No-one Cares What You Think About AV (part 3…)

No-one actually cares what the electorate thinks about changing the voting system from FPTP to AV. Only once previously has the UK held a referendum, in 1975 to approve British entry into the then European Economic Community. Conventionally, a referendum is regarded as appropriate when a policy is proposed that fundamentally changes the constitutional settlement, especially when the governing party has no electoral mandate through having proposed the policy in its manifesto. Thursday’s question is both fundamental and without a formal mandate. Crucially, too, it splits the government itself; Liberal Democrats suffer under FPTP, winning 25% of the vote but 10% of the seats in 2010, while Conservatives fear a permanent Lib-Lab lockout under a more proportional system.

But AV is far from a major upheaval. Predicting how it might have affected the last election is difficult, since data on second and third preferences is not always readily available. Rough estimates based on polls taken shortly after elections have shown a range of impacts, but a common theme is that the Liberal Democrats would be likely to gain, primarily at the expense of the Conservatives. Labour stands to benefit too; in fact, the BBC’s figures (based on the British Election Study) suggest Tony Blair’s 1997 landslide could have been even more catastrophic for John Major’s party. They are shown finishing third, behind the Liberal Democrats, with just 70 seats to Labour’s 445. Nevertheless, the overall effect is likely to be limited. The proposal stops short of a switch to a fully proportional system of representation. Indeed, Nick Clegg once called AV a “miserable little compromise”.

So why the fuss? Why the expense and effort of a referendum? The answer is simple. It is the lynchpin of the coalition. Nick Clegg could not have struck a deal with David Cameron without obtaining at the least the chance to make his case for electoral reform direct to the voters. Cameron, meanwhile, could hardly have sold the deal to his own sceptical right flank without settling for the most minimal of possible reforms. Both agreed to fight their own campaigns, and accept the result as it came without it necessarily becoming an acid test for the coalition.

What the actual consequences of a yes or no vote may be is unclear. What is clear is that the referendum, the very prospect of changing the voting system at all, has come about solely as a result of politicians’ self-interested efforts to set the rules of the political game in such a way as to benefit themselves. Liberal Democrats want a more proportional system because they lose out under FPTP. Conservatives want to keep FPTP because it is they who gain at the Liberal Democrats’ expense. Both have agreed to hold a vote on a switch to AV so as to facilitate their formation of a coalition government. There are genuine proponents and opponents of reform on both sides, motivated by belief in the rectitude or impropriety of AV, but their beliefs came in to play only after the political calculation was made by their leaders that a referendum represented the optimum compromise between their opposing viewpoints, and that such a compromise was needed if they were to do business together at all.

So no-one in power really cares about AV. The referendum is a tool to hold together a coalition government. The ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ camps are motivated more by a desire for power than by any strong commitment to democracy or to the voters themselves. For the strongest argument against AV is that put by Nick Clegg himself. It isn’t enough. Anyone from the ‘No’ campaign who says it’ll be a disaster is exaggerating. Anyone from the ‘Yes’ campaign who says it’ll fix politics is unrealistic. It is a small change, to slightly increase the link between voting behaviour and political power in Britain. It is being offered as part of a political compromise, brokered by men who wanted to be in government. No-one cares what you think about AV.

PS I’m still voting yes, by the way. Because as much as I like coffee, I’d rather go for a beer

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AV Update

Just a quick update on the referendum. Firstly, impressed to see the No campaign has taken out adverts on the UK polling report website. Secondly, the polls are now showing  the No campaign in the lead, suggesting we’ll be sticking with First Past the Post after all. Nick Clegg has been criticised for failing to hold out for a more radical reform, presumably on the basis that voters would have shown more interest in a change that made more of a difference (see my previous post – Andrew Gilligan has also commented on this for The Telegraph, but he’s got a slightly checkered record as a journalist so I’m ignoring him). But, if you actually look at the figures, it’s those who showed up uninterested in earlier polls who are now saying No. If the 20% or so of respondents who “didn’t know” or who “would not vote” in earlier estimates actually stay home, the relative consistency of Yes vote figures form their initial lead suggests the Yes campaign might yet surge. Or perhaps that’s just wishful thinking.

