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  • Understanding how voters think and get information

    by Sunny
    19th November, 2009 at 10:23 am    

    This article by Daniel Finkelstein at the Times is political gold. He points out that ‘Pundits and politicians obsess about dividing lines. They are wasting their time. The public are serenely indifferent.’
    The money quote:

    Politicians and pundits share the idea that people are constantly re-evaluating their position. But not at all. At a few big moments they might pause and think again; the rest of the time they let events float by, or at best reinterpret them to fit with their existing views. In 1997 Tories thought perhaps Robin Cook’s affair would shake Labour’s goody-goody image. Instead focus group respondents just assumed he must be a Tory because he had had an affair.

    But out of all this, surprisingly, something heartening emerges. And that’s where the Queen’s Speech comes in. Because people don’t know, aren’t following and don’t believe politicians and their promises, they can only judge them on one thing. Whether what politicians do works.

    Add to this the fact that voters rarely sit there and evaluate policies of each of the parties and make a rational decision at voting time (which is why most of the daily speculation over at Political Betting is a waste of time).

    Voters not only pay little attention to politics in the news, they also forget that news very quickly. However they do end up internalising that little bit of emotion (negative or positive) they felt at the time. Over time that builds up and polls shift slowly in a direction. This is why you rarely see big jumps or falls in polls over big news: people rarely pay that much attention. But it also means that if you’re trying to stem a decline in your ratings then you have a much bigger mountain to climb: once people start associating negative emotions with a politician or public figure it’s very hard to shake them off that feeling.

    This brings me to the Labour leadership. Labour activists are deluding themselves in thinking they have a chance of winning the election and that the queen’s speech will actually make a difference. It won’t, as Danny Fink points out.

    At the Labour party conference I was in a discussion with a Labour MP and three other activists and I said Brown had to go if Labour had any chance of holding on to power.

    This was because the public had already characterised him (negatively) in their minds and had turned off from listening to his message. Plus G Brown is an incredibly bad communicator. I said the only hope was to have a quick change of leader, which would make the public sit up and notice for about a month. Within that month the new Labour leader would have to lay out a good agenda for the next term and call for an election (which people would clamour for anyway). But a change of leadership was the only way to make people listen to a new Labour agenda. Right now they’ve internalised the view that re-electing Brown would continue this tired administration and they don’t want it. Which is why the polls have remained static.

    My audience disagreed vehemently, obviously. But they disagreed because they thought the public would pay attention or actually cared about changes in policy. They don’t. Messaging and framing is a long slog and takes months, sometimes years, to hammer through the public conciousness. That is if you win the debate on your own term (another problem this govt has - it keeps losing public debates to the Tories).

    I also find it amusing that readers think by saying this, on a public blog, somehow that will diminish Labour’s chances even more. They’re not even paying that much attention to the Sun let along PP or LibCon. These spaces are then best served by discussion political strategy in a way that many American blogs do, I think. But that is a different discussion. Right now - that article is a must read for anyone who wants anything to do with politics.

                  Post to

    Filed in: Media,Party politics

    28 Comments below   |  

    Reactions: Twitter, blogs
    1. pickles

      Blog post:: Understanding how voters think and get information

    2. sianberry

      Massively spot on, Sir! - RT @pickledpolitics Blog post:: Understanding how voters think and get information

    3. philth D

      RT @sianberry: Massively spot on, Sir! - RT @pickledpolitics


      Pickled Politics » Understanding how voters think and get information: Politicians and pundits share the idea t..

    5. GlobalActionDay

      Pickled Politics » Understanding how voters think and get information: About 12-14 million regularly watch the live X fa

    6. Chris Coltrane

      RT @pickledpolitics Blog post: Understanding how voters think and get information (via @sianberry)

    1. Fojee Punjabi — on 19th November, 2009 at 3:42 am  

      they thought the public would pay attention or actually cared about changes in policy. They don’t.

      You are so up your own arse I am wondering whether you have a glass stomach to see where you're going.

      You have a degree from Brunel University.

      Remember that, Sunny.

