Old Questions about Young People

richpennyBy Richard Penny, Teaching Fellow in Political Theory and PhD student at the University of Southampton (Academia.edu). You can read more posts by Richard here.


 

If commentary is to be believed, Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour party conference set out a frightening picture of Britain in 2020 – riven by power outages and the confiscation of private property. But these two nightmarish visions pale into comparison with Miliband’s third major announcement – the dystopian pledge to give young people more of a say over how society is run.

In proposing to lower the voting age to 16, Miliband raised an issue which had laid largely dormant in mainstream politics since the voting age was lowered to 18 (from 21) in The Representation of the People Act in 1969. Nonetheless, the question of who should be able to vote, and why, remains of great normative (or moral) importance and interest.

However, whilst the question Miliband raised may have been interesting, the same could not be said for much of the immediate reaction. ‘No representation without taxation’ thundered some – ignoring the fact that young people pay many taxes (particularly VAT, taxes on savings, and taxes relating to work), and that linking the right to vote to a citizen’s taxable contribution seems morally troubling (not least in a society in which receiving taxable income is still a strongly male privilege). Other commentators argued that we ought to let children be children, without ‘corrupting’ them with politics (and presumably leaving them free to pursue innocent childish activities like climbing trees and playing the latest instalment of Grand Theft Auto). Other arguments took on a more practical hue, claiming variously that young people won’t bother to vote (in which case it’s not clear what the problem would be), or that lowering the voting age will result in mass manipulation of young people by radical parties. Some commentators, confusingly, made both arguments at the same time.

The more serious and thoughtful responses to Miliband’s proposals tended to focus on the idea that young people simply aren’t capable of making the kinds of informed decision which are necessary to vote effectively. This claim seems harder to dismiss. After all, it seems clear enough that there are many young people who we might not want making important decisions on our behalf (you probably walk past a lot of them on the way to campus each morning).

But how far can this thought actually take us? If we are brutally honest, we’d surely have to admit that there are also plenty of over 18s who we might not want making important decisions on our behalves (you probably walk past a lot of them on campus each morning). And this serves to illustrate a problem for the ‘competency’ argument for restricting young people from voting. Namely that whatever we mean when we say that young people are “incapable of making an informed decision”, the same will surely apply to some adults too. Or conversely, on whichever metric we choose (‘life-experience’, ‘maturity’, ‘intelligence’, ‘political knowledge’) there will almost certainly be some people under 18 who perform better than some over 18.

One solution would be to adopt a competency test across all members of society. However, this looks objectionable for a lot of reasons. But if so, then what the competency argument is really saying is that ‘since some young people aren’t competent to vote, all young people should be barred from voting’. This looks considerably shakier. Even if we grant that some young people might not be ‘competent’ to vote[1] it would seem rather unfair to use this as a basis to restrict others who were competent. To take a parallel, there are many elderly voters who – given the remorseless passage of time – might fairly have their competency to vote questioned. But even if we were willing to say this (and good luck to the politician who tries), it would seem patently wrong to remove the vote from other elderly voters who retained the competency we were identifying.

At this point a defender of the competency argument might claim that the issue is simply one of practicality. ‘Yes’, they may concede, ‘some young people might be capable of informed voting – but in general, most aren’t, and it’s simply not practical to work out who is and who isn’t’. But this idea also seems difficult to defend. The right to vote is surely not something that ought to be conditional on its being easy to administer. Keeping an electoral roll of over 44 million people is difficult to administer. So are elections! And yet we not only do both, but we even send ballot papers around the world to expatriates, and set up polling stations in isolated communities so that citizens can not only vote, but vote conveniently. In all these cases it seems evident that the right to vote is far more important than the cost to society of enabling this right. But if this is the case then it seems that the very most the defender of the competency argument can demand is that we set up some kind of test for those under 18.

Is this a satisfactory compromise? There are reasons to suppose it is not. Would it have been a satisfactory compromise for the suffragettes to accept a competency test in order to ‘prove’ that women were competent voters? Even if every woman were to pass such a test, and have her vote, the existence of the test itself would surely signify a kind of second-class status for women that should trouble a society committed to equal citizenship. To withhold from all members of a social group such an important right such as voting, on the basis that some – supposedly – may not be able to use it properly is not a standard we would accept with regards to race, gender, educational achievement or income. It is not clear what makes age different. Just as we would not accept a competency test for the elderly, it seems that we should reject one for young people too.