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Royal Wedding Blues

The Guardian has some interesting poll data relating to the upcoming royal nuptials later this week. Among the headlines are the discovery that 63% of respondents thought the country would be worse off if the monarchy was abolished, and 67% that it remained relevant in modern Britain. For me, the most striking points are firstly that a majority of respondents in the 18-24 age group were planning definitely to watch the event on TV, and secondly that 60% thought the monarchy improved Britain’s image in the world today, against just 2% who thought the opposite. I’m planning to write separately about the ‘soft power’ significance of our peculiar institution, but I thought it worth mentioning here. 

Wedding interest among the young is perhaps surprising; the 18-24 age group is hardly known for its blind adherence to traditionalism. Perhaps it is a sign that the monarchy has a strong future, with young people, yet to abandon idealism and embrace a cynical view of the world, identifying with the telegenic young couple. Or perhaps another finding from the poll can explain the interest. 75% of respondents agreed that the wedding would cheer Britain up. Since the start of the recession, inflation, rising house prices, rising student debt, cuts to pension schemes, cuts to education spending, and cuts to incidental ‘youth’ spending such as the EMA or Sure Start centres, have all impacted disproportionately upon the young. Recent figures from the Office for National Statistics show, for example, that 20.4% of economically active 16 to 24 year olds were unemployed in the three months to February 2011, compared to a headline unemployment rate of 7.8% of the working age population. Since the wedding day has been declared a bank holiday, the disproportionate interest shown by the young is not just a matter of their having more time to sit and watch TV. But it could be that the young are just more in need of a cheering up.

Of course, no-one is going to draw this connection. For one thing, the data simply doesn’t exist to test whether the hypothesis, that the young are more miserable and thus more ready to reach for fairytales to distract them from the banality of life, is supportable. More importantly, however, the young generally do not count in modern British society. Those under 18 who are hit hardest by education cuts and tuition fee rises are disenfranchised. Many work, and pay taxes, but are denied a vote. Because they can’t vote, it doesn’t matter what they think. Even once they can vote, because many of them don’t, they still can be ignored.

Source: HM Treasury

Over 50% of the British government’s annual budget goes on welfare (predominantly pensions, though including jobseeker’s allowance and various disability and child benefits which do directly help the young – see Chart 1) and the NHS (which, as anyone under 35 who has ever tried to get an ailment taken seriously by the NHS will know, is Not For Young People). Areas of spending which predominantly benefit older voters are protected, while those which benefit the young – also known as the people who are going to have to pay the debt off – are slashed. But there we go. Young people don’t vote, so no-one cares what they think. Fortunately they can watch some nice young royals on Youtube instead. So that’s alright then.

Update 19:23 – check out this piece over at The Guardian expressing exactly the sort of escapist sentiments I have just been talking about. And you thought they were all Guardian readers over there…

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No-one cares what you think about AV

There’s an interesting discussion in this week’s Bagehot about the rival campaigns in the coming referendum on changing the voting system used in UK general elections. Bagehot’s key argument is that, rather than engaging with the substantive issues thrown up by the proposed switch from First Past the Post (FPTP) to Alternative Vote (AV), the ‘yes’ and ‘no’ groups have focused instead on often-nonsensical mudslinging.

