Elections upside down

We’re tumbling down the timetable slope to the sudden-death slugfest that is a general election in Britain. Here is one perspective on voting which political journalists very seldom give you.

There has been some good commentary recently on the gap between what the political, chattering classes think is important and what makes any impression on the mass of voters. The gap is wide and the best descriptions of this are from Daniel Finkelstein in The Times, an avid reader of the literature which maps the gap.

What you hear about much less often is the extent to which voters use their mark on the voting paper to reject and not to endorse. Political science, politicians and the correspondents who follow them assume that an election is the policy equivalent of a buffet meal, a smorgasbord of possible choices.The voter is generously invited to the feast of manifesto policies and invited to choose a dish.

In seeing things this way the political class frequently exaggerates small nuances of policy difference into “gulfs”, “battles” and “clear blue water”. Politicians do this because they have to. Political journalists do it both because the politicians are doing it and because it appears to make horse-race politics more interesting.

What this perspective misses is the frequency with which voters use their once-in-five-years power to reject and not to endorse. Their actions are simpler than politicians often realise but also quite sophisticated. Voters intuit that campaigns will tell them little about politicians or parties which have not held power. But it does tell about what has been done with power by those who have held it.

Whether there is reliable survey evidence for this I don’t know, but I’m sure that at the moment of choice for a floating or undecided voter…rejecting what you know you don’t want weighs heavily. In 1983 in Britain, Margaret Thatcher was not a widely popular leader. She had put a lot of people out of work. But the coalition of voters (Conservative plus Liberal Democrats) who did not want the Labour party to win was much biggger. The wish to keep Labour, badly led and on a self-destructive lurch to the left at the time, outweighed all other factors.

In Poland in June 1989, pundits chewed their pipe stems and wondered exactly what balance of power would result from the watershed decision to allow people to vote for Solidarity. Many voices, understandably fearing Soviet armed intervention, prayed for a Solidarity-Communist coalition. These analysts failed to see that one motive trumped all others in the voting booth: the need to remove Communists from power. Many Polish voters were doubtful or ignorant of Solidarity potential in government. But that was secondary to the imperative to seize the new opportunity to reject the worst.

Following this logic, I think that the pundits and polls may be undercounting the Conservative chances of unseating the Gordon Brown government. When it comes to the crunch will a wish to see New Labour retired beat out doubts about whether the Cameron crew are up to the job? My guess is that rejection of Brown will drive more votes than we think.


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