Only a handful of the British public will vote for one of the party leaders on May 7th. Conservatives in Witney, Labour supporters in Doncaster North, Lib Dems in Sheffield Hallam, UKIP voters in South Thanet and Greens in Holborn and St Pancras will put a cross next to the name of a party leader. For the rest of us, our votes will be cast for other party candidates, some of them with high national profiles but many more known mostly for their local activism.
It is undeniable, however, that the party leaders considerably influence how many people vote, even when people are not voting for them directly. The media intensely scrutinise leaders’ personalities, backgrounds, and slip-ups. Indeed, the frequency of party leaders’ appearances on the news has led to the development of an informal voting theory called the “bedroom test,” which suggests that one factor in determining how people vote depends on the party leader the voter least minds watching on the TV before bed.
Academic literature has also focused on the increasing “presidentialisation” of British Parliamentary politics. This idea posits that the greater availability of resources for a modern Prime Minister, such as staff and media attention, transforms the role of the PM from a ‘primus inter pares’ (first among equals) with Cabinet colleagues to a more dominant agenda setter, like a president.
Televised leadership debates add to the presidentialisation of British politics, too: the competition gets framed as one between individuals vying for the job of Prime Minister, rather than between parties who compete to become the largest party in Parliament.
But when it comes to voting, what significance do voters assign between evaluating local candidates and party leaders? The last weekend in January saw me and Claire visiting Bristol to ask voters for their views on the party leaders and the local candidates; two days later I was an audience member in a Sky News #AskTheLeaders debate where David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg and Natalie Bennett were separately grilled by an audience of sixty young people, all on live TV.
In Bristol, dissatisfaction towards politicians was once again the prevailing theme voters expressed. “They’re all a bunch of twits,” said one man, before on how he thought party leaders had become more like “game-show hosts,” rather than people who represented a cogent policy programme. Another voter said, “I care more about our local MP… I know the national [leader] does a lot but the local [candidate] cares more about environmental issues and local councils.”
The divide between placing greater importance to the party leader and local candidate was roughly equal from those we surveyed, although those willing to speak on camera tended to attach greater significance to the local candidates.
Voters who said that local candidates were more important to their decision normally came to the conclusion due a disappointment with national leaders; “the leader tends to be a bit of an idiot usually,” said one voter. However, those who gave more attention to the quality of the party leaders focused on their concerns with national policymaking.
From Bristol to London, where I attended Sky News’ #AskTheLeaders debate. Bennett, Miliband, Clegg and Cameron took turns to stand on a podium circled by sixty young people, not all of them old enough to vote on May 7th, and were quizzed for half an hour on topics ranging from internships and housing shortages, to sexual education and, in the case of Nick Clegg, tuition fees. Farage had been invited but, due to work commitments in the European Parliament, was unable to attend.
I was picked to pose a question to Natalie Bennett, the Green party leader. I asked her whether the Greens should direct voters to vote tactically in seats where the party is unlikely to win.
I wanted to ask this question because so many marginals are decided on such wafer-thin majorities, often so close that votes for smaller parties disrupts the outcome, that I was interested in how she’d respond, especially to the consideration that party’s presence in certain marginals may help the Conservatives retain a couple more seats.
A recent in the article in the Observer cited current Conservative held Brentford and Isleworth, Plymouth Sutton and Devonport, and Hendon as seats where a sizable proportion of the left wing vote could go to the Green Party.
If you’re a Green supporter, vote Green irrespective of tactics, was the basis of her answer (her full response is in the video below). It’s not really surprising she replied in that way; you wouldn’t expect a party leader to go on national television and tell people to vote for another party, but the conviction of her answer highlights an interesting psychological shift in British voting behaviour.
One of the few supposed ‘laws’ in political science is ‘Duverger’s Law’ which states that the single district plurality vote (i.e. the one we have in the UK) will tend to lead to a two party system partly in part because of the psychological effect of people voting tactically.
All change now, when the rise of smaller parties has eroded this psychological effect and people are voting for smaller parties even though they know that their vote may not be for the winner or runner-up. A voter we spoke to in Bristol West told us, “The party leaders at the moment are the reason why I’m completely disillusioned with politics, so I will not be voting tactically anymore and will be voting Green,” although in Bristol West the Greens have a strong chance of winning or at least coming second.
Whether tactically voting or not, trying to explain whether people base voting decisions on local candidates or party leaders is obviously a false binary. As shown on the responses on the video, it’s a scale which can change over time, and from person to person.
Deciding how to vote based on local candidates does have higher information costs; attendance at a local hustings or a Wikipedia search of your candidate (if indeed there is any available information) requires more effort than just watching the news, which often contains quotes, stories and commentary from the national leaders. And despite the attempts of local candidates to contact as many voters as possible before election day, there are obvious challenges in achieving that goal.
Moreover, I do not believe there is a prescriptive conclusion about whether to vote based on national leaders or the local candidates. The local candidate will be the one that represents you but the national leader wants the keys to Number 10, and, if you believe the “bedroom test”, will be the face you see before you doze off. However, information is the crucial consideration, you do need to know something about the opposing sides – whether that’s on local or national issues- before you vote.
The highlights from the other leaders’ Q&A sessions: