What are you doing when you vote? Much of the discussion about elections assumes that voters are making a judgement about policies being put forward by the parties; that they would only vote for a party which had policies with which they broadly agreed; and, moreover, that these policies will have to form a vaguely coherent programme, and be realistic and affordable. Even allowing for that fact that we know that many voters don’t know the details of the various policies proposed, it is still widely assumed that they would care if they knew.
This is why there is so much discussion of policy proposals as elections approach (‘but how will you fund x, Minister?’), and this seems to be especially the case when discussing parties that are beginning
to break through and be serious political players: ‘You’re going to vote for [insert new party here]? Do you know that they support [insert ludicrous idea here]?’ This was seen most recently in Natalie Bennett’s less-than-assured interview with Andrew Neil, when she seemed unable to articulate or explain some of the Greens’ policies, but it is also a standard line when critiquing Ukip.
Ideally who wouldn’t want coherent policies? And they might, perhaps, be important to you. But what if they are not to other people? To test this, YouGov ran a simple question for me, asking people to choose between two statements that described possible motivations and expectations when voting. It asked:
Which of these two statements comes closest to describing you: When I vote in the general election, the party I choose must have coherent policies which they could implement in government. When I vote in the general election, the party I choose will be about sending a message about the sort of society I want to live in. The first is the more conventional policy motivation for voting, the second is more symbolic. Of course, many people will want both to be true, to be voting for a coherent set of policies which also sent a message about the sort of society they want, but the question format allows us to see which of these matters more to them.
Broadly speaking, the public split evenly between the two descriptions. Some 45% chose the policy motivation, 44% picked the symbolic, and the rest were unsure. In other words, people overall were just as likely to see their vote primarily as a symbolic act as one which was about wanting a coherent set of policies.
Until tomorrow: The human bird shall take his first flight, filling the world with amazement, all writings with his fame, and bringing eternal glory to the nest whence he sprang.