Mark's Musings

A miscellany of thoughts and opinions from an unimportant small town politician and bit-part web developer

Why you can’t just vote for policies


As we approach the general election in May, a number of websites have sprung up (and more will probably follow) where you can compare the various policies of the parties competing for your vote. The idea is that you can then make an unbiased judgement about the policies proposed by each party, and choose which to vote for accordingly. One of the sites which does this is the aptly-named Vote for Policies, and as their founder explains:

“I wanted other people to let go of their preconceptions, to see past the spin and judge parties on the policies they were proposing.”

The problem is that this doesn’t work. You can’t just vote for policies alone. That is not to say that policies are unimportant, because they clearly are. But there are other aspects of casting your vote which matter as well. You can’t simply look at the manifestos of each party and decide who to vote for based only on that.

There are two main reasons why you can’t just decide how to vote based solely on how well each party matches up to your own preferences.

It isn’t just what you say, it’s also what you do.

The first is that policies are not the only thing which matters. And it isn’t, as a blog post on Vote for Policies suggests, just a straightforward choice between policy and personality:

“Do you decide how to vote on policy or personality? Is it better to put emotion aside, and focus on which policies a party is offering?”

This is a false dichotomy. For a start, it isn’t necessarily an emotional choice to consider a candidate’s personality. A key part of an elected representative’s role is dealing with the general public; you have to be comfortable being in the public eye, you have to be at ease in social settings and you have to be open and approachable. These are personality traits, but they matter.

I think most people would also agree that it’s important for MPs and other elected representatives to be hard working, honest and transparent. You can’t judge this on their policies alone, you can only assess them from their interaction with you and with the media. And it’s entirely rational to make that assessment. It may be harder to assess than how well you like their policies, but that doesn’t mean it should be ignored.

The other issue here is that policies and personality are not the only factors. There are aspects of a candidate’s personal life which really don’t matter very much, such as where they went to school or university, who they are married to or what their parents did for a living. But what they do now is relevant. So is their experience of work outside politics. These aren’t policy issues, but they do affect how suitable a candidate is for the role.

One very important factor in a candidate’s suitability is their competence. Government isn’t just about having a set of policies and applying them rigidly in every situation. Making the right decisions about circumstances as they arise is probably the single defining factor of an administration’s success – or lack of it.

Obviously, these decisions will be guided by policies and principles, and there will often be cases where there is a clear difference of approach between parties. But there will also be many cases where there is no clear-cut ideological answer, and the administration has to make a purely pragmatic choice.

Having confidence that one party is more likely to get these questions right is a very powerful reason to prefer them over other parties. Often, it’s even a reason to prefer them over a party that you may feel more in tune with as far as their policies are concerned.

It’s a lot easier to promise the moon on a stick than it is to make a stick long enough to deliver it.

The second reason why you can’t just choose a party based on their policies is that the policies themselves can be misleading.

Most of the policy matching applications tend to over-state the extent to which you agree with the fringe parties. If you are politically inclined to the left, you will find that the Greens are surprisingly representative of your point of view. If you are inclined to the right, you will find a strong convergence between your views and Ukip’s. You might even find that Respect and the BNP come into it, as well.

It doesn’t take a lot of thought to realise why this is the case. The fringe parties know that they have no prospect of real power – the best they can hope for is to be the king-makers in a hung parliament – and therefore they have no need to focus on practical, achievable policies.

The mainstream parties have to be realistic – or, at least, try to be realistic – in their manifestos. In particular, both the Conservatives and Labour have to ensure that their policies are costed, as not doing so will be a huge electoral liability. They also have to be careful to avoid making promises that they will probably need to break if they win, no matter how popular those policies may be.

The fringe parties, by contrast, can be as populist as they like. They can cherry pick from a shopping list of dog-whistle policies which appeal to their target demographic, whether or not those policies are practical or achievable in the real world. And that will be reflected in how many of their policies you find yourself agreeing with on a policy match website.

You wouldn’t hire the CEO of a multi-trillion organisation just by getting them to fill in an application form.

I’m not saying that policies are unimportant. Clearly, they are. But it’s a huge mistake to vote for policies alone. Choosing your next MP, and our next government, can’t be reduced to a simple tick-box exercise.

By all means, study the policies. But study other things too. Which party do you think will be more likely to make the right decisions on a day to day basis once in power? Which prospective prime minister do you think is the most up to the job? Which of your candidates for MP, or for any other elected position, is the most able to engage effectively with the local community? And when it comes to policies, which are realistic and achievable and which are just populism aimed at harvesting votes?

It would be nice if there was a website which aimed to answer all of those in a nice, simple fashion, in the way that the policy matching sites claim to do for policies. But there isn’t. And there can’t be.

If you want to make an informed, rational choice about who to vote for, you need to make sure that you inform yourself. Read the news. Watch the politicians on TV. Go along to local hustings. Connect with candidates on social media. And yes, check the policies and see which appeal to you. But above all, make your decision holistically rather than just focussing on one aspect of it.