I didn’t use the word “believe” in the last paragraph by accident, because belief has an awful lot to do with how we decide to vote. We all believe in something and in some cases that belief defies the evidence.
Belief is an irrational concept. It doesn’t require evidence. If there was evidence it would be a rational concept. Some people will claim that their belief is based on evidence, but what they claim to be evidence can be explained in a number of different ways, so it therefore isn’t really evidence, it’s just interpretation. Real evidence only has one explanation, which is why courts rely on it so heavily. There are strict legal meanings to the term which we tend to overlook in our enthusiasm for our beliefs. If it has more than one explanation or can't be proven scientifically then it isn’t evidence, its opinion.
So what do we believe? Well, there are plenty of people that believe you can cure illness by dangling a crystal above the patient’s body or by sticking pins in them. Others believe that you can foretell the future by plotting the movement of the planets or by reading the lines on the palm of the hand. Billions of people believe in a God (or gods) which are invisible. Not only do they believe in that God, they will argue that their God isn’t the same as another person’s God, simply because the way that their God is worshiped adheres to different traditions. I don’t wish to mock anyone’s beliefs, but those traditions are generally based on words heard while wandering alone in the desert, suffering from thirst and eating whatever comes to hand, including strange fungi. Try it for yourself, I’m sure you’ll soon be hearing voices.
We learn our political beliefs in much the same way as we learn all our other beliefs – from our family and our friends. This is particularly so in our teenage years when peer pressure is at its greatest. If, for example, its “cool” to be “Monster Raving Loony” then everyone of the peer group who wants to be seen as cool will espouse Monster Raving Loony politics. You can see why some of our politicians favour reducing the voting age to 16.
Some people grow out of their early political beliefs as they gain knowledge and experience of the world and how it really works, but others will stick with them for life despite whatever “evidence” comes along to tell them they may be backing the wrong horse. We invest an awful lot of emotional energy into our political (and religious) beliefs and its extremely hard to have to admit that we may be just the teeniest bit wrong. It is unthinkable that we might be wrong so we remain in a state of denial, or we make excuses or we blame someone else: bankers, Mrs T, Tony Blair, The global recession et al.
The way we vote is often based on belief and tradition rather than on hard fact. Himmelweit, Humphreys and Jaegar (1981) suggested that up to 25% of the electorate will vote on ideological lines. That is to say that they hold strong beliefs on which they make their voting decisions and those decisions won’t be changed by rational argument or by the introduction of contradictory “evidence”. This is a pity, because ideologues rarely allow themselves to be influenced by other ideas. You don’t routinely study the Koran or the Vedas if you’re a Christian in order to be persuaded by differing views and the same principal applies in politics.
That means that any political party can rely quite heavily on 25% of their voters remaining loyal, regardless of how they perform in office or in opposition. Yep, they can make a complete horlicks of things and 25% of their voters will remain loyal because of their ideological beliefs!
Further, that loyal voter base will tend to be the elite of the party, not the rank and file. They aren’t necessarily MPs or councillors, but they are probably active in the party and/or pay party membership fees.
So if 25% of voters remain loyal for ideological reasons, what about the remainder? First of all I do have to reiterate that I’m talking about the loyal voters here and not the floating voters who will switch their vote for other reasons (more of which later).
There are three other elements involved in how many people will choose to vote based on loyalty alone. (1) Tradition. “Round here we have always voted so-and–so and we always will.” It accounts for those scattered constituencies that always return a Lib Dem MP, for example. Traditional voting is pretty much the definition of a safe seat for any party. (2) Habit. This is a bit like tradition, but on a more personal level. As individuals we may decide to vote for the familiar. The effects can be seen when there is a significant population shift or boundary changes and what was once a safe seat suddenly becomes a marginal or even switches allegiance completely as the balance between habitual voters is changed.
