Actually, most people are happy with the result of the general election

One of the assertions that I keep seeing on social media and other websites is that only a minority of people voted for the current government, with the implication that it therefore lacks both popular support and legitimacy.

It’s become something of a self-replicating meme, particularly among those who still haven’t come to terms with the fact that their opinions weren’t shared by the majority of voters. I see it so often that I’ve decided to respond to it here, so that in future I can just point people at this article rather than having to type all of this every time.

Usually, this claim takes the form of pointing out that around 37% of votes were cast for the Conservatives, although some (such as Astroturf campaign group 38 Degrees) like to go further and assert that only 24% of the electorate voted for them on the basis that you have to take account of non-voters as well.

While technically true, however, this does not in any way support the implication that most people don’t support the current government.

For a start, the total proportion of votes cast were for a centre-right or right-wing party. If you add up the votes for the Conservatives, UKIP and the DUP then you get a bare majority (just over 50%) of all votes cast.

Given that there were only two realistic options for who would be Prime Minister, anyone voting for any party other than Labour or the Conservatives would only expect to be in power as part of a coalition. UKIP and the DUP are both broadly right of centre parties, although their agendas differ greatly. So a vote for either of them was a vote for a right of centre government. And the only right of centre government which is in any way plausible is one in which the Conservatives are the largest party and David Cameron is Prime Minister.

Even if we had full proportional representation, therefore, we’d still have David Cameron in Downing Street and most government ministries run by Conservatives.

However, the people who voted for overtly right of centre parties aren’t the only ones who would be happy with that. A small, but non-trivial, number of Lib Dem voters would consider themselves centre-right rather than centre-left. The “Orange Book” Lib Dems would almost certainly be happier with a Cameron-led government than one led by Ed Miliband.

Then there are voters in Scotland who are nationalists first and conservatives second, and therefore voted for the SNP despite, rather than because, it’s a left of centre party. They, too, are presumably happy with the outcome of the SNP dominating Scotland with a Conservative government in Westminster. There may not be all that many of them, but the certainly exist. So we can add them to the overall total of supporters of a Conservative-led government.

OK, but what about the non-voters? Well, there are many reasons for not voting, but a general “none of the above” attitude is not the most common. Research suggests that antipathy to all the parties only amounts to around 15%-20% of non-voters. For the rest, apathy, disinterest and practical issues (such as being unable to arrange a postal vote in time) are what stopped them voting.

Of the apathetic voters, many of them are apathetic because they genuinely don’t care who runs the country. They can, therefore, be presumed to be, if not exactly happy, at least comfortable with the result of the general election in May. It is true, of course, that they’d also have been equally comfortable with a Labour government. But they can’t be assumed to be opposed to the current government.

For the rest, research also suggests that if voting were compulsory (as it is in Australia), non-voters would divide among the parties on offer in much the same proportions as actual voters. So if all those non-voters had voted, it would have increased the number of votes cast for the Conservatives more than it would have increased the number of votes cast for any other party. And the overall proportion of votes cast for the Conservatives would have remained unchanged.

It is, therefore, statistically indisputable that the majority of the UK electorate, at the 2015 election, preferred a right of centre government. The only area of difference is that some of them preferred a single party government while others preferred a coalition.

We can also look at this another way. A majority of the electrate wanted a right of centre government. Of those who did, a majority wanted a single party government. So a single party, right of centre government is the result that is the best fit for the largest number of the electorate. If, instead of voting for individual candidates in individual seats, we’d had a single election for four options…

A: left of centre coalition
B: left of centre single party
C: right of centre coalition
D: right of centre single party

…and used a ranking vote system, such as AV or Condorcet, to choose between them, then (barring some really weird ranking choices) option D would have won.

However you slice and dice it, you always end up wih the “right” result being either a Conservative government or a Conservative-led coalition government along with other right wing parties. There is no valid argument which results in any left-wing party being in government.

It’s not unreasonable to make the argument that a coalition of multiple right-wing parties would have been a better reflection of the overall preferences of the electorate, although even that has its issues (why should UKIP have been part of the government when Labour, who got considerably more votes and seats, are not?). But the one thing that you cannot honestly argue – or imply – is that there is some kind of “anti-Conservative majority” in the UK.

Election reflections

General-Election-2015The elections seem a long time ago already, even though it’s only just over a couple of weeks. But I can still feel the sense of exhilaration when, firstly, the exit polls confounded the pre-election predictions and then the real results were even better than the exit poll had predicted. It’s been a long time since I genuinely felt so optimistic about the future of our country.