[1] Note too that defining what ‘competency’ to vote means is far from simple. What is competency? And worse, who gets to decide?

International Relations in Europe

By Dr Kamil Zwolski, Politics & International Relations

Last week I attended the 8th Pan – European Conference on International Relations, which took place in Warsaw. It was a large event – at least by European standards. It was not as large as the Annual Conventions of the International Studies Association (ISA), which traditionally take place in North America, but big enough for the organisers to reflect on the strength of the discipline on the Continent. Interestingly, the conference was organised by the European International Studies Association (EISA), which is a new individual membership based association, created by the Standing Group on International Relations of the European Consortium for Political Research.

The name of the EISA, which is very similar to ISA, suggests that the organisers have an ambition to overcome the familiar European problem of fragmentation, with many different associations organising academic events on International Relations. This is a welcome development, which would certainly reflect the growing influence of Europe-based IR research. As an indication of this growing strength, one presenter showed how the leading IR journal in America, International Organization, has been increasingly engaging in debates with Europe-based scholarship, by increasingly referencing articles in journals such as European Journal of International Relations and Millennium. These are all very positive developments which may result in more and more American scholars travelling to Europe for conferences, rather than just European scholars attending ISA events!

Polling Observatory #29, Conference Season Special #3: Labour

Cross-posted at NottsPolitics.org

This is the twenty-ninth in a series of posts that report on the state of the parties as measured by opinion polls. By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. If there can ever be a definitive assessment of the parties’ standings, this is it. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.

In this series of conference season specials, we review the state of support for each of the parties in turn. As we noted in Polling Observatory #27, there are dangers in the journalistic habit of focusing on poll leads, rather than shares, as well as interpreting poll leads in terms of the prevailing narrative of the Westminster Village. Focusing on the parties individually allows us to better understand the momentum behind them as the general election of 2015 fast approaches. Most people don’t pay much attention to politics or political events, so most shifts take place over a matter of months and years, not days. Looking back over the current Parliament – rather than just the latest poll figures – allows us to make a little more sense of where things stand.

We should be cautious, too, about extrapolating too much from past election cycles about the result in 2015 – as has become a popular pastime. Yes it is true that no government has ever increased its share of the vote after a first full parliamentary term since the war. Yes it is true that Labour’s poll share and Ed Miliband’s ratings are below what might be expected of a strong opposition. But precedents are there to be broken, and the 2010-2015 election cycle is arguably like no other in living memory. The main political parties vote shares have never been lower, a previously marginal party is polling consistently above 10% and the geography of the main parties’ voters is highly polarised, meaning that comparisons with how poll leads have translated into results in previous elections potentially are very misleading. The public are generally sick and tired of politics and politicians, so the ratings for leaders such as Miliband must be put in the context of a general disillusionment of citizens with the political class. And while the state of the economy matters to the election result, and there are signs of slight improvement (not to mention the warnings of a housing bubble due to the government’s policies) – other features of today’s economy are hardly likely to see voters rushing to reward the government, with the continued strain on living standards, a shift from full-time secure employment to part-time insecure jobs, and the growth of private debt to fuel the increase in consumer spending.

Labour cropped

A year ago, when we reported on the party conference season, Labour’s vote share stood at around 42.2%. Our estimates now put it almost five points lower, at 37.3%. As we noted at the time, Labour suffers from the same problem as any party in opposition – not being master of its own destiny, but instead depending on the favourable wind of events, events and government cock-ups. It is not so much anything that Labour has done recently that has led to this easing of support. Indeed, Labour’s level of support hardly has shifted at all in the past five months, despite the kerfuffle over Syria, the seeming fallout with the unions over events in Falkirk, and mutterings about Miliband’s leadership. The slump happened in the spring of 2013, and may reflect UKIP’s surging popularity and the newfound celebrity of its leader, Nigel Farage. The Eurosceptic populist party has attracted a lot of the voters dissatisfied by the government, particularly older working class voters, who might otherwise (reluctantly) be backing Ed Miliband’s Labour.

