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Rebecca Lowe Coulson was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.

Whether they’re championing centrism, neoliberalism, or ‘remainerism’, it’s unsurprising that many people are claiming the election of Emmanuel Macron as a win for the political positioning they want him to represent. It’s standard practice to use such results to gauge public feeling. But painting his success in such terms seems not only largely inaccurate, but also risky.

Rather, it seems undeniable that many who saw Macron as a ‘semi-virtual’ poster boy voted for him, nonetheless. And that many who opposed his economics – who saw his ‘continuity-Hollande’ approach as incapable of addressing France’s 25 per cent youth unemployment – voted for him, too. (One socialist friend tweeted: “We’ve got rid of her. Now we’ve got five years to prove him wrong”.) And that many who opposed his integrationist views on Europe presumably voted for him, too – 40 per cent chose explicitly Eurosceptic candidates in the first round of the contest, after all.

Viewing Macron’s win in a more negative, oppositional sense seems necessary to recognising what he faces: a country divided over the EU, with deepening social divisions, and a weak economic outlook. But also to accepting that France has not “got rid of her”; a neofascist gaining “only’ ten million votes should not be celebrated.

But perhaps what I’ve written so far is biased conjecture, too: I purposefully haven’t backed it up (though the statistics and polls are easy to find). We’re quick to assume we can know why people vote – and that their reasons are simple, obvious, and collective. We like it when those reasons fit a narrative with which we feel comfortable. And we particularly enjoy seeking international patterns, conveniently forgetting the immense differences between varying types of electoral events. Voting Leave in last year’s EU referendum was not a vote for a Gove leadership, for instance.

Trying to work out why people vote as they do is a complex game. It involves assessing some (mostly) passive things about them: being a woman, being old, living in a certain area, being presented with candidates in a particular order on a ballot paper, and on. Those factors don’t determine decision-making, but it’s generally accepted they can influence it. Not all of the people, not all of the time – but enough to make their choices easier to predict.

Then there are the considerations that we’re told voters actively prioritise. Again, not everyone fits the mould, however. Yes, there are standard answers that work for sufficient people, yet – regardless of what we say, or even think – most of us make decisions for an unravelable mixture of reasons.

“I’m Labour til I die”

Membership of political parties is slightly on the rise, having grown from 2013’s historic low (0.3 per cent of the electorate). But the days in which people saw joining clubs – to commit physical effort to either tennis or politics – as ‘usual’ are long gone. Moreover (for differing, yet obvious reasons), the words ‘Labour’ and ‘Conservative’ are currently less likely than normal to be in pride of place on posters or leaflets. Parties hold our politics together, but blind voting allegiances are unhelpful. Rather, members are essential to campaigns, and for holding politicians to account – something parties should appreciate more.

“My ancestors would turn in their graves if I voted Tory”

As a child growing up in the North East, my grandmother used to tell me that “they’d vote for a dog if he were Labour, round here”. But I witnessed how those attitudes were changing, while standing as a Conservative candidate in Durham in 2015. In the same way hatred for Le Pen might trump uncertainty about Macron, there are things that matter more than family traditions – a grudging support for policies that actually help said family, for instance.

“They’re out here — come rain, come storm”

That our parliamentary system affords us locally-elected representatives is part of its beauty. Will enough people stick with those decent diehard Labour MPs, who are fighting in the face of the Corbyn vote collapse? Will the Liberal Democrats’ usual groundwork focus be damaged by their lack of funds? What will be the effect of decrees telling Conservative candidates not to campaign in their non-target seats?

“It’s the economy, stupid”

Standard understanding is that the two pivotal electoral issues are the economy and party leadership. There’s no need to comment on the polls comparing Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn, but will Brexit continue to take the place of the economy in this election? Will people finally recognise that Corbyn is winning the contest he cares most about: the battle to the shift the country’s (and his party’s) Overton Window? Was Vernon Bogdanor right when he wrote that that manifestos’ “days may be numbered”?

I’ve never felt so strongly about anything before!”

The biggest question must be the extent to which this is a Brexit election. How much do Labour voters care about their party’s incoherence on the topic? Will the Lib Dems really regain their old seats, regardless of sizeable ‘leave’ votes? And what about other ‘single issues’: are the Green’s green policies any better this time?

“I’m not voting against those numbers!”

Why we vote is different from how we vote, but both are affected by our awareness of the tiny chance our own vote has of being decisive. And some people just want to win.

‘”Corbyn would wreck this country”

Aside from Conservative domination of the Brexit issue, Corbyn’s weakness will surely remain the strongest message of this election. Yet the fracturing of his party preceded his leadership; no matter who was in charge, could Labour have won a majority after the loss of its Scottish heartlands? And what of Tony Blair’s legacy (who polls regularly show to be hated even more than Corbyn)? It’s hard to see Labour, itself, as anything but seriously unelectable.

The question of oppositional voting returns us to Macron-Le Pen, and to the point that how we vote is often determined by the grounds on which we decide to do so. Was your vote in the EU referendum a vote for yourself, your family, your neighbourhood, your country, Europe, or the world? For the short-term or the long?

Voting is a responsibility: opting for Macron, or for May, may mean going against one’s traditional instincts or preferences. But sometimes there are more important things to consider. Those equating a vote for Le Pen with a vote for Brexit are simply wrong. But the growing strength of the Front National is something we should all fear, not least the centrists, neoliberals, and remainers who are busy celebrating Macron’s victory. And it’s unsurprising that people want a “strong and stable” leadership at the moment – no matter how much the slogan may annoy, or even worry them.

31 comments for: Rebecca Lowe Coulson: What it is that determines how we vote

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