Friday, 15 June 2012

The problem with targeting swing voters

I have very little respect for the kind of people who make up the group that are defined as ‘swing voters’. Be it the ‘Mondeo Man’ or the ‘Worcester Woman’, they form the ever shifting group constantly pandered to by politicians who prefer policy based on focus groups rather than principles. But the only thing that unites the swing voters of at most a few hundred thousand people at each election is not the tenuous demographic connections drawn by marketing experts but simple self-interest.

These are artificial groups who don’t have an ideology. They don’t care much about political principle or what’s best for the country of a whole. All they are is a group of fickle people who will flock to whatever politician offers them the best deal for them personally.

And I find that sickening. Blind, naked self-interest is the toxin which has poisoned human societies since time immemorial. It’s selfish, it’s shortsighted and, more importantly, it doesn’t work and pandering to it doesn’t win elections.

Now, I would do very well if I decided to care only about me and mine. I’m privileged, I’m well educated and I have a high likelihood of being able to easily slot into a well-paid career.

I know that I can expect to live in good areas, that I can expect my children will be able to go to good schools, and for them to have a good education and good career prospects.

So, out of self-interest, the only party I should bother with is one which will give me lots of tax breaks and take money from services I don’t use (such as legal aid or disability benefits) to pay for them. It shouldn’t matter to me what happens to the NHS as I can reasonably expect to be able to afford to go private. And it shouldn’t matter to me what happens in inner city schools and crime ridden neighbourhoods as long as my council tax is kept low, my street kept clean and beggars and poor people swept away to where I don’t have to see them.

That’s self-interest. Who cares about the poor? Who cares about the environment? Who cares that my clothes are made by slave labour in far off countries? Who cares that people are starving for want of the same amount of money I waste on an expensive bottle of wine?

But I don’t believe in that. I believe that if there’s a child dying needlessly in pain and that they can be saved for less than the price of a cup of coffee then I shouldn’t begrudge them that money. I believe that if I see someone else being ill-treated then I have a duty to intervene, to try and stop the injustice. I believe that I have a duty to do my best for society as a whole and to strive to make sure that everyone will ultimately have the same education and opportunities that I had. I don’t want to be privileged. My prosperity is not diminished by letting other people have the same prosperity. My rights aren’t diminished by giving others rights as well.

Which is why it’s generally pointless appealing to swing voters. If you deliberately pursue the votes of people who only care about themselves then you’re just wasting your time. Because as soon as you try to do something which benefits people other than themselves then they’ll lose interest in you and your party and switch to the next slick policy salesman. And they’ll certainly never become ideologically committed to a party and back it through thick and thin.

And this is why I despair of the marketing and messaging people who seem to be in charge of the strategy of all the main political parties. I wish that they’d have the guts to make policies based entirely on the basis of their principles and then take those policies to the country. After all, if every party keeps on offering the same thing it’s not really surprising that people are so apathetic towards party politics.


  1. If you'll pardon me saying, you have a very cynical view of people. I was (I freely admit) a swing voter for many years. I had little time for politics, because my job (teaching) took up all the hours of the day. I had no time to consider the issues and had no idea who most of the politicians were.
    I recently had to give up my job due to serious illness, which paradoxically gave me enough time to actually notice the political sphere and become passionately interested in it - a great surprise to everyone who knows me! I've just joined the LibDems. So don't give up on the great, ignorant majority of us, who never show(ed) an interest in politics - it may be that there's hope for us, yet.

    1. It's not lack of interest in politics that bothers me - it's the number of people who will only vote for whoever offers them the best deal personally rather than anything else.

      I freely admit that I am very cynical when it comes to people. I have a great deal of faith in humanity overall but I know from experience just how utterly horrible human beings can be. Not that I'm any better on that front than anyone else.

      Welcome to the party by the way :)

  2. As a swing voter with a deep and abiding interest in politics, I'm afraid your article sets out in full detail why I have little respect for partisans of all parties, and often wonder if they understand the people they represent at all.

    Since I've been of age, I've voted for five different political parties. Some only once; some repeatedly. I've used varying degrees of wisdom in my decisions, but never out of my own self-interest. But I'm not going to debate this by arguing my own case—anecdata is of limited value, and how I vote is my own affair.

    Yes, some people undoubtedly vote because they feel they'll be better off with one particular party. Why shouldn't they? Such voting should (in a fair voting system, which of course we haven't got) at least would ensure that we end up with a system where more people are advantaged than are disadvantaged. It's not foolproof, and it’s open to abuse, but I would consider is a valid use of the electoral system.

    And of course, better off doesn't necessarily mean taxes, or even money. At a time of recession, their main concern is going to be financial, which is inevitable, because money is a matter of survival for people for whom it would otherwise not have been.

    There of course are other reasons why people might change allegiance. All of these I've seen with people I know in the last few years. (Again, this is not data, but they are examples)
    * Parties' changing position on individual causes that people might champion e.g. environment, veterans rights, international development;
    * Parties' changing positions on issues vital to the voter's safety or quality of life e.g. queer/trans rights, unemployment, health, home education;
    * Local issues and the parties' positions on them
    * Local candidates and their varying levels of competence or principle.
    * Local electoral arithmetic. Most of the swing voters I know vote not for one particular party, but to keep another particular party or candidate out.
    * Parties on all sides of the spectrum go through incompetent phases where you wouldn't trust them with a whelk stall let alone a country. People may not notice this consciously, but they will tend not to vote for a party they don't feel is 'safe' (I think Labour's current majority in the polls is a red herring for this reason, but that's by-the-bye.)

    Quite apart from these reasons, what the country needs changes, and swings can potentially respond to that. After 17 years of Conservative government, we badly needed investment in our public services. After 13 years of Labour ... well, there have been other problems, as you're doubtless very aware. Different problems need different approaches, and not all political parties are up to the task at that particular time.

