Voting is a big decision. When results of elections are a surprise – as happened on 7 May, following an exit poll which flatly contradicted the accumulated predictions of weeks and months of opinion polls taken by different organisations – we might wonder what kind of decision has been made. (See Catherine Farrell’s recent post.)
- Were people shy to tell the pollsters their voting intentions, but happier to reveal how they had actually done it, after the event?
- Was there some big event, sometime very close to polling day or during it, which swung things around after the final polls had done their bit?
- Do people lie to opinion pollsters for fun, or to subvert the process?
- Was there a conspiracy on the part of the pollsters to mislead the electorate?
Some of these answers may be tempting. None seems sufficient. It seems something else has been going on – perhaps less to do with the nature of polls, and more to do with how, in general, political discourse and debate ‘match up’ to the reality of what’s actually in voters’ heads.
In the days after 7 May, the BBC and other news providers ran various ‘vox pop’ consultations, asking people why they’d voted. In one memorable sequence (from the Today programme on 16 May), an unseated Labour MP discovers the reasons why new SNP voters have switched away from him, and is unsettled to find, for instance, that ‘being tougher on immigration’ and ‘getting out of Europe’ were among their key motivations. (The SNP supports further immigration into Scotland, and stronger ties with Europe.) What these consistently reveal is the gap between party aims and manifestos and people’s perceptions of where parties stand. These gaps remain despite an era of unprecedented communicative muscle, where people are hooked up to each other in ever more direct ways via social media and otherwise. Are we better informed? Is the quality of deliberation any better? It might seem not. Why?
Here are two possible reasons. (There are many others, of course.) One is that politicians don’t engage in social media half as well as they think they do. Their use is patchy. Indeed, politicians continue to employ social media with trepidation, mindful of the danger of on-line gaffes which can result in a loss of reputation and threaten their political career. As a consequence political use of social media invariably fails to engage in collaborative discourse with the electorate, instead focusing on the broadcasting of campaign messages. This approach to social media exacerbates distrust in politicians and supports the notion of ‘them and us’, a term used as a rallying cry by populist parties such as UKIP. It also means that politicians don’t ‘feel the temperature’ of public opinion as well as they might.
The other involves the expertise we hear in the run-up to the election results. All that speculation. All those maps of the country, colouring different regions red, blue, yellow, green and purple. To the commentators, these represent tectonic plates, highlighting the sheer splintering of the country into separate interests and political tendencies. But of course, this is a simplification. The political map of the country is not conveyed by such maps, or by opinion polls, or by long-term tendencies. Voting itself is only a momentary register of the shifting complexity of what goes on beneath. Just like social media, these models are often, quite simply, an oversimplification. They present ‘knowledge’ which actually takes us away from a fuller picture of what is going on.
But of course such punditry, however distant from what’s going on, is, just like social media, a weighty influence on the results. This might give us good reason to suspend opinion polls in the run-up to Election Day, as they do in many other European countries. It certainly, at any rate, gives us good reason to treat the game of the election as taking place at a distance from the everyday concerns of voters around the country.
Blog written by Gideon Calder and Michael Parsons, University of South Wales