Scotland is seeing this with the movement of Labour votes to the SNP as voters become more confident in the ability of the SNP to govern. Scots have broken one habit and may have taken up a new one. With both parties being on the left the Scots aren’t giving up smoking, they’re just switching brands. Ironically this could result in the vote for the left being split and the Scots inadvertently electing more Conservative MPs, just as in England it’s being claimed that a vote for UKIP could result in Labour winning the election. Habit also accounts for why some people will still vote for the minor parties in their constituency rather than one of the parties that actually has a chance of winning the seat.
Finally we have (3) which is avoidance. This is seen in statements such as “I have never voted Labour” or “I could never vote Conservative”. If you ask why then the answers are often vague and may have more to do with (1) or (2) than any rational decision making or genuine political belief.
So, have you spotted yourself yet? Are you an ideological voter, a traditional voter, an habitual voter or an avoider? If you have voted for one party more than three times in a row (assuming you are old enough to have voted at three elections) then you are almost certainly one of those four. If you are one of those four then you aren’t one of the most important people in the country, a thinking voter.
And that is why we end up with the governments that we do. If a party can rely on votes in a particular constituency then it doesn’t have to work very hard in those constituencies to hold onto the seat. Now, I’m not criticising local MPs when I say that. The majority, regardless of political allegiances, work very hard for their constituents. However, when it comes to decisions about where the government is going to invest tax payers’ money then the decision will be heavily biased in favour of areas where the governing party thinks it can buy votes, or where the opposition can promise investment if they win and therefore can buy votes.
Why has Scotland suffered such an economic malaise for so long? Because when Labour was in power it didn’t feel it was necessary to invest in Scotland in order to win Scottish votes. When the Conservatives were in power they knew that the money could be better spent elsewhere as the Scots no longer elect Tory MPs. Perhaps this is why the SNP is doing quite well despite losing the Independence Referendum. Perhaps Scottish Labour voters have worked out that they were being taken for granted for too many years.
This doesn’t just apply to Scotland, of course. Take a look at the most deprived areas in the country and you will see that they have a consistent record for electing MPs from one party, going all the way back to 1918. Liverpool Bootle, one of the most deprived areas of the country, has elected Labour candidates at every election since 1945. Hemsworth in West Yorkshire, a mainly mining constituency, has had a Labour MP since 1918. Has their party of choice delivered prosperity for them? The answer must be no otherwise they wouldn’t be deprived areas. More of that later.
Now look at the most prosperous areas in the country. How many of them are marginal seats? Well, let’s look at the top ten marginals. According to the Daily Telegraph website these are: Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Sinn Fein, 4), Hampstead and Kilburn (Lab, 42), North Warwickshire (Con, 54), Camborne and Redruth (Con, 66), Thurrock (Con, 92), Bolton West (Lab, 92), Hendon (Con, 106), Sheffield Central (Lab, 165), Solihull (Lib Dem, 175), Oxford West and Abingdon (Con, 176).
I’ll leave Fermanagh out of this discussion as the voting decisions in Northern Ireland don’t conform to the same patterns as the other nine seats.
Firstly, most of those marginal constituencies clearly don’t fall into the “deprived” category, though some will be more prosperous than others. Now, can you imagine what spending plans may be announced that affect some of those constituencies prior to the next election? Of course the final spending decisions will only be made AFTER the election, when the votes have been counted.
I’m not going to try to analyse what might happen in every marginal seat in the country, but if you fancy a bit of a flutter you could do worse than taking a look at The Daily Telegraph website and then placing your bets. You may also want to set up news feeds related to those constituencies so that you can track what promises are being made to the voters there. I’m sure there will be plenty of them.
Earlier I made a rather inflammatory suggestion that many voters aren’t thinking voters. They vote the same way time after time in an unthinking manner. It is almost possible in some parts of the country to point at someone in the street and make an educated guess as to which way they will vote, based on where they live and what they do for a living. Time has varied this of course, with more white collar employees now voting Labour than there used to be. The mainly Conservative entertainment industry of the past has given way to the trendy left wing, at least as far as public image is concerned. I suspect that behind the trendy left wing façade there are still quite a few closet Tories. The frequent use of tax avoidance schemes within the entertainment industry provides some evidence of the rabidly capitalist nature of some of its most famous names. Let he who is without sin be the first to produce his tax returns.