    It worries me that the only voters you value are those who will 'become ideologically committed to a party and back it through thick and thin.' I would hate to live in a country made up of such people. Commitment to a political cause is a great thing, but not if it comes at the cost of the ability to look beyond that, to question what your party and others do, and to be willing to find a better way if it's what the country--not your party--needs.

    By all means we need the people who will stick to their parties and work to improve them in whatever way they can; but we also need the people who question what the parties do and if necessary find them wanting.

    I know you have done this, which is why I find your contempt for swing voters disappointing. When you decry the concerns of these voters, you reveal, in effect, that you're unfit to represent them, that you're too blinkered by your own ideology to respond to their concerns and their needs.

    As a final thought, do you really think that unchanging partisan voters are devoid of financial self-interest? Really?

    1. I should clarify. When I talk about swing voters I am referring to the group specifically defined as such by marketing people. There are lots of people who change who they vote for who aren't classed as swing voters.

      When marketing people define the latest group of swing voters it's almost always along the lines of "aged x to y, lives in places like z, voted labour in 01, lib dem in 05 and conservative in 10, can be won over to whoever promises A, B, C and D"

      And generally, the only thing which is common between the different groups identified is that they'll vote for whoever promises the best deal for them personally.

      So my objection to swing voters is not people who change their mind for a myriad of reasons, including those you mention, but the rather narrow, constantly switching "swing voters" group which is defined by marketers and which is never the same from one election to another.

      My personal feeling is that parties should have their principles and values, make policy according to those values and then try and persuade as many people as possible as to why those policies and values are the best. Unfortunately, a lot of parties and political leaders (see Messrs Blair, Cameron and, to a certain extend, Clegg) seem to focus all their energy on pandering to and creating policies specifically for the group that their marketing people have identified as swing voters. And the result of this is usually a rush towards a perceived centre ground which results in the wishes and desires of all the other voters being ignored (including the kind of people who switch who they vote for for reasons other than self interest) and the (rightful) perception that all the parties are exactly the same.

      And of course unchaning partisan voters often have financial interest. But they'll usually also be voting on the basis that they agree with some underlying principle as well.

      That said, I think that anyone who is determined to constantly vote for the same party no matter how its policies change is something of a fool. I'm a Liberal Democrat but I'd stop voting for it in a heartbeat if I ever felt that the policies and principles of the party had changed too much from what originally attracted me to it.

  3. I guess I can be called a confused voter, mainly because of not understanding politics. Now - After being attacked as scum for 2yrs I know a bit more - and it seems to a non-politically minded person that being in 'power' is all about lying. You lie to get in - You lie to stay in, you lie when caught out and you continue lying so you get what you want.

    Is that wrong? Very likely but that is what the non-political person see's it as. You have a manifesto that sounds fab, but none of it is true - So why haveit in the first place? Every thing you do is swathed in lies. The disabled are all scum and liars and fakers - When the true liars and fakers are the govt itself.
    I am thick (its ok i know i am) But in my head lying is wrong. If you wanna get in to power to disband the NHS - then say so, say your reasons why you think this is right, and let the people decide on the FACTS. If you want to chuck the disabled in the bin - say so! At least they would know where they are heading ratherthan setup a completely fake WCA where people are unable to pass the damn thing just because they are breathing.

    I am just a poor disabled person. I was not born with a silver spoon, I did not go to Eton. I do not have rich friends (or many at all as they ran off when I became ill with a then unknown malady)

    All I can see, and many like me is they want all disabled people to p*ss off and die and get outta their hair. In the meantime ATOS become multi-billionaires on their false WCAs where they know its al lies.

    It just seems like everything is a lie. And my Mother told me 'Why bother to speak if all you are going to do is lie'
    So I don't lie - Yet I am branded a liar just for being ill.
    'Life' seems a very lonely and scary place for someone like me. It sems like a small narrow tunnel with no loght in it at all, because no matter what my GP/Consultant/Specialists say - ATOS word is law and all the other people must be lying. When we all know who the true liars are. And it aint me, unless that MRI scanner is a liar and I am dreaming a very horrid nightmare.... Can I wake up now please?

    Also... If this is true - I don't get that even more

  4. George, I am not interested in the swing voter marketing campaigns of the main political parties of this country. I find it very hard that marketing teams are employed at all when the message of democracy should be very simple, we vote, you represent.

    I am though wondering how on earth any marketing team is going to sell the Lib Dems to voters at the next election. Sadly i did not renew my membership. My reasoning to the poor girl from the Lib Dem team was this,

    The Lib Dems were supposed to curtail the insanity of the conservatives and what did we get, an agent of the IMF in Danny Alexander. An outright betrayel on tuition fees. War and slaughter in Libya, More Bailouts of the bankrupt financial derivative system.
    And to top it off, Brutal Austerity and a budget Debt and Deficit lie that will destroy most good honest hard working peoples lives, so financiers can get thier money.

    And where George are the Lib Dems. The oppostion. The party that was actually about change, not a war machine not a corporate finance backed bunch of Bullingdon Boys, Where, Where are they.

    Thats right Voting through everything the tories send through parliament.

    and sorry to end it like this but i am sadly unemployed but trying very hard to find work and yet i have to go to Graylings work proggramme nonsense and be humiliated by ex DWP hacks as well as living in an under priveliged inner city neighbourhood where your postcode means you cannot lie about where you are from and to top it off the Lib Dem MP earns £92,000 in an area where most people struggle to find work for £8,000.

    So much for the Promise of the Lib Dems.

    On one of the activist letters i received months back had 10 things Lib Dems can shout about, Well i have 30,40,50 things to shout about and i can shout a hell of a lot louder than any MP.


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