The public has not been paying much attention to Labour or its leader. But this is quite normal for a party that was in government so recently, despite a quite pathological obsession of some commentators with Miliband – the public were tired of Labour in 2010 after thirteen years of government, and these negative memories have not faded sufficiently for voters to think they deserve another turn in Number 10. For an opposition, it is difficult to define yourself when you lack control of the daily news agenda – and the communications machinery of government is not at your fingertips.

In a number of important political battles, Miliband has shown himself to have some mettle and a calm strategic mind where other opposition leaders would have folded. Labour is seeing a gradual loss of fair-weather supporters gained during a period when the economy was struggling, it had the Prime Minister on the run over the phone-hacking scandal, and the Chancellor had delivered the infamous omnishambles budget of March 2012. Where Miliband and Labour are struggling, is to define what they stand for. It needs to provide a clear alternative, but there are risks attached to revealing their cards too far before the next election. One should also be careful interpreting the numbers. People know what David Cameron stands for, but many of them do not like it – with 48% thinking he is ‘out of touch’ compared to 15% for Miliband. In assessing the popularity of party leaders, one has to be careful making historical comparisons, too – as the public are increasingly negative about the political class in general. Indeed, the ratings of all the party leaders have been in decline during the current parliament, with both Labour and the Conservatives seen as ‘rather old and tired’ by voters.

There are dangers, too, in Labour dancing to the tune of an unfavourably disposed media that is never likely to be won over – as illustrated by the journalistic appetite for leadership crisis stories during the summer silly season, and its overreaction to Labour’s position on Syria, which was in line with public opinion. Labour’s strongest attributes with voters are its reputation for its heart being in the right place and caring for the more vulnerable in society. Despite the evidence that social attitudes have become increasingly unsympathetic towards issues such as welfare, much of this comes down to the dominant framing of these issues – which have immense power to shape public opinion. The Conservatives have suffered from this too – where attempts to deliver more hardline policies on Europe (the veto) and immigration have only served to prime public opinion to demand more and more undeliverable reforms – and hence fuel  UKIP, who are happy to promise the impossible as they will never have to deliver it..  Both parties are being dragged in different directions – and need to stop trying to appeal to the short-attention spans of commentators pushing their own visions of what the parties should be doing. Labour needs to stop trying to appeal to the hardcore Blairite fringe (Dan Hodges et al) that wants to treat 2015 as a re-run of 1997, and pretends nothing has changed in between. The Conservatives need to be wary of commentators using the threat of UKIP to drag them to the right and into unelectable territory – in the same way that the Tea Party has done serious damage to the long-term electoral prospects of the Republican Party in the US.

While Labour could be performing better, it could also be performing a lot worse. The political landscape has changed considerably in recent times – meaning there should be great caution in historical comparisons. The often referenced past elections when oppositions built up towering leads at mid-term were in the days when the combined Labour and Conservative share of the vote regularly exceeded 80%, so voters unhappy with the party in charge had only one place to go. Today, British politics has become fractured, and voters more polarized in their assessments of party leaders, driven by widespread disillusionment with politics, and fed up voters can switch to UKIP, the Greens or other minor party options rather than lending their support to the opposition. Today, the combined three-party vote of the Liberal Democrats, Conservatives and Labour barely reaches the 80% figure habitually achieved by the two main parties in the past – and their combined share has been in steady decline over the course of this parliament. Between 1945 and 2010 it averaged 95% of the vote. It now stands below 80%. No party can expect to have the sorts of leads that Blair or even Kinnock saw in opposition particularly when 10-15% of the most dissatisfied voters are opting instead for UKIP’s “none of the above” option.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

Polling Observatory #29, Conference Season Special #2: UKIP

Cross-posted at NottsPolitics.org

This is the twenty-ninth in a series of posts that report on the state of the parties as measured by opinion polls. By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. If there can ever be a definitive assessment of the parties’ standings, this is it. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.

In this series of conference season specials, we review the state of support for each of the parties in turn. As we noted in Polling Observatory #27, there are dangers in the journalistic habit of focusing on poll leads, rather than shares, as well as interpreting poll leads in terms of the prevailing narrative of the Westminster Village. Focusing on the parties individually allows us to better understand the momentum behind them as the general election of 2015 fast approaches. Most people don’t pay much attention to politics or political events, so most shifts take place over a matter of months and years, not days. Looking back over the current Parliament – rather than just the latest poll figures – allows us to make a little more sense of where things stand.

We should be cautious, too, about extrapolating too much from past election cycles about the result in 2015 – as has become a popular pastime. Yes it is true that no government has ever increased its share of the vote after a first full parliamentary term since the war. Yes it is true that Labour’s poll share and Ed Miliband’s ratings are below what might be expected of a strong opposition. But precedents are there to be broken, and the 2010-2015 election cycle is arguably like no other in living memory. The main political parties are receiving an increasingly low share of the vote, and electoral geography has become so substantially distorted, that comparisons with leads from past elections are potentially misleading. The public are generally sick and tired of politics and politicians, so the ratings for leaders such as Miliband must be put in the context of a general disillusionment of citizens with the political class. And while the state of the economy matters to the election result, and there are signs of slight improvement (not to mention the warnings of a housing bubble due to the government’s policies) – other features of today’s economy are hardly likely to see voters rushing to reward the government, with the continued strain on living standards, a shift from full-time secure employment to part-time unsecure jobs, and the growth of private debt to fuel the increase in consumer spending.

UKIP cropped

When we reported on UKIP at the time of its annual conference in Birmingham in September 2012, the party had just emerged on the scene as a serious political force – first following growing public attention to the EU and Eurozone bailouts and second in the aftermath of desertion of Conservative voters after the Omnishambles budget of March 2012. Since then, UKIP have shown they are more than just a flash in the pan, adding a further four points to their support, which now stands at 11.3%, well above the traditional third party, the Liberal Democrats. This represents something of a fall on their May peak of more than 14% in the Polling Observatory estimates, but it nevertheless looks like UKIP will be a significant factor in the 2015 election. Most significantly, research commissioned by Lord Ashcroft shows it is having an impact on support for the party in marginal constituencies that will likely decide the result, and may deliver the election (and a parliamentary majority) on a plate to Labour and Ed Miliband. UKIP, and its talismanic leader Nigel Farage, have already started to face the message that ‘a vote for UKIP is a vote for Labour’ – as Conservatives and sympathetic media commentators have started to realise the threat posed by Farage and his party. There has also been a surge of interest in the background of Farage and the records of UKIP candidates, as attempts to undermine the credibility of the party have been stepped up as Conservative fears have grown – with the PM’s former PR adviser, Andy Coulson, advocating highlighting the “less pleasant and stranger utterances” from Mr Farage. Both strategies have the potential to backfire: Conservative attempts to get UKIP supporters to vote strategically risks underestimating its supporters’ hostility to the political system in general, and to David Cameron in particular, while efforts to paint the party as extreme or incompetent risk looking like a smear campaign, which could increase UKIP’s populist appeal.

But UKIP have already changed the political landscape for 2015, and may yet cost the Conservatives votes, even if not directly at the ballot box – but in driving the party off the centre ground that David Cameron had managed to inhabit in the run up to the 2010 election. UKIP are putting serious and sustained pressure on the Conservatives to tack to the right to take up traditional Tory territory – much to the (secret) delight of commentators in the right-wing press who have enthusiastically been drumbeating over the need to move more towards the political agenda set by UKIP (see here, here and here). Boris Johnson has described UKIP supporters as the ‘lost tribe’ of Conservatives, but there is still much confusion in Conservative ranks over how to handle the UKIP challenge – simply because they are dragging the party back towards its ideological roots, away from most voters. It therefore has revived the fundamental tension in the post-Thatcher Conservative Party – with the main hope for the party being that the British public has shifted rightwards in the past decade.

Ultimately what UKIP supporters are unified by is dissatisfaction with politics and the ruling class, revealing a much deeper underlying discontentment with democracy in Britain than will be solved with parties trying to position themselves further to the right.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

Polling Observatory #29, Conference Season Special #1: Liberal Democrats

Cross-posted at NottsPolitics.org.

This is the twenty-ninth in a series of posts that report on the state of the parties as measured by opinion polls. By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. If there can ever be a definitive assessment of the parties’ standings, this is it. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.

