Earlier this week, an opinion poll suggested that the health service would be the top priority issue for people voting in the Assembly elections in May. Whilst I can’t dispute the findings of the poll itself – I’m sure that it’s an accurate reflection of what people said – I wonder what it actually means. The implication is that those who see health as their top issue will sit down and carefully compare the detailed promises of each party on the subject and come to a conclusion about which party is proposing the policies which will do most to improve the health service in Wales before going out and making their mark alongside the name of the appropriate party and candidate.
Years of political campaigning, however, tell me that it hasn’t worked that way in the past, and it is unlikely to work that way in the future. It seems to me much more likely that voters will use their general perceptions and prejudices about parties to justify voting in much the same way as they would have voted anyway; the number of voters swayed by detailed policy commitments is a lot lower than politicians and the media would have us believe.
The question of what motivates people to vote as they do has also come up in comments on a few recent posts on this blog, most recently here. One of my anonymous ‘friends’ argued that “People vote 'for' a reasonable expectation of a better standard of living. And people vote 'against' anything that is likely to get in the way of an anticipated improvement in standard of living”. In a rather more nuanced contribution, Democritus argued that “when it comes to votes of first order importance … the main issue tends to revolve around which choice is likely on balance to make the polity as a whole or the voter as an individual better, or at least not worse, off”.
If it were really true that most people vote in accordance with the more extreme interpretation of that perspective, then it would set a very high – (perhaps impossible, for reasons I’ve touched on before and will return to in the future) – bar to achieving independence, because it would require us to convince the majority of people in Wales that they could be certain of being personally materially better off as a result. Even the more nuanced position which ‘merely’ requires people to be convinced that we’d be materially better off as a whole (or at least no worse off) is still a fairly high bar to set.
Personally, I’m not so certain that either of these positions stands up well to detailed examination, although I’m closer to agreeing with the second than the first.
Whilst there are some individuals who really do vote at elections on the basis of naked short term self-interest, I wonder how general that really is. I'd agree that it has become more common in recent years; I’d put the turning point at around 1979 - although whether the election of that year led to a change in attitude or caught a mood which was growing anyway is more of a moot point. In either event, from that point on, the Tories positively encouraged a more selfish and self-interested approach, and Labour caught up under Blair. Much of what passes for politics since then has seen parties (and not just those two – the infection has spread) carefully crafting their offerings to seek to appeal to the perceived self-interest of selected target groups. And the media have aided and abetted in that process. But does it really govern the voting behaviour of the majority?
It’s also possible to argue, of course, that even people who don’t vote on the basis of such narrow personal interests nevertheless vote for what they see as being the best outcome for some larger group of which they are members, which is still voting on the basis of self-interest albeit in a more diffuse fashion. They could be voting for what they think is best for their children or grandchildren; for their socio-economic class; for their nation; or even for the planet as a whole. All of these can be interpreted as self-interest of a form, even if at one or more removes.
There are occasions, however, when what looks like a vote in favour of an economic self-interest is actually little more than a rationalisation of a much darker motive dressed in the clothing of economics. I’m thinking here of the antipathy towards immigration, usually expressed in terms of jobs or economic costs such as benefits no matter how much that rationalisation is at variance with the facts. But if we were to interpret self-interest more widely again, then I suppose that we could see ‘not wanting to have more foreigners in the country’ as little more than a variant on the theme of self-interest.
All of the above assumes, in one way or another, that electors are considering all the options before voting and that voting is a considered and rational act. I wonder. In my time at university I read about the work of Graham Wallas who argued as long ago as 1908 (Human Nature in Politics) that voting is largely the result of habit based on irrational assumptions. That still seems as perspicacious an assessment now as it did when I first read about in in 1971. To the extent that the electorate as a whole votes on the basis of self-interest, I rather suspect that it is more a question of viewing self-interest through a prism based on pre-existing prejudices and assumptions. That includes the rather simplistic, and hopelessly out-of-date, perception that Labour is for the workers and the Tories are for the bosses.
None of the above means that voting behaviour can’t and won’t change, but it helps to explain why change is often slow. Even where change appears sudden (Scotland for instance?), that is usually the result of a process where perceptions have been changed over a much longer period. Sudden voting change doesn’t come from nowhere.What does all this mean for the independence project in Wales? Two things, it seems to me. The first is that a vote for independence can only follow – never precede – a lengthy process of changing the perceptions through which people view the issue; and we will never do that by simply parking the issue until things ‘get better’ by themselves. And secondly, that convincing people that we should be independent isn’t simply a question of demonstrating direct and incontrovertible economic benefit; those who argue that it is are not merely postponing the question, they’re setting what looks to be an unsurmountable barrier, which simply makes me wonder about their real commitment to the aim.