Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Listen to Me!

In a fascinating article David Runciman writes of how the polls at the beginning of an election campaign are closer to the result than those at its end. However, he disputes the received academic wisdom that people are not moved by campaigns – they are, and they do change their minds; only in the poll booth they return to their original position, before the election was announced.

He mentions the Responsible Voter thesis to explain this; going on to suggest particular reasons for the vote at this general election: widespread dissatisfaction with the ruling party in poor economic times. Though in trying to understand regional variations, and the difference between Scotland and England, he has the brilliant insight that in this election there were two opposition parties. The Conservatives in England, and the Labour Party in London and Scotland. This saved Labour from a much larger defeat.

The world's gone topsy-turvy!

Extraordinary. Hours and hours of media coverage, millions of pounds spent, a whole library of words and… the X on the ballot paper doesn’t shift. How satisfying, despite all the advertising we maintain our freedom! to choose who we like. This feeling, I think, is captured by the description Responsible Voter – it implies the victory of common sense, and solid citizenship. This is echoed by Runciman:

So what were all these responsible voters trying to achieve by voting the way they eventually did?

But does it explain anything? It describes a fact: people’s votes are not greatly affected by election campaigns (something that could be used to improve public services – all savings to be spent on front line delivery?). But does it really tell us why people voted the way they did? If you decided to vote BNP in December 2009, and were not swayed by the arguments before May 2010, are you a responsible voter?

The key is in Runciman’s quote above: it assumes the voters choose they politics: like toilet rolls in the supermarket.

Do they? Since politics are mixed up with identity and values it seems unlikely. For many people it is possible that they cannot choose their politics – they are handcuffed to their favourite party. While with others a general atmosphere is formed, a climate of opinion, which affects them over a prolonged period of time, and it’s this that decides their vote. In both cases, a clear choice between reasoned positions is not what is happening.

How do choose your football team – by comparing different sides, weighing up the statistical evidence, the chances of success, the amount of joy they are likely to produce? For most, I would imagine, the choice is hardly conscious.

If Runciman is right and there are huge changes during the campaign, it suggests both the power of images and ideas – to change our opinions –, and they weakness: they inability to change our actions (a mash up of ideas, beliefs, feelings, memories….etc). This dichotomy may also apply to the media: massive effects on our perceptions and ideas, but little on our core values (or only slowly, over decades).

It is this difference, between ideas and actions, that needs to be explained; which in turn may elucidate why a majority of voters are slow to change their voting practices. Political analysis, however, tends to concentrate on the surface realities, the ideas and opinions, and how they are now! this moment. They leave out the causal factors that determine the overall pattern of our politics.

Yet, if this were done systematically imagine the result: huge reductions in comment and analysis in the mainstream media. For all that surface change and glitter, all the baubles that excite the commentators, would be exposed as insignificant. Would anything take its place?

So, if we are not responsible voters, what are we? Habitual ones? I think this is closer to the mark. Ideas, the signs and slogans, are like battering rams undermining our habits and received impressions. Yet, like medieval castles, they continue to survive. It is this conflict, which needs investigation – it would give us insight into political and cultural changes, and might help us understand the nature of change in the human animal. 

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