The flaw in ‘vote X, get Y’ politics

This may be a radical proposition but I think that, mostly, people are not stupid, do not like being blackmailed, and tend to vote for people that they identify with. I wonder if this is radical, because the spate of ‘vote X, get Y’ messaging, deployed by both Labour (‘vote Green, get Tory’) and the Tories (‘vote Ukip, get Labour’) with increasing regularity, suggests that they disagree.

The first point is that I think most people understand what they are voting for. Lord Ashcroft’s polling shows, for example, that just 16% of Ukip supporters are unsure whether ‘a vote for UKIP…makes the prospect of Ed Miliband becoming Prime Minister more likely’ – and as he points out, the answer to the question depends on the constituency. If someone is bothered enough to vote, then they probably understand the electoral system. The number of people who (a) will vote, (b) are willing to vote tactically, and (c) don’t already understand the various connotations must be very small.

The second problem is the tone. I was struck by Hopi Sen’s phrase the other day that voters think the main parties are ‘all in it together’. It captures the idea of a political class generally seen to be scornful of voters and out of touch with their concerns. This perception, can only be reinforced if the message to voters is that they dare not vote for someone else, even if they want to. What the figures in the Ashcroft polling do not show is just how many people are put off the main parties by this kind of messaging.

Third, this is a very particular view of what it is that motivates people to vote. People involved in politics tend to think of voting as the means by which you win power to get important things done. I suspect for most other people the frame of reference is completely different.

Voting is a lot to do with expressing an identity – as a responsible citizen, but also as someone who identifies with a particular brand of ideas. The impact of the referendum in Scotland illustrates this: the big questions over Scotland’s identity now seem to be shaping voting intentions. If this is right, then ‘vote X, get Y’ is entirely the wrong frame of reference – it’s an instrumental message when decisions are driven by personal identity.

Over the long-term, the share of the vote commanded by the two main parties is on a path of steady decline. This is perhaps inevitable in more pluralist societies, but the way in which political leaders respond to it matters – to their own fortunes and to the wider reputation of politics. The current approach, based on blackmailing voters rather than winning them over, looks like doing neither any favours.