The Yes to AV campaign poster

First we have the ‘yes’ campaign. Its official campaign literature argues that “A YES vote means: We’ll make MPs work harder…we’ll get a stronger voice…[and] we’ll tackle ‘jobs for life’ in Westminster”. On each count, it is flawed. There is no evidence that MPs in general are not already working hard, and indeed as the BBC reported this week, some otherwise inclined to support the ‘yes’ campaign have been alienated by its repetition of tired tabloid stereotyping in this regard. Dismissing all MPs as worthless because of the crimes of a handful and the insensitivity of others (most of whom are, rightly, no longer MPs) is a great way of deterring otherwise excellent candidates from stepping forward. It similarly isn’t clear that AV brings a stronger voice to the electorate. If anything, it makes its views even more difficult to decipher than they already are: remember the complete inability of any commentator to predict accurately the outcome of the 2010 election, and then imagine the need to factor in multiple, hierarchical, and often intransitive preferences. Finally, the ‘jobs for life’ argument, probably the strongest of the three, which holds that the number of ‘safe seats’, in which an MP of a particular party is highly unlikely to be defeated because of the proportion of the electorate that supports their party under any circumstances, would decrease under AV. Bagehot references a New Economics Foundation report which is described as estimating “that AV would merely trim the number of safe seats, so that 16% rather than 13% of seats would change hands at a typical election”. The NEF predicts an increase from 81 to 125 in the number of “very marginal” seats. Hardly an eradication of safe seats, as a spokesman points out: “whatever the outcome of the referendum, politicians will still largely ignore voters in safe seats”.

But surely this latter argument misses the point. The problem with safe seats is not their monopolisation by single parties, but by single candidates. What is needed to make MPs more accountable is an increase in the power of internal party mechanisms, and in the willingness of local activists to hold representatives to account for their actions. No shift in the voting system that retains a link to a geographical area would change the fact that some areas of the country are predominantly urban and poor, and thus full of ‘natural’ Labour voters, while others are rural and better off, and thus more naturally inclined towards the Conservative party. Indeed, even a ‘full’ PR system on a national basis, eradicating the link between individual MPs and a particular geographical constituency, would presumably result in some safe seats being held by those members ranked at the top of a party list system.

As for the ‘no’ campaign, surely the most comical of its arguments is the one advanced by David Cameron, that AV is dangerous because it gives smaller parties more power and may lead to hung parliaments and more coalition governments. Apparently, democracy is damaged when a party with 36.1% of the national vote, and one with 23%, must each compromise some of their plans in order to come up with a programme supported in some way by 59.1% of voters. It would be more democratic if just one party got 40% of the vote and then could do what it liked. What David Cameron isn’t telling you is that the Conservatives’ main worry is that Labour and Liberal Democrat voters will be more inclined to give second preference votes to each other than to the Conservatives, effectively limiting Tory prospects in any constituencies where they currently win with less than 50% of the vote.

How big an impact might this be? Using the 2010 General Election Results, it is possible to find out how many MPs each major party would have gained just on first preference votes alone under AV. The Conservatives would have performed best, with 126 candidates gaining over 50% of the vote in their constituency. Next were Labour, with 75, then the Liberal Democrats on 12. Another 21 seats would have been won by ‘other’ parties, 18 in Northern Ireland, 1 in Scotland, 1 in Wales, and 1 the Speaker of the House of Commons’ seat in Buckinghamshire, not normally contested by the other main parties.  So that’s a total of 234 of the 650 seats decided on the first round, exactly 36%. The remaining seats would have been decided according to the second, third, fourth etc. preferences of those whose first preference was eliminated early on. And here’s where making any sort of prediction gets complicated. Although we can look at the 2010 data to see whose first preferences would have been eliminated first, we cannot tell for whom those voters would have expressed a second preference, if any. We also can’t see how many people voted tactically; such as Labour supporters in Liberal Democrat – Conservative marginals who voted for the former to keep out the latter.

So in truth, nobody knows for definite what the impact of changing the voting system would be on politics. Probably it would still be possible for one party to gain an overall Westminster majority. Possibly we would see more coalition governments, including the terrible injustice of a party which won 36% of the national vote being forced to compromise with a party holding a mere 23%. Democracy could yet be undone by MPs gaining at least the grudging support of at least half the electors in their constituencies, or by governments doing the same with the national electorate. But we won’t be sure unless we try it. And this is another way in which the two campaigns don’t care what you think. Neither is willing to offer you a considered choice, or to listen to what you think. Both seek to lecture, to hector, and to persuade through image and simplification rather than fact. This is to be expected. Neither campaign cares what you think. They care what you can be cajoled into voting for.

My polling card, sans personal details

Anyway, I’m voting Yes. David Cameron says voting ‘yes’ is a bad idea. This implies it would be against his interests. This, in turn, probably means that voting ‘yes’ would benefit me.