In this series of conference season specials, we review the state of support for each of the parties in turn. As we noted in Polling Observatory #27, there are dangers in the journalistic habit of focusing on poll leads, rather than shares, as well as interpreting poll leads in terms of the prevailing narrative of the Westminster Village. Focusing on the parties individually allows us to better understand the momentum behind them as the general election of 2015 fast approaches. Most people don’t pay much attention to politics or political events, so most shifts take place over a matter of months and years, not days. Looking back over the current Parliament – rather than just the latest poll figures – allows us to make a little more sense of where things stand.

We should be cautious, too, about extrapolating too much from past election cycles about the result in 2015 – as has become a popular pastime. Yes it is true that no government has ever increased its share of the vote after a first full parliamentary term since the war. Yes it is true that Labour’s poll share and Ed Miliband’s ratings are below what might be expected of a strong opposition. But precedents are there to be broken, and the 2010-2015 election cycle is arguably like no other in living memory. The main political parties vote shares have never been lower, a previously marginal party is polling consistently above 10% and the geography of the main parties’ voters is highly polarised, meaning that comparisons with how poll leads have translated into results in previous elections potentially are very misleading. The public are generally sick and tired of politics and politicians, so the ratings for leaders such as Miliband must be put in the context of a general disillusionment of citizens with the political class. And while the state of the economy matters to the election result, and there are signs of slight improvement (not to mention the warnings of a housing bubble due to the government’s policies) – other features of today’s economy are hardly likely to see voters rushing to reward the government, with the continued strain on living standards, a shift from full-time secure employment to part-time insecure jobs, and the growth of private debt to fuel the increase in consumer spending.

LD cropped

One of the polling bookies has put the Liberal Democrats at evens to poll over 14% with YouGov by end of the year. This is a bet that nobody would be advised to take. The last time that the Lib Dems polled 14% with YouGov was in September 2010. They have been flat-lining ever since. Our most recent estimates put the Liberal Democrats at 7.7%. This is down 0.7 points on their support at the end of last August, a dismal position which a strong conference season is unlikely to do much to improve.

In many ways, the electorates’ roller-coaster relationship with Nick Clegg – from the love-in of debate-fuelled Cleggmania to formation of the coalition, the tuition fees betrayal and other policy compromises in government – resembles the rise and fall of Tony Blair on fast forward. Blair’s decline from progressive hero to hate figure – from the flag-waving days of May 1997 to the mass demonstrations of 2003, was six years in the making. Clegg managed to alienate almost as many voters in just five months. There is no sign that these voters are near to returning, and the Liberal Democrats can only hope that their local/personal vote saves them.

It would be wrong, however, to suggest this is simply the cost of doing business in a coalition setting. The Lib Dem’s electoral success from the early 1990s was built on making a pitch to middle class, left of centre voters – unwilling or unable to vote Labour, but turned off by the “nasty” Conservative Party. More recently, since the 2000s, its gains have largely come by positioning it to the left of Labour on key issues – Iraq, Europe and the environment most notably. Indeed, in 2005 the Liberal Democrat’s election platform was to the left of Labour, and in 2010 it was largely level. It can hardly be any surprise, then, that this electoral coalition has been decimated by the steady flow of compromises fashioned with their right wing coalition partners.

There is perhaps too much emphasis among commentators, then, on the degree to which Labour’s hopes for 2010 are ‘heavily reliant on the continued disenchantment of former Liberal Democrats’. Many of these voters are most likely not lifelong Liberal Democrats, but Labour supporters who quit the Labour coalition during the Blair/Brown years, and have returned to the fold under the Coalition government – ending the twenty year experiment of a social democratic Liberal Party. As we can see from the Polling Observatory figures, many of the supporters who left did so immediately after the Coalition was formed, and many soon after. The Liberal Democrats’ bleeding was complete by the end of 2010, and they have not really moved in the polls since. It is not just that British voters are not particularly keen on coalition government. Those who joined the Liberal Democrats from the left were not keen on a centre-right Coalition from the outset. For the Liberal Democrats, the current pattern represents a return to the post-war level of support for the old Liberal Party. The resurgence of the Liberal Democrats as a third way in British politics had been built up by the efforts of Ashdown and Kennedy, only to be dismantled by the project of the orange book Liberals — most notably Clegg, Alexander and Laws. One prominent member of the party’s left wing – Sarah Teather, representing a poor, former safe Labour seat, has already announced her intention to quit at the 2015 election. It will be no surprise if, as 2015 approaches, more prominent left-of-centre Liberals join her, jumping ship before the impending electoral Tsunami hits. Complete electoral disaster may be spared, however, through the personal vote that individual MPs have managed to cultivate in their local constituencies – recent evidence suggests voters in Liberal Democrat seats like their MP better than those living in Labour or Conservative seats, and that such voters remain more willing to back a local Liberal Democrat than the national polling suggests.

