Written by Gareth Morrell, Head of Madano’s Insights & Intelligence Practice
We’re a demanding electorate that expect our choices at the ballot box to be as tailored to our preferences as our interactions with Google and Amazon Prime, but parliamentary democracy can never be that personalised – we’re just redefining our ‘tribal affiliations’.
Prior to last week’s election, over half of the electorate said they did not feel any political party represented their views. A reflection of political apathy? A lack of interest in politics? A failure of politicians to connect? Apparently not.
Turnout appears to have risen a couple of percentage points overall in this election and a bit more sharply amongst younger voters (though not as sharply as first thought); political party memberships are also up across the board. Instead, the claim that people don’t feel represented may just reflect important shifts in the role of political parties and the challenges they face in consistently maintaining a committed base of support amongst a demanding electorate.
It’s easy to say that in the old days, life was simpler – we block voted. It’s certainly true that we were less mobile (socially and physically) and belonged to more obvious political tribes based on class and geography. Results were more predictable – polls and the media were normally right. But did this mean that parties (normally two, sometimes three) were capable of perfectly representing the views of every person on every subject?
What’s more likely is that today’s electorate are increasingly unwilling to accept or feel represented by a party that we only mostly or partially agree with. As our lives have become immediate and society more complex, so our political demands have become more personalised and the old dividing lines are seeping away.
And we’re used to this level of personalised service, with companies attending to our every whim and preference with highly bespoke services. Amazon recommends products, Netflix suggests programmes and an entire industry of algorithms pushes towards us the things that we, on average, are most likely to want to see. Where 30 years ago you bought an album and effectively had to buy into every track on the album, and wear it on your sleeve, today Spotify lets you listen to what you want, when you want. So, why not demand this from your politics?
So on this basis, before the election we may have expected lower turnout. If people don’t feel represented in the absence of a ‘political Spotify’, why did more of us vote and why did they do so in larger numbers for the two main political parties than for decades?
As Rob Ford, polling expert at Manchester University, shows in a recent piece in The Guardian, rather than leaving us with atomised and apathetic voters, personalisation is encouraging the electorate to define new tribes. True, these tribes sit under the banners of the same two political parties, but the dividing lines are re-drawn. Simply put, the younger, educated and metropolitan vote Labour; the older, less well educated and suburban/rural vote Conservative. This could be a further electoral demonstration of what David Goodhart describes as two new tribes: the ‘somewheres’ and the ‘anywheres’, first seen in last year’s referendum on EU membership.
As we search for these new tribes, we often unite in opposition. Of course, Jeremy Corbyn galvanised a large part of his vote though the hope of a ‘different kind of politics’, but there are plenty of commentators that feel that the late surge for Labour was also a response to a Conservative campaign seen as calculated, negative and arrogant. After all, recent political successes in France, the US and the UK by very different politicians have only one thing in common – the candidate enjoying the obvious and late surge stood against some definition of the ‘status quo’. In the US, Trump stood against the status quo of the mainstream media and the Washington narrative; in France, the previously unelected Macron and his brand new En Marche party stood against the status quo of the traditional political parties.
My sense is that the increase in turnout and a return to a clearer but re-drawn two-party dynamic is not a reverse of the demand for personalised politics. We still vote very much on what affects us; but we increasingly have the tools and analyses to tell exactly how a collection of policies will affect us individually. We want to pick parts of the views and values of politicians, but then collate a world view that doesn’t always have a candidate or party that perfectly aligns. Online echo chambers reinforce this, meaning we’re less willing to tolerate the parts we don’t like in order to fully support and identify with a given party.
This presents challenges for political parties – how they tell their story in a meaningful way without alienating, on the one hand, or being too ambiguous, on the other. It will be some time before we understand whether these new dividing lines will create more ambiguous umbrella parties or lead to a more fractured political party landscape. But in this climate of personalisation, shifting political allegiances and the ability of effective social media campaigning to galvanise protest and hope at the same time, one thing is clear – there are more unpredictable elections to come.