Peter Cuthbertson is the Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for Darlington and the Director of the Centre for Crime Prevention
Badly written and expensive to access as so many academic studies are, they can still be very informative for campaigners and policy makers. For example, many of the internal debates we have as Conservatives are really about whether a “Downsian” or a “valence” view of voters makes more sense, although we never put it like that. If Downs is right, then supply-side tax cuts probably won’t help us win elections. If the valence model is right, they’ll do exactly that.
So for years I’ve toyed with writing a Freakonomics-style book that translates what political academics know. Rather like when you meet the perfect woman and discover she’s married, I felt disappointed when I saw that Philip Cowley and Robert Ford have beaten me to it.
Worse, they and the many authors of Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box have done a good job of it. The book’s 51 chapters are very wide-ranging, and full of great nuggets of information. The number of marginal seats has halved since the 1950s. Contrary to what trendy left-wingers with newspaper columns like to write, “there is no evidence that the 2003 invasion of Iraq had any lasting negative consequences for the democratic faith of those who entered the electorate just a couple of years earlier”. Yes, people who want cuts in some areas tend to overestimate how much is spent – but they continue to support cuts even after they are told an accurate figure.
When it comes to why people do or don’t vote, I learned a lot from the chapters by Eline de Rooij and David Cutts. A sense of civic duty seems much less important than simple conformism, especially conformism with those one lives with. Someone who lives with a non-voter is less than ten per cent likely to vote. Someone who lives with a voter is more than 90 per cent likely to vote. 84 per cent of the effect of a phone call encouraging people to vote is passed on to other members of their household. If you can’t knock up every C on the day, you should probably prioritise the ones with lots of adult children!
Voters’ status quo bias in referendums is well-known, but the detail less so. A study of 34 referendums around the world showed support for the change option falling in the great bulk during the campaign. Even in the minority of cases where support for change rose, the rises were comparatively tiny. I also wasn’t aware of the evidence that those advocating change can help to overcome it by showing their reform protects aspects of the status quo. Alan Renwick gives the example of Alex Salmond arguing Scottish Independence would have protected the NHS.
He goes on write that “unless you are already way ahead in the polls, you should be cautious of advocating a referendum on your pet reform idea”. I’d venture that it equally suggests supporters of change should hold referendums after the change has been made rather than before it – as Harold Wilson did in 1975. That way people’s strong status quo bias works in support of the reform rather than against it.
I was surprised by how many chapters focused on the personal characteristics of politicians. The examination is rather limited: most of the authors never question the premise that meritocracy means equality of outcome, at least at the group level. But even within these narrow confines there is no real evidence of discrimination within political parties. The main reason the Liberal Democrats have so many more male than female MPs is self-selection – women are much less likely to join the party in the first place, the first step to running for office.
By far the best of these chapters is by Maria Sobolewska, who notes the “dangers of assuming that an ethnic minority politician will effectively represent the group they are deemed by others to belong to”, and identifies very interesting and plausible reasons for some ethnic minorities being better represented in Parliament than others, rather than simply assuming discrimination.
My main criticism of the book is that some chapters are too short to do the arguments justice. In some cases, I was unsure if the article was poorly argued because the author was wrong or because the author lacked the space. It’s limited consolation that one can always read more in an obscure and expensive journal.
As a Conservative candidate, I found a number of chapters encouraging. Will George Osborne’s economic triumph pay electoral dividends? Some evidence suggests public opinion is very in touch with economic variables. Will Jennings notes that, for 35 years, the number of people each month naming unemployment as the most important issue facing the country tracks extremely closely the official unemployment figures. Ditto inflation and working days lost to strikes. David Sanders controls for other relevant variables and still finds a strong economic effect on support for the governing party.
In the longer term, there is good news in the numerous chapters showing that Wales, Scotland and Northern England aren’t really much to the left of the Midlands and the South. Even people who self-identify as left-wing often aren’t. This should surely help in overcoming the anti-Conservative feeling that nonetheless exists. How to do so deserves much future study – and maybe a second book.
Sex, Lies and the Ballot Box by Philip Cowley and Robert Ford is published by Biteback Publishing and available from Politicos at £9.99.