So what does the thinking voter do that is different from the unthinking one? Well first of all they maintain an open mind at all times. That isn’t easy. We have preferences based on things other than policies. How many of us have looked at a politician (of any party) and wished we were able to slap their smug face. That doesn’t help when it comes to keeping an open mind. Anyone who has ever started a sentence with "i'm not racist, but...." (or homophobic, sexist, ageist et al) certainly hasn't got an open mind.
You might think that we will make our decisions based on the big political issues that dominate the world. The research suggests you would be wrong. When it comes to casting our vote in 2015 the deciding factor won’t be whether or not we get an EU referendum. It will be which of the parties is going to do most to keep the most amount of money in our pockets. Job security and taxation will be the big issues, just as they always are. We won’t say that publicly, of course, which is why pollsters often get it wrong. We’ll say that we’re worried about the NHS, or Ebola, or the EU or poverty, but we’ll then vote for the party that offers us the lowest levels of taxation or the best chance of keeping our jobs (or finding new jobs). It sounds cynical, I know. We would like to think we’re better than that, but the evidence is to the contrary.
If you are a thinking voter you are most likely to think about what will be best for you, not what is best for everyone else. The ideological voters are the ones who will vote on issues such as bankers’ bonuses, the NHS or the EU.
If you suffer a lot of illness you may take the various parties’ policies on the NHS into account. If your employer does a lot of business with the EU then you may take European policy into account. But for many people both of those will be secondary issues that will be considered after the primary issue of tax and employment has been dealt with. If you think the Conservatives offer you the best chance of job security will you then decide to vote Labour because you prefer their policy on the NHS? Unlikely I think. If Labour has promised to bring new jobs to your town will you then vote UKIP because you’re worried about the effect of EU immigration in Lincolnshire or Kent? I doubt it.
A psychologist by the name of Maslow described something called the hierarchy of needs. What this says, in its basic form, is that we each have certain needs that must be satisfied and until we have satisfied those needs we can’t move on to the next level of the hierarchy. The lower levels of the hierarchy deal with the needs of our body, eg food, water, shelter; the second level deals with safety and feelings of security, then social inclusion, self-esteem and finally self-actualisation, which is defined as realising potential and achieving fulfilment. In other words, if you are worried about where your next meal is coming from then you won’t ever get as far as worrying about whether you can get a more satisfying job or whether you should go and live the simple life in the country. The people who think about those things are the ones who don’t have money worries.
Politicians are quite sniffy about poor old Maslow. They think that because we appear to be quite sophisticated then we must be able to rise above the basic needs of the hierarchy. But answer me this. When you were the most worried about where your next meal was coming from did you also worry about EU fishing quota? No, I didn’t think so (unless you were a trawlerman perhaps).
Because politicians are dismissive of Maslow it leads them to think that we are worried about things that we really haven’t got time to worry about right now, thank you very much. Put food in my belly, a roof over my head, protect me from physical violence, then I’ll worry about EU fishing quotas or whether the NHS is being privatised by the back door. Get that the wrong way round and you won’t get my attention. Politicians will look to polling information to tell them what issues people are worried about, but of course polling information is derived from people who feel sufficiently engaged with society to take part, which means, by Maslow's definition, that they are on at least the third and more probably fourth level of his hierarchy, not the first or second levels. Polls don't really gather much input from the most deprived families.
The reason that politicians are so sniffy about Maslow is because he focuses on the needs of the individual. Individuals are problematic. They all have different needs. Politicians tend to focus on “Society”, that homogenous mass of people that they can point a finger at and say “See them! They’re all the same and they all need the same things”. But of course we aren’t all the same. “If we meet the needs of society”, they say, “then we meet the needs of the individual”. But they couldn’t be more wrong.
