None of us are really ‘voting for policies’

So the campaign is over and an election finally upon us. My days of idling away on blow-by-blow election blogs, and watching clip after clip of electioneering will end with one nearly-all-night wait of anticipation in front of a TV.

But I really doubt that any of us are really, as Facebook quizzes would have, ‘voting for policies’. It’s not to say that particular issues don’t animate particular people – they clearly do – but I think that the idea that each of us vote for the candidate and party that reflects our preferred policies is a flawed one.

As any person involved in any sort of campaigning knows (for any issue, not just party politics), success happens not because of the ‘rightness’ of a particular proposal, but because of how it fits with existing worldviews and prejudices, the prevailing moral mood, and the narrative that it constructs about where we’ve come from and we we’re going. Campaigns aren’t about informing people and presenting them with information, in the expectation that they will see what’s right for them. They’re about mobilizing voters, to turn out the core vote to actually get people to act on beliefs they already have, whether consciously or at some deeper level.

All the talk about being ‘tribal’ in one’s politics, about voting for a party because one’s parents always have done so, about conflicting signs about what your gut, heart and head tell you to vote for – are a sign, surely, that making a decision about who to vote for is not a simple correlation with the parties whose policies you prefer.

Because at the heart of it, ‘policies’ are a proxy for something else: a statement about who we are. Like gender, faith and class which impute particular identities upon us – marking a box is an act whereby we have to persuade ourselves that ‘voting for x is the right thing to do’.  Whatever our choice, we rationalize our decision by reference to some standard  – the commentariat, friends and so forth. No-one ever sees their own action as irrational; there is always some search for justification, indeed perhaps post hoc. We focus on the policies we like, and ignore those that are less convenient.

So all the quizzes do, are to reinforce notions that are already lodged in our minds about the kind of voter we are, and hence the kind of party that would be appropriate to vote for. I would seriously doubt that anyone, say, a previous Green voter, would do a quiz that tells them that that their preferences are 80% Conservative, and then go ‘gosh, if this is how my preferences really line up with a party’s policies, Conservative it is for me from now on.’ It’s why when people say that ‘I’ve been a lifelong Labour voter, but not this time’, the ‘lifelong’ bit is the telling one: the habits of multiple experiences at the ballot box creates and recreates a certain image of oneself that requires a-not-insubstantial cognitive trigger to actually shift voting choices. That trigger doesn’t come from flipping through manifestos.

Voting, like almost every act, is one laden with social meaning about who ‘we’ are. Policies are only a peripheral part of this.

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