Home > Democracy > Vote for Policies

Vote for Policies

February 15, 2015

Nobody trusts political parties, and everybody’s judgement is biased. Therefore, every General Election, a number of sites appear which tell you which party to vote for, based on their policies or some other blind, seemingly unbiased test.

Choosing Policies

The Vote for Policies Logo

The Vote for Policies Logo

As a test: based on these policies, which of these parties would you choose between?

Party 1

  • giving the concerns of cyclists much greater priority;
  • cut Ministers’ pay by 5 per cent, followed by a five year freeze
  • develop a measure of well-being that encapsulates the social value of state action.

Party 2

  • increase the private sector’s share of the economy in all regions of the country
  • make sure Academies have the freedoms that helped to make them so successful in the first
    place
  • amend the health and safety laws that stand in the way of common sense policing

And a second example. Based on these policies, which of these parties would you choose between?

Party A

  • control immigration through our Australian-style points-based system
  • make full use of CCTV and DNA technology: new weapons deployed to strengthen our fight against crime
  • extend the use of our tough-but-fair work capability test

Party B

  • ensure that people are not held back at work because of their gender, age, disability, race and religious or sexual orientation
  • alcohol treatment places will be trebled to cover all persistent criminals where alcohol is identified as a cause of their crimes.
  • reduce Britain’s dependence on imported oil and gas and increase our energy security

As you’ve probably guessed, this is a trick; the policies of Party 1 and Party 2 are all from the Conservatives’ 2010 manifesto, and Party A and Party B from Labour’s. It’s a fairly simple demonstration that picking from a sub-set of policies isn’t an objective way of finding out which party matches your views. While the creators of Vote for Policies claim no political affiliation, I would be wary of any possible connection between its founder blogging about reducing income inequality and the unexpectedly high support for the Greens and low support for the Tories among the test results (which are of course further biased by who takes the test, disfavouring parties with an older and less web-savvy demographic)

Choosing Parties

The Political Compass chart.

The Political Compass chart.

The second problem with these sites is matching policy positions with parties. As an example, iSideWith said I disagreed with the Lib Dems because I want to replace the House of Lords with a fully-elected chamber, which has been Lib Dem policy since forever! Their evidence for the Lib Dems’ stance on various issues also seems to be taken from our ministers voting with the Government rather than the party’s policy uncontaminated by Coalition.

I was spurred to write this piece because pretty much every Lib Dem party member I’ve seen taking the Political Compass test has ended up in the “left / libertarian” quadrant, roughly in the middle – some just edge over the axis into the right wing, and some are more or less libertarian, but they’re all in that area. This might be sample bias, but I think I have plenty of Lib Dem friends representing a wide variety of opinions within the party. Firstly, this reinforces my point (assuming the Political Compass model is valid) that there’s far more that unites us as a party than divides us.

Secondly, and more importantly, it’s interesting to note that none of the Lib Dem results I’ve seen match up anywhere near the Lib Dem “position” on the Political Compass website; I went to have a look at how the results are calibrated for the UK 2015 General Election, and found this quote:

The Lib Dems are now widely — and correctly — viewed as a party of few fixed principles, and their vote this time may haemorrhage more to the Greens than to Labour.

Political Compass is describing the Lib Dems as a right-wing, mildly authoritarian party, and the descriptions page seems to be written by a Green supporter. With pretty much every Lib Dem I’ve seen scoring where they put the Greens (and the Greens I’ve seen generally being further left and more authoritarian than the Lib Dems), I can’t see that they’ve calibrated on anything other than biased opinion. Also, their positioning of parties means that almost everybody who takes their test will show up closest to the Greens. I’ve seen Green supporters tell people they should vote for the Green Party on the basis of this, so it’s actively being used as a recruiting tool.

Choosing Politics

Ultimately, there’s a more fundamental problem than selection bias and calibration bias with these tools. They cater to the “supermarket shelf” approach to politics, where you pick and choose who to vote for based simply on a list of promises. This then leads to a race to the bottom with different parties just making bigger promises on the same things, which soon become undeliverable because the promise (and getting elected) is more important than the delivery or because events make delivery impossible, which leads to people becoming disenchanted with politics, which leads to bigger promises to get peoples’ attention…

Unfortunately, this is how a lot of people do decide how to vote – we get the politics we vote for, in a way. And these sites just contribute to that problem. Fundamentally, we elect representatives to the Commons to make decisions on behalf of their constituents, constituencies, and the nation as a whole; a constituency election is to decide the representative with the best judgement – as Edmund Burke said back in 1774. Manifestos and shopping lists of policies probably aren’t the best way to choose a representative.

As long as voters don’t listen to (or don’t believe) politicians talking about their values or beliefs, and do respond to these shopping lists, then taking this approach in campaigning won’t win you an election. This is one reason why I like the Lib Dems’ “Stronger Economy, Fairer Society” slogan. It may not pass the negation test – no party would call for a weaker economy (except the Greens) or a less fair society (except UKIP), but it’s a statement of intent, far more meaningful than “One Nation Labour” or whatever the hell the Tories are using as a slogan these days. The Lib Dems need to demonstrate more explicitly that our record of action in Government, and our promise of more in our manifesto, come back to that core message and to liberal values.

If we can do that, then perhaps “ideology” will no longer be a dirty word in politics, and maybe we’ll see undecided voters in 2020 visiting sites like “Vote for Principles” instead.

Advertisements
%d bloggers like this: