Philip Cowley

What’s more important to voters? Coherent policy or the chance to ‘send a message’

What's more important to voters? Coherent policy or the chance to 'send a message'
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What are you doing when you vote? Much of the discussion about elections assumes – implicitly or explicitly – 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.

    Women were slightly more likely to select symbolic motivations (45%) over policy (41%), whereas men more were likely to select policy motivations (50%) over symbolic ones (41%).  Middle class (ABC1) respondents were more likely to select policy (51%) over symbolic motivations (41%), whereas working class (C2DE) respondents were more likely to select symbolic motivations (48%) over policy (38%).

    But the largest differences were between the ways supporters of the different parties behaved. Conservative voters overwhelmingly selected policy, by 65% to 28%. They are the only party’s supporters to select policy over symbolism, and they do so overwhelmingly. Lib Dems split pretty evenly between the two (47% policies versus 49% symbolic). Labour supporters, however, see their vote as more about sending a message (53% symbolic compared to 40% policy).

    And then we have Ukip and the Greens.  Both, overwhelmingly, see their vote as being about sending a message, rather than requiring a coherent policy programme. For Ukip voters, the figures were 30% policy, 63% symbolic. For Green voters, it was 32% policy, 64% symbolic. (There weren’t enough responses for the SNP, or Plaid, to be analysed separately with any confidence). The net score – that is, the percentage selecting policy minus the percentage selecting the message – for each party is shown in the figure below.

    This shouldn’t be taken to mean that policy doesn’t matter to Green or Ukip voters (or indeed, that it is all that most Conservatives care about).  But most Green or Ukip voters clearly see the act of voting differently to the way most Conservatives voters (or indeed many Lib Dem and Labour voters) see it.

    In particular, this might help explain why policy attacks on parties like the Greens or Ukip appear less effectual than they might normally be.  Pointing out to a Green or Ukip supporter that the sums don’t add up, or that a policy won’t work, might not matter much if the policies are less important than just sending a message.

    Philip Cowley is Professor of Parliamentary Government at the University of Nottingham, and is co-editor of Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box (published by Biteback).

    Total sample size was 1,749 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken by YouGov between 3-4 February 2015.  The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).