    2. persephone — on 19th November, 2009 at 3:55 am  

      About 12-14 million regularly watch the live X factor show every weekend (not inc the sundry x factor websites & blogs) - the reality is that a critical mass of the population would know more the current x factor contestants than the main political parties.

      Thats what attracts attention & votes it will be interesting to see how politicians are going to resolve this.

    3. Tom — on 19th November, 2009 at 4:29 am  

      Absolutely agree with that. Political change in the UK is generally driven by big symbolic moments (Winter of Discontent, Miners Strike, Falklands War, ERM debacle, Northern Rock/Lehmans) and actions by parties then incrementally add to perceptions. Landslides are created by one of the parties being incompetent and having an unpopular/ridiculed leader (Foot, Major, Duncan Smith/Howard). Labour is in for a hammering on both counts.

    4. yahyabirt — on 19th November, 2009 at 4:52 am  

      The article's spot on, the details are for the policy wonks, but people know how they feel about things, and the prospects from themselves and their kids.

      As Tom says, it's not just Brown's presentational skills as such that are the problem. Tony Blair never regained the popularity he had after the country was misled over the reasons for going to war in Iraq, and I say this despite the election victory in 2005. Gordon Brown's reputation for economic competance get shredded by the credit crunch. Economic times are uncertain, we still are technically in a recession, unemployment is going up, businesses are struggling, the government appears to have been soft on regulating banking bonuses and dividends despite massive public subventions to the banks, national debt is spiralling, and deep cuts in spending budgets are on the way although no-one wants to say in detail so before the next election. The expense claims scandal (the Conservatives have been much more ruthless and decisive than New Labour). Plus there is just tiredness: people looking for a change in government after three terms, and the government itself manifestly lacks energy, direction and ambition. Plus it matters that Gordon never won an election for Labour as PM.

      But as for the result who knows? But we could be looking at a hung parliament as much as at a Conservative landslide. Gordon might still be able to carry on through with a Lib-Lab pact if necessary.

    5. Reza — on 19th November, 2009 at 5:12 am  

      What a mire of arrogant, condescending, elitist bullshit.

    6. Shamit — on 19th November, 2009 at 5:47 am  

      Sunny - good post.

      We are disseminating this one:

    7. marvin — on 19th November, 2009 at 6:27 am  

      Good Finking batman.

      But they disagreed because they thought the public would pay attention or actually cared about changes in policy. They don’t.

      This needs to be clarified. People want to care, they just come to the conclusion it's futile as 'nothing will change'.

      Many of them (swinging voters, centrish bloc) see Cameron in the same vein as Blair. But they know they'd rather have a Blair style leader, Cameron, than an apparently inept Gordon Brown, whom for whatever or whoever he touches turns into a disaster..

      Persephone on Channel 4 news there was a mock up with the European leaders as the X factor judges and contestants. It looked horrific!

    8. Shamit — on 19th November, 2009 at 7:01 am  

      You seem to always have a personal abuse ready as soon as Sunny writes a post. Sunny is a friend and while I may not always agree with his ideas, I respect his views. These personal attacks by you are becoming boring and ludicrous and the only person who is coming across as an idiot is you.

      I realise you do not have the necessary intellectual capability to have a civilised debate without attacking someone. Maybe when you grow up you could come back here. Until then why don't you go and do some reading (and I don't mean The Sun and other red tops) and learn some manners.

      This is a polite response - and if necessary I can be as abusive as you are if not more. so, please don't even think about starting a verbal curse match here. Because again it would show you up to be a fool (which I think you are).

      If you don't like the post - what don't you like about it? Why don't you try to articulate some points ie if you have any reasoning skills. Come on prove me I am wrong. Otherwise stay away.

    9. nyrone — on 19th November, 2009 at 7:36 am  

      Sunny - Excellent post and something that many of us think all the time but can't even be bothered to put into words.

      I'm also pleased that despite being so closely connected to the blogs and politics, you have the sense to step outside of the bubble and look at it objectively.

      It's almost comical that the politicians and pundits really feel that people actually give a shit about this tit for tat bollocks, they absolutely don't.

