolutely not. While most research around public ignorances arises from surveys conducted in the USA, there’s a growing body of work concerned specifically with the UK context as well, and the majority of such evidence confirms the realism of the statistics set out above.

For example, Denver & Hands have found that 77% of British 18-year-olds cannot reliably differentiate between the policy platforms of mainstream political parties. When the survey is limited to those who are students or former students in politics, this figure only improves to 50%.

More recently, a survey for the Royal Statistical Society and KCL provided a widely-reported embarrassment of riches in this area, including:

  • the general belief that under-age pregnancies are  25x more common than they actually are
  • the over-estimation of the severity of benefit fraud by 24x
  • 29% of those surveyed thought that Jobseekers’ Allowance is more expensive to the taxpayer than pensions, when the latter costs about 15x more
  • The generalised belief that crime and violent crime rates were rising, when in fact they have been falling for decades
  • The systematic over-estimation of immigration rates

These findings are particularly interesting in that they seem to indicate a kind of pessimistic bias in British political ignorance. Is it possible that many of these areas imagine things to be worse than they actually are because of the media and cultural landscape in which we find ourselves? In a more balanced informational environment, would we cease to be wrong, or simply cease to be wrong in a systematically pessimistic way?

For now, we can at least say that there’s no need to turn to i100’s dodgy sources if we want to get a sense of the ‘knowledge problems’ at work in British democracy – but we needn’t dismiss those findings as unrealistic, either.

The next, fascinating challenge is to offer meaningful and relevant political theory in response to such evidence. Cynicism – or, at least, simplistic cynicism – need not be the only response available to us. Within the British context, the extent of public ignorance may even have the surprising effect of helping us to make peace with the various systemic and electoral features of our political establishment that make the public far less influential than they might imagine or prefer themselves to be. After all, what’s the value of a more responsive electoral system – of more democracy – if the wider citizenry is incapable of voting well?

My own research strikes a more positive note than this, and tries to offer a more encouraging justification of democracy. More on that in future posts.

Just as most empirical work on public ignorance comes from the USA, so too does most of the theoretical consideration of its implications. To those interested in reading a critical perspective on democracy due to the extent of political ignorance, I’d say that this (plentifully controversial) book by Ilya Somin is a really great starting point.