Most of us don’t agree with a single party across all issues

Guest Author, the views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the Electoral Reform Society.

Posted on the 17th August 2020

The ‘policy comparison’ tool Vote for Policies crunched the numbers from the 1.1 million responses to their pre-election survey in 2019. Vote for Policies’ Matt Chocqueel-Mangan explains their findings. This is an edited version of the research findings published on their site here.

A general election prompts us to choose one party’s set of policies over all others – and to ask questions of our political system. Can we distil our preferences down to just one party? Given that our current voting system means we can choose only one party, if most of us don’t agree with a single party across all issues, does that mean there will always be an aspect of mis-representation when we vote?

Our analysis of users during last year’s General Elections offers some fascinating insights when it comes to how well Westminster’s First Past The Post voting system can be mis-representative.

What the data shows

With major outliers removed (those who picked ‘all’ or ‘one’ issues they cared about), we found our 858,664 respondents selected 6 issues on average (median 6, mode 6, mean 6.8) in the last General Election. The 6 most frequently selected policy issues overall were ‘Health / NHS’, ‘Education’, ‘Environment’, ‘Jobs / Work’, ‘Brexit’ and ‘Crime’.

We found that when we make party choices on policy grounds alone, one party is rarely representative of our preferences, and indeed 3 or 4 is the norm.

We can try to summarise this distribution as an average number of parties selected. The mode and median are the same: 3 parties. But this is very marginal – 35% selected 3 parties, while 33% selected 4. And 47% of respondents selected policies from 4 or more parties. So we can summarise that the ‘average’ respondent bases their political decisions on around 6 issues, and seems best represented when selecting policies from approximately three and a half separate political parties.

Contrast this with the 5.4% percent of all respondents who selected policies only from one party. And after removing the outliers (1-issue and 15-issue respondents) the percentage goes down even further – to just 1.9%.

What it means

We have to take into consideration that our survey data is not based on a nationally representative sample, and also that averages are, by their very nature a simplification of group behaviour. But there is still a lot to gain from a dataset of this size. For Vote for Policies, our interest is in what this means specifically for delivering our mission of 90% turnouts by 2030, with every citizen able to make an informed choice.

For governments to be effective, they must be representative. That means more of us voting so that our politicians engage with the full, diverse range of voices and views across the country. If our voting system allows us only one preferred party (as our ‘First Past The Post’ system does), for most of us that means there is an inherent compromise in the choice we make.

At Vote for Policies, we want to give people the information and motivation to vote, and keep voting because they see value in doing so. If we are asking people to engage with a democratic process which is unlikely to be truly representative then we need to recognise this too. It will never live up to the sense of fairness that we expect from our institutions, and it will erode our sense of efficacy – the feeling that our actions can have an impact and that institutions respond to our needs.

The more we experience a system that doesn’t live up to its values, the less we’ll expect. We’ll become less inclined to engage in shaping and upholding our democracy.

Whatever voting system we use, one of its strengths must be in accommodating how we align with multiple parties across different issues. Without this, we are accepting a system of mis-representation. This is why we need to understand the role of the voting system in our efforts to increase participation.

When you compare different voting systems, it’s clear there are options that provide a less polarised representation of votes. This has to be a consideration when trying to increase public motivation and willingness to vote.

We all want to see a fair system that does the right thing by all members of our society. By helping more people to engage in our democracy, we can help ensure that it becomes fairer, and that it lives up to our values for generations to come.

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