    10. Binky — on 19th November, 2009 at 8:01 am  

      YA SUNNY

      The only way in which you and your presence at the debate will be remembered by anyone other than close friends and truly bitter and vindictive enemies will be if you - er - are assassinated by a fascist or an Islamist.

      Try to arrange it if you desire immortality and even then the immortality may
      prove illusory.

      [QUICK: One and only one British Prime Minister was
      assassinated. Name him! You CAN'T! See? ]

      The Great British Public don't give a lump of dog poop about politics unless they're enraged and even then they have the attention span of a hyperactive two-year-old.

      Jump up. Run outside and ask twenty people chosen at ramdom if they know or care about the Tories' allies in Europe. See?

    11. Don — on 19th November, 2009 at 11:10 am  


      Do you really think that nobody knows about Spencer Perceval? Everybody knows that.

      Without looking it up, which British politician was the first railway casualty? You can't even get into a pub quiz team without knowing that stuff. What was your point?

    12. Sunny H — on 19th November, 2009 at 2:37 pm  

      thanks for the comments.

      Tom I think that is spot on. It's not a surprise the Labour party couldn't get any political capital out of the crash - they didn't have a bloody narrative! the Tories won that battle too.

      Gordon Brown's reputation for economic competance get shredded by the credit crunch.

      I don't think that's true. The problem is that following the crash a Tory narrative about 'ballooning debt' became more prevalent rather than the need to rescue the banks (which the Tories would have done anyway).

      the polls show that people believe the crash was a US led one. So he didn't get the blame like Bush did.

      shamit, nyrone - thanks

    13. persephone — on 19th November, 2009 at 3:18 pm  

      I am glad the moderator deleted the abusive comment by Fojee. Like all abuse it served no purpose & merely got in the way of the real topic at hand. I certainly don't want to wade through it.

      If people feel so angry with the world or individuals they should either punch a cushion or seek a psychiatrist.

    14. Binky — on 19th November, 2009 at 8:19 pm  


      Don may be in error about either Thomas or William Huskisson [Sp?] of Huskisson's Sliding Scale fame from when he was the President of the Board of Trade [this was in my O-Level History in the mid-1960s - there are those who claim he was NOT the first railway fatality, only the first PROMINENT one.

      However, my point stands: Most orinary people - literate or not - are totally unthrilled by politics.

      When I was much younger I was enrolled on a 1-term course which - in part - required us to go out into the streets of Lancaster and badger decent people with questions like:
      1 - Is your Member of Parliament doing a good job?
      2 - What's the name of your member of Parliament?
      3 - What does NATO stand for?
      4 - Is Britain in NATO?
      5 - Is Russia [we used 'Russia', not 'the USSR' because it had already been established that over 80% of ordinary people hadn't a clue what 'USSR' meant]
      and so on …

      Amazingly, most people submitted to this with a good grace unless pressed for time and none of us were assaulted [i.e. none of us elicited a non-verbal response]

      But the level of general knowledge was utterly pitiable.

      However, now that I am as old as I am now - and I was born under George VI and Clement Attlee - I am far from convinced that being politically engaged and well-informed makes any society happier or even more prosperous. The Irish and the Serbs know far more about their history and so on than the dumb bovine English but it seems to have made them a jolly sight unhappier than placid ignorance.

    15. Binky — on 19th November, 2009 at 9:32 pm  

      Let me add that even very intelligent, well-educated and multilingual Hungarians get upset or go through the motions of pretending to be upset if and when the Treaty of Trianon is mentioned. Hungary has the good fortune to be pretty much the most ethnically-homogenous state in Europe. [We will NOT mention the Roma here.]

      On the other hand, there are people of working age in Sarawak who have not the slightest idea that Sarawak was once a British Crown Colony, or ever Japanese-occupied or anything else. To them, Sarawak as a distant outlier of Malaysia has been the way it is now and ever was for ages eternal.

    16. Sunny H — on 20th November, 2009 at 1:06 am  

      But the level of general knowledge was utterly pitiable.

      Binky perhaps its arguable that participation is more important than knowledge? Americans don't seem to be on top of the info, but they certainly do participate a lo more than we do…

    17. Binky — on 20th November, 2009 at 1:32 am  

      Sunny H.