The reason that the poorest levels of our society are also the most “dysfunctional” in terms of their emotional behaviour is because they are dealing so much with the day to day needs of survival that they can’t afford to focus on the needs of others, not even those closest to them. They never reach the third level of the hierarchy that deals with emotional socialisation. Maslow was saying this in 1943 but it is either a lesson too difficult to remember or, more likely, it’s one that the politicians find too difficult to deal with.
Want a better functioning society? Try helping the poorest people to feed and house themselves better first. People will be able to behave better when they can invest more of their energy into thinking about things other than food and shelter.
You would think that the Labour Party would be all over Maslow, wouldn’t you, but they’re not. They should be all about getting people past the first two levels of the hierarchy of needs so they can at least socialise better, but they aren’t doing that.
The reason is that many of that population group are the ones who are least likely to vote. If you’re going to go to all the trouble of voting then you would like to think that something is going to change as a result. Unfortunately generation after generation of people living on low incomes have shown these people that nothing changes. Labour will blame the Tories, and one Tory in particular, for that but let’s not forget that between 1964 and 2014, that’s 50 years, 24 of those have been under Labour governments. That’s almost half. Of the last 17 years 13 were under a Labour government.
Looking at the last Labour government, according to The Guardian, the percentage of people with an income of less than 40% of the median rose from 8.7% in 1997 to 9.4% in 2006/07. It had actually fallen to 7.6% during the last three years of the John Major government. That’s an inconvenient truth for anyone who believes in the “nasty Tories” narrative.
Before anyone shouts “banking crisis” or “global recession” they didn’t start until late 2007. By 2010 the number of people on the lowest incomes had risen to 9.7%. If we generously disregard everything after 2007, that means Labour actually increased the level of poverty in this country through their policies. You won’t hear any Labour politicians telling you that because their narrative is that its only the Tories that create poverty.
Percentages are just statistics. What did those figures mean in terms of real people? In 1997 the British population was about 58.32 million. By 2007 it was approximately 61.32 million. That means that in 1997 there were about 5.07 million people on the lowest incomes. By 2007 that figure was about 5.76 million. That’s an increase of about 690,000 people living on the lowest incomes under the last Labour government. If you calculate based on the 1996 levels then the increase is approximately 1,339,000 people. Not a good record, was it? By the way, the National Minimum Wage came into being in 1999. That was obviously a real winner when it came to eradicating poverty.
Well, what about those nasty Tories? How many poor people have they helped, or how many more have they created? Fair questions, but what is sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander. If I can’t count anything after 2007 because it was caused by the “banking crisis” or the “global recession” then I can’t use any data for at least the first three or four years of the Tory government either, because it would be equally unrepresentative as the government was trying to sort out the mess it inherited, regardless of how it was created or who created it. As these sorts of surveys tend to be done in ten year chunks the figures that we will have to look at will cover the period 2010 to 2020, and we’re less than half way through that. Don’t worry, I’ll come back in January 2020 and answer that question when we have the data. What we must remember, however, is that poor people, if they vote at all, don’t vote Tory. How do you think that affects Tory policy making?
Now here’s the problem for those 5 million plus people on low incomes. They aren’t all the same but politicians treat them as though they are. They come up with “one size fits all” solutions and as we all know, one size doesn’t fit all – not even in onesies. You have to look at each individual, their family circumstances and the barriers to their progress out of poverty and then come up with a uniquely tailored solution. But that isn’t what politicians do, because that’s too difficult. The party that finally comes up with that sort of solution and then makes it work, however, can probably look forward to holding office for a long, long time.
So, at the next General Election are you going to vote for the party that says its dedicated to eradicating poverty, but who actually made it worse during their last term of government (in which most of the current Opposition Front Bench served) or are you going to vote for the party that may be doing even less to eradicate poverty? Tough choice! Or are you just going to vote the way you always do without thinking about it?
In the meantime a Happy New Year to you all and if you would like to read my take on New Year’s Resolutions then follow this link: http://www.readwave.com/and-a-happy-new-year_s18460
Reference: Himmleweit T. H., Humphreys P. and Jaeger M.: How Voters Decide; Open University Press; 1981.