Perhaps the only question that remains will the Liberals have sufficient MPs in the next parliament to play kingmaker. Clegg would be better advised to stop manoeuvring the party in preparation for the next coalition and instead focus on finding a way to expand a support base that has been on life support for more than three years now.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup

Outside the Westminster Bubble

UK 02-09-13 low res cropped

This is the twenty-eighth in a series of posts that report on the state of the parties as measured by opinion polls. By pooling together all the available polling evidence we can reduce the impact of the random variation each individual survey inevitably produces. Most of the short term advances and setbacks in party polling fortunes are nothing more than random noise; the underlying trends – in which we are interested and which best assess the parties’ standings – are relatively stable and little influenced by day-to-day events. If there can ever be a definitive assessment of the parties’ standings, this is it. Further details of the method we use to build our estimates of public opinion can be found here.

In recent years politicians have often been criticised, often with some cause, for being out of touch. But the journalists who are so eager to level this charge may want to examine their own views, and where they come from. Like politicians, national media journalists form a small, tight knit community who talk (and Tweet) to each other much more often than talking to the people whose views they claim to represent. This can cause problems when the judgements of other political professionals are out of kilter with the reactions of the average voter. At least politicians have constituency surgeries to reconnect with the voters. How often does the average Westminster lobby journalist sit in on one of those?

The shortcomings of “Westminster Village”  groupthink have been amply on display this summer , The prevailing narrative of the summer was that Labour was divided and weakly led, and that this was harming them with the voters, a judgement which had little basis in the polling evidence.  The Syrian crisis has produced a new rush to judgement in the Village, with journalists of differing political persuasions declaring it a death blow for David Cameron, Ed Miliband or both. But in reality it has not changed the political weather outside Westminster much, nor is it likely to. Most voters were against the Syrian intervention, and therefore happy that it is not proceeding. The average voter packing up her barbeque and preparing her kids for the new school year knows little, and cares less, about the obtuse arguments about motions, amendments and Parliamentary authority which have so excited the Villagers. Their judgement about the two leaders’ apparently disastrous performances has been an indifferent shrug of the shoulders.

In the latest figures from the Polling Observatory, we have seen virtually no change since the start of August.  UKIP gained no political advantage from their widely trailed opposition to the war: their support is flat at 11.7% (no change). So too has support for the Liberal Democrats remained stagnant, standing at 8.4% (no change), bumping along at a level that has remained stable for more than two years now. In contrast to the main other parties, this inertia must surely start to concern the higher echelons of the Liberal Democrats, as voters seem to have made up their minds on the junior coalition partners, and largely do not like what they see. Our figures for the main parties show a small movement, but hardly enough to justify the many column inches. In the last month, Labour have seen a marginal decline in their support, down 0.4 percentage points at 37.7%. The Conservatives have seen a slight rise, up 0.6 points at 31.8%. Labour thus retain a healthy lead which, given the advantages handed to the party by Britain’s electoral system, would likely be enough to deliver a comfortable Parliamentary majority.  The Westminster Village pathology will be particularly evident as the election draws nearer. As an election approaches, journalists tend to veer between regarding the outcome as completely certain and completely unpredictable (often depending on how the polls relate to their own preferences). The trouble is that journalists, like all people, find it very hard to make judgements about uncertain outcomes. People don’t like uncertainty, and struggle with even the most basic probability ideas (the success of lotteries and casinos is proof of this). Often what emerges to help them cope are “rules of thumb”, often based on over-simplified or half-remembered insights from research, or powerful but anecdotal past experiences.

