Can you immediately tell one party’s policies from another’s? Even if you are not obsessed with all things political, like us at 50for15, you might struggle. The voters of Newton Abbot, in Devon, certainly did – in a recent survey that we conducted, half the respondents assigned to UKIP the Conservatives’ pledge to hold an in-out referendum on the EU in 2017, and two-thirds of respondents mistook a BNP policy as UKIP’s. The level of misinformation is a cause for concern, and it is important that people become more engaged in the political process.
Hence ‘Can U Pik UKIP?’ and an accompanying hashtag (of course) were launched onto the unsuspecting shoppers of Newton Abbot, a constituency on the south coast of Devon that spans from the town of Newton Abbot itself up to Dawlish, home of attractive beaches that fill up during tourist season and, more recently, railway-lines left dangling in mid-air after the February storms.
“We encourage voters and other parties to question us” tweet
The constituency is also home to the headquarters of UKIP, who enjoy strong support in the area, winning representation in Devon County Council in Kingsteignton, which is located within the bounds of the constituency. Traditionally the seat has been a Conservative-Liberal Democrat marginal; currently, it is held by Conservative Anne-Marie Morris, who won against Liberal Democrat Richard Younger-Ross in 2010. But the status quo could well change if the level of support UKIP receives in May next year is equivalent to that it has received in local and European elections. Indeed, the latest Lord Ashcroft poll found the Liberal Democrats and UKIP vying for second place behind the Conservatives.
On 9th July we asked shoppers in Newton Abbot whether they could identify which party champions which of the following policies (below). There is one of each from the parties listed: BNP, Conservatives, Greens, Labour, Liberal Democrats, and UKIP. See how many you can correctly identify!
• An in-out referendum on the EU by 2017
• Freeze gas and electricity bills until 2017
• Abolish inheritance tax
• Nationalise the railway system
• Give carers an additional £250 a year
The six policies were chosen because they are key pledges offered by the parties. Despite the importance of the policies in the parties’ platforms, there was widespread uncertainty about the provenance of the policies.
In fact, the only person from the day to correctly identify all six was Richard Younger-Ross, the Liberal Democrat candidate for the constituency. Everyone else fared slightly worse.
• ‘Abolish inheritance tax’: 3 out of 8 thought this UKIP policy was the Conservative’s, a quarter went for BNP and the rest guessed correctly.
• ‘Stop all immigration except in exceptional cases’: 2 out of 3 thought that this BNP policy was UKIP’s.• ‘Nationalise the railway system’: 4 in 7 thought this was Labour, 1 in 7 UKIP, and 2 in 7 correctly identified the policy to be on the Green’s platform.
• ‘An in-out referendum on the EU by the end of 2017’: half of respondents thought that this flagship Conservative policy was UKIP’s, one-third were right, and the rest thought that the policy was Labour’s.
• ‘Freeze gas and electricity bills until 2017’: 5 in 8 correctly said that this was Labour’s policy, whereas UKIP, the Green Party, and the Conservatives were each mentioned by 1 in 8 respondents.
• 5 in 7 correctly identified ‘Give carers an additional £250 a year’ as a Liberal Democrat policy. The others believed it to be Labour’s.
50for15’s test was about recognition rather than normative judgement of the policies, but accurate assignment of party’s policies must be a necessary step to ensure that votes are cast based on informed decisions. It was reassuring that a former MP and current candidate knows the differences between the different parties’ political stances but more can be done to ensure a greater widespread appreciation of the differences between parties’ policies. John F. Kennedy famously said, “The ignorance of one voter in a democracy impairs the security of all.” The results do not demonstrate ignorance: voters, on the whole, were able to locate policies on a right-left spectrum, which in a multi-party system, with competing attempts by parties to claim the ‘centre-ground’, is not that easy.
Yet, during the surveys, it became clear that voters associate certain policies with particular parties. For example, “immigration” is connected in the minds of many with UKIP. So just the mention of the word “immigration” prompted voters to say the policy was UKIP’s, even though, in this case, it was the BNP’s. The challenge for all the parties must be to re-appropriate policies as their own in instances where one party claims ownership of a particular issue. They must assert their differences, too.
For Anna Clarke, a representative from the South Devon Green Party, who visited the team in Newton Abbot, political parties should engage with voters about their electoral pledges. “People need to make informed decisions,” she told 50for15. “We encourage voters and other parties to question us, because we have confidence in our own policies.”
Clarke also drew attention to the increasing support for the Green Party in the county, which was confirmed by the election of the first Green MEP for the South West in the European Parliament elections in May. As with UKIP, the first-past-the-post system currently used in UK General Elections adversely affects the number of seats the Green party wins, in proportion to the votes it receives.
In fact, local Liberal Democrats have even criticised the Green party for contesting the seat because in their view, a Green candidacy splits the progressive vote and permits the Conservatives to win. Clarke responded to those criticisms: “I appreciate why people do tactically vote. However, calls to voters to tell them to vote tactically imply that a party does not have complete confidence with its own policies.”
It turned out that many voters could not “pik” UKIP policies from the rest, and that there was generally extensive confusion as to which party held which policy. But all is not lost: there are many days before the general election, in which all the parties will attempt to engage with voters and explain their policy platforms. It is crucial that they do so in an effective and focused way, and 50for15 for its part hopes to play an important role in this process too.