That’s better, of course, from my perspective. And that of other Conservative voters and candidates, as well as, probably, SNP supporters. Obviously, it wasn’t better for Labour, UKIP or the Lib Dems. In politics, as in sport, one side’s victory is another side’s defeat. The Blues have triumphed, the Reds have lost out, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re talking about Parliament or the Premier League; the feelings of agony and ecstasy are broadly the same.

Why did we win, though, and why was the margin of victory bigger than expected? This is something that commentators haven’t been short of opinions on, so there may not be much that’s original in mine. These, though, are my thoughts.

In the end, Ed Miliband failed the Kinnock Test.

Times columnist Daniel Finkelstein came up with this theory back in 2008 (paywall, but you can get the gist from the opening couple of free paragraphs), and I, along with many others, successfully predicted the outcome of the 2010 election on the same principle. The electorate concluded that, even if they found his policies attractive, Ed Miliband simply wasn’t up to the job of being Prime Minister.

The Conservatives did a better job of appealing to floating voters.

This is related to my first point, and I explained it in more detail back then in 2009 when I correctly predicted defeat for Gordon Brown. But, in essence, the simple fact is that floating voters, by definition, are not party loyalists. Moreover, they are not primarily politics geeks and often care little for detailed policies. Instead, they will vote for the party that they believe offers the best prospect of a secure and prosperous future. In 2015, as in 2010, that party was the Conservatives.

People voted for hope, not fear.

A huge part of the opposition’s campaign was the prospect of all the bad things that might happen if the Tories got back in. Cuts to the NHS, cuts to welfare, giving US corporations power to sue the British government, forcing small children to work down coal mines. OK, so that last one is made up, although it still fits in with the narrative. Then there were the very different fears peddled by UKIP: the prospect of the UK being overrun by nasty foreigners. Maybe not stated in so many words, but implied in a lot of what was actually said. But, on the whole, the voting public didn’t swallow any of them. The Conservative campaign was more positive, and more people responded positively to it.

(As an aside, this also goes a long way to explaining the success of the SNP. For those north of the border, the nationalists offered a positive option, something to vote for rather than simply against.)

On the whole, the political centre of gravity in the UK is inclined to the right.

This may seem like an obvious point, given that a right of centre party won. But to listen to a lot of left-wing commentators you’d think we somehow stole the election from an otherwise left-leaning public. And that’s why it deserves a little more consideration.

An email from left-wing pressure group 38 Degrees contained the claim that “only 24% of the population voted for the winning party”. Which is true on a purely factual basis, but if the intention is to assert that only 24% of the public are happy with the result then it’s completely false.

Of those who voted, almost exactly 50% cast their ballot for a right-wing party (if we assume, not unreasonably, that the Conservatives, UKIP and the Unionist parties in Northern Ireland are, to a greater or lesser degree, right-wing). But you can also add to those the voters in Scotland who backed the SNP despite, rather than because of, its left-wing stance because they are nationalists first and right-wingers second. They may not be a particularly large number, but they certainly exist. And it’s also fair to describe the “Orange Book” wing of the Liberal Democrats as more centre-right than centre-left. Again, there may not have been all that many of them, given the Lib Dems’ disastrous election night, but they, too, certainly exist. So, overall, you can’t really to deny that a majority of the voting public are happy with, at the very least, a Conservative PM in Downing Street even if some of them might have preferred him to be accompanied by a coalition deputy.

As for those who didn’t vote at all, while it’s tempting (to left-wing commentators looking for excuses, anyway) to lump them in with everyone else who didn’t vote Tory, it’s equally true that they can be lumped in with everyone else who didn’t vote Labour – which is a much larger number. In reality, though, research suggests that the majority of non-voters would, if forced to vote, divide between the parties in much the same proportion as those who chose to vote. And, of course, there are many people who don’t vote, not because they oppose all the parties and politicians on offer, but because they would be happy with whoever won. If Ed Miliband was PM, they’d be happy with him. But, as it is, they’re equally happy with David Cameron.

What that adds up to is the simple fact that the majority of the electorate, whether they actually voted or not, are more or less happy with the outcome of a Conservative government. Some may be very happy with it, others more grudgingly so, but nonetheless they all prefer it to the alternative.

It really is the economy, stupid.

If the previous reasons are essentially symptoms, this is the one which gives rise to them. On the whole, people believe that the state of the economy, and its prospects for the future, is what really matters. Which is why people were willing to vote for the possibility of continued austerity and a tight rein on public spending. It also shows that the electorate are possibly better at taking the long-term view than many politicians give them credit for. More people voted for jam tomorrow than jam today. Which is another reason to be optimistic for the future.

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.