Note: Predicting the outcome of a referendum is an acceptable goal of opinion polling. The UK Polling Report website maintains a rolling aggregate of various polls conducted using the actual referendum question. The ‘yes’ group is holding a slender lead in most polls, albeit one generally within the margin of error. Interestingly very few people are admitting that they ‘would not vote’. If just 1% of eligible voters stay home on May 5th, as the latest Yougov poll predicts, it would be a resounding shock. People lie to pollsters.

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What is Public Opinion?

You’ve never seen it. You can’t touch it. But everyone knows it exists. The very definition of a social construction. One of the biggest weaknesses the study of public opinion has suffered from over the years has been the conflation of this essential constructivism with a positivist attempt to render the ideational material, to observe the inherently unobservable. Public opinion doesn’t exist in the positivist sense. Consequently it cannot be studied using tools designed for observation of things which do exist.

Opinion polls are just such tools. They were first used on a mass scale by George Gallup to (successfully) predict the outcome of the 1936 US Presidential Election. Since then polling has evolved into an entire industry, but the basic method remains the same. A survey is taken of the voting intentions of a representative sample of the population, and the principles of statistical inference used to estimate the reliability of the results as an estimate of the entire population’s future behaviour. The problem with polling, however, is that its use has been extended beyond the measurement of ‘real’ phenomena, such as voting, to gauge more ethereal concepts such as attitudes and values and opinions. The problem with this extension is that it moves away from studying something that exists ‘out there’ towards studying something that doesn’t. And since it’s not possible to study something that doesn’t exist, what polls looking at questions other than voting intention actually do is create, rather than observe, a distribution of views in response to a question. They thus fail the test of scientific validity, that regardless of what method of observation you use, you must begin by trying to observe what you think you are observing. 

Here’s how it works. A pollster asks a member of the public a question on the political issue of the day. They get a response. They assume the respondent’s opinion matches the response given. They fail to account for the extent to which the respondent actually had a view on the subject before being prompted to express one. Most people, asked a straightforward question about an issue they have seen on the news or in the papers, will be able to give an answer. This does not mean that they had an opinion before they were asked for one. What polls tell us is not what the public is thinking about an issue, but how it would respond if asked the same question about that issue en masse. Fine for predicting voting behaviour; the question is going to be asked on election day. Not fine for other issues; what does it matter if 55% of the public would agree, if asked, with statement A, if they are never going to be asked? It’s like saying 100% of the public would be killed, if they were all dropped from 30,000 feet onto a pointed stick. They’re not going to be. So who cares?

This is why I don’t care what you think.

Picture credit: Wikipedia user “RadioFan”,

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No-One Cares What You Think (and there’s nothing you can do about it)

This is a blog about public opinion. More specifically, it’s about the way public opinion is routinely used, abused, and dismissed by those actors possessing a monopoly over the political and economic power within a society. Whether it is politicians using poll feedback to test the latest election slogan, media empires constructing news stories to attract audiences to advertising, or the entire industrial mass of capitalist production and its endless search for customers, modern mass social interaction is dominated by efforts not to understand the views of the man in the street, but to create them, to shift them, and to shape them according to the agenda of the people in control.

Think of an election campaign. The point is not to learn the views of voters, but to convince those same voters that the candidate’s position is their own. Politicians don’t care what you think, they care what you’ll vote for.

Think of a newspaper. The point is not to inform readers about the world, but to construct a ‘package’ of image and ‘content’ into which can be inserted paid advertising. Newspaper editors don’t care what you think, they care what will convince you to look at the ads that they sell.

Think of the marketing materials produced by a cosmetics manufacturer. The point is not to match supply and demand, but to create demand for an existing supply. Cosmetics manufacturers don’t care what you think, they care what you’ll buy.

The point of this blog is to point out examples of powerful actors using public opinion for their own benefit, and to seek to analyse how and why they’re doing it. Over the next few weeks I’ll lay out some of the theoretical background to this core idea, that no-one cares what you think, and moreover begin to explain why there’s nothing you can do about it.

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