      I am conflicted / unsure / undecided on the issue of electors' knowledge and electors' rate of participation in the political process, to use an American term.

      I recall listening to a panel discussion at the time of the Clintonian Health Care fiasco - I was in Boston at the time - and an out-of-state Senator [I forget who] said that a perennially-voting woman came along to one of his regular meetings and said, much-concerned and pleading piteously:

      “Senator, don't let the Federal Government take over my Medicare!”

      … quite oblivious of the fact that Medicare is and was a government programme.

      In Australia vorting is, in theory, compulsory. Jehovah's Witnesses are automatically let off without penalty and the maximum fine is $50.

      Would you prefer to see that in the U.K., I wonder.

      Or would you preder an electoral system similar to that of Ireland or Israel - much 'fairer' in the sense that minor political parties get a look-in and are represented in the Parliament / Dail / Knesset but sometimes appallingly arterio-sclerotic and sometimes - as a result of so much 'fairness' in the electoral process - resulting in nutcase parties [SHAS in Israel] or a single MP/TD [Tony Gregory TD] holding the balance of power, leading to a bidding war of political bribery to win over the SHAS MKs or Tony Gregory TD.

      Good sixth form debating society stuff, innit ?

    18. yahyabirt — on 20th November, 2009 at 2:20 am  

      I don't think that's true. The problem is that following the crash a Tory narrative about 'ballooning debt' became more prevalent rather than the need to rescue the banks (which the Tories would have done anyway).

      the polls show that people believe the crash was a US led one. So he didn't get the blame like Bush did.

      I'd like to seem more evidence of the polling. But this was an intellectual failure on the part of Brown and the rejigged tripartite regulation system he set up after 97 with the more independent Bank of England, the FSA regulating the banks, and the Treasury. one of the major criticisms of this system was that it wasn't joined up enough to spot and deal with the problems in the banking sector that emerged. Northern Rock was an early warning sign, but no radical steps were taken until after the second wave of banks going down.

      Default credit swaps didn't ameloriate risk; instead, they overloaded the investment and other banks with bad debt. The banks were allowed to get too big, too big to fail, hence costing billions to bail out. Our billions. Not letting banks get too big was one of the key lessons the Great Depression that was forgotten. The short termist bonus culture allowed investment bankers to create a highly irresponsible bubble, which has now burst. Another bubble allowed to inflate for too long was the housing market in the UK.

      Finally in makes no sense to talk about this as an American problem; banking is highly interdependent and globalised. Brown has been right at least to insist on global regulation, and, to his credit, has taken a lead in responding the mess. But that doesn't ameloriate the collective failures made from London, Washington and elsewhere that allowed this banking crisis in the first place.

    19. MaidMarain — on 20th November, 2009 at 4:18 am  

      yahyabirt - It is not the role of the banking regulators to second-guess private busness decisions. Put this another way - people wanted to get 125% mortgages and found a bank willing to offer that. It is not the role of government to insert its decision over that of the private banks.

      You could make a better argument that what followed looked rather more like propping up the shareholders and, I suppose, protecting people from their own stupidity. But to say that this was an intellectual failure is blithe. No one had a gun put to their head and was forced to take out unsustainable debts.

    20. Binky — on 20th November, 2009 at 4:21 am  

      Is that the 'REAL' Yahyayah Birt or an imposter?

      If the real thing, has he been off, swathed in his towel, to kiss the sacred aereolite yet?

    21. shariq — on 21st November, 2009 at 4:44 pm  

      Great post. Btw, does anyone have a link to the brilliant chris hayes blog post from a while back about how irrational a lot of swing voters really are. My googling skills are letting me down.

    22. Police Force been told not to arrest burglars — on 14th April, 2010 at 12:05 am  

      I have tried to get an official answer to this question without any answer.
      Sorry Off-Topic but an answer is needed:-
      Police Force been told not to arrest burglars
      Why have the Cleveland Police Force, (Teesside, UK), been told not to arrest burglars for a first offence.
      Is this done to try to fool people into believing crime is less because crime figures are lower?

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