One such rule of thumb is to try and tie the coming election to some past election. Conservatives like to look forward to 2015 as a re-run of 1992, when they won a majority after trailing in the polls for years because (in their view) the public was not willing to back a weak Labour leader. This neat analogy tends to gloss over the 1990 defenestration of Margaret Thatcher, which enabled the party to replace one very unpopular leader with a much more popular one, erasing their poll deficit in the process. It also overlooks the inconvenient fact, rather relevant for the current context, that the Conservative vote share in 1992 was lower than in 1987. It will be very hard for David Cameron to become PM in 2015 on a lower share than 2010, and even harder for his party to win a majority.

A popular analogue on the left and among UKIP-worriers on the Conservative right is the 1983 general election, when the left divided between the SDP and Labour, enabling  Margaret Thatcher to win re-election in a harsh economic climate. Many pundits think a right divided between UKIP and the Conservatives will similarly let Miliband’s Labour in through the middle. Left out of this story is the role of the Falklands War, the fact that the SDP drew a lot of support from moderate Conservatives, and that UKIP is most popular with white working class voters who might be more electorally important for Labour than the Tories.

Another piece of folk wisdom is encapsulated in the immortal slogan coined by Clinton campaign manager James Carville: “It’s the economy stupid!”. If the economy is growing, the rule of thumb says, the government will be re-elected. The political science research shows there is some sense in this: government do perform better when the economy does well, as we might expect. But research also shows that the link between the economy and the vote is complicated: green shoots do not always guarantee re-election, dark clouds do not always presage defeat. In 1997 Britain’s economy was growing under the Major government, but Labour was still elected in a landslide. This time round the economic context is hard to read. Voters are experiencing a squeeze on living standards, and there are concerns that the nascent recovery is being fuelled by credit – leading commentator Ann Pettifor to call it an ‘Alice in Wongaland’ recovery. It is simply too early to tell, then, whether our pocketbook theories of voting will predict the election winner in 2015.

A third rule of thumb tells us “never mind the polls, just look at the leader ratings”. As with the economy, there is some sense in this: the research shows leaders do make a difference. But, as with the economy, it is a misleading simplification to argue that the leaders are all that matters. In 1979, for example, voters strongly preferred the affable James Callaghan to the combative Mrs Thatcher. That did not save the Labour government. In the current Australian federal election, polls have consistently shown the incumbent Kevin Rudd preferred as PM to Tony Abbott, only to be overtaken in the final week of the campaign, with the government on course for a substantial rout. Context is important here too. Miliband clearly has poor ratings by historical standards. But the negatives of all party leaders today are substantial, more than historically has been the case. There is a prevailing “sod the lot” sentiment around, with many voters taking a dim view of all the leaders. Those who focus on Ed Miliband’s leadership ratings as evidence of his impending defeat might want to think about why voters who rate the other leaders just as poorly will be so keen to switch away from him.

Finally, another rule of thumb suggests that voters will punish Labour for lacking a clear message about what it would do if elected to power. After all, how can the public be persuaded to vote for the party if they don’t know what its policies are? Certainly the polling evidence suggests that people are unsure what Labour stands for as it rebuilds from thirteen years in government. While Labour’s tactic of keeping their policy cards close to their chest might not be good news in the newsrooms of the Westminster Village, it may not be bad politics. Oppositions are in an invidious position: release their popular policies too soon and the government will shame-facedly steal them or come up with alternatives; hold them back and be criticised for not having ideas – or be accused of having secret agendas. There is, additionally, much evidence that the verdict of voters is retrospective, punishing or rewarding the incumbent, leading the opposition to win or lose by default. This gives rise to another rule of thumb, that “oppositions don’t win elections, governments lose them,” which would suggest it doesn’t much matter what Labour says at this stage.

Politics is a complicated business, and those commentating on it should remember that every piece of folk wisdom out there has led their predecessors astray at some point. This does not, however, mean that politics is too chaotic to make any meaningful predictions at all. Rather, it suggests pundits would do well to consider a wider range of evidence from outside the bubble, and view the conventional wisdom of their peers in the Village with a more sceptical eye.

Robert FordWill Jennings and Mark Pickup