Opinion: Float like a butterfly, vote like a xxx?

Having spent the last few days canvassing (what else would a Politics teacher do during half-term?) I have been playing the usual ‘what does it all mean?’ game, trying to make sense of the Green-Liberals, red UKIPs, soft Tories and probable Mebyon Kernows. Even making sense of those categories though requires being able to spot them, and there are days when I long for the simplicity of a ‘damned if I know’ option on Connect.

I do understand why there is no ‘don’t know’ ‘undecided’ or ‘genuine floater’ category. Firstly it would be far too tempting for canvassers to label everyone who didn’t immediately disclose their voting intention as a ‘don’t know’. The follow-up probes about who they definitely wouldn’t for, voted for last time, and might their lend vote to would be too likely to be forgotten.

Secondly, and more tricky, is the conventional canvassing wisdom that there really is no such thing as a genuine floater. Everyone, runs the theory, has some inclination that a good canvasser can discover: everyone who isn’t a ‘definite’ has to be enticed towards us from the red, blues, greens or purples by a mixture of squeeze and salesmanship, or else they are undecided but anti and best not contacted again at all on the basis that we do better if they don’t vote.

I used to believe the second point. Then again it used to be largely true – there were very few voters from whom you couldn’t get anything once you had unleashed the full array of canvassing tricks. Those there were tended to be ‘anti’ us.

The problem is that I’m really not sure it is true anymore. The number of people who haven’t decided, aren’t ruling anything out, and apparently genuinely don’t recall how they voted last time because they were undecided until late on, is becoming significant. Some old hands would still instantly record such troublemakers as ‘Not Lib Dem’ or ‘Anti’ in the old parlance, but the problem is that they aren’t. They really might vote for us, and then again they might not, but they tend to assure me that they will vote – so putting them on what is effectively the ‘ignore’ list seems both incorrect and a bad political move.

If you accept the premise then there a number of reasons why this might be so. Clearly class de-alignment plays a role, as several political generations now have never had an automatic voting ‘team’. Secondly, despite the recently rhetoric about Red Ed et al, it is still hard to find clear blue water between the major parties with which to distinguish them. Thirdly, and more controversially I think our own tactics, bearing in mind I’m in a Tory/Lib Dem marginal, have contributed. We have got so good over the years at emphasising the importance of the candidate, of local issues, and of tactical voting, and the other major parties have sufficiently copied our lead, that actually voting a particular way because it’s your heartfelt belief is going out of fashion. Candidates change, local issues change, and the tactical situation changes, and thus more voters remain undecided until they have fully sussed them out. Once they have it doesn’t necessarily mean much for next time.

Curiously my experience on the doorstep does not suggest that another obvious explanation – that everyone has decided ‘they’re all a bunch of crooks’ is a significant contributor – a few people say that of course but they generally seem to be those who have always said it and to be either non-voters or moving UKIPwards. The surging parties generally don’t appear to be havens for the ‘damned I know’ brigade: UKIP voters in my experience tend towards certainly or at least cannot be squeezed towards us, whilst some Green inclined voters certainly are squeezable but if they are then it will usually be a deliberate tactical decision, not a lack of certainly, that brings them.

An equally important question is what we do about this growing group of ‘one of the three of you, dunno which’ voters. The obvious short term path is to keep hammering the candidate and/or the local situation, which we will do. In the long run that’s likely to only increase the phenomenon, not decrease it.

So in the longer run I honestly don’t know. I would personally like us make a much more distinctive and specific political pitch which would increase our core support, but equally I recognise that a more radical position would be likely to lose us some of the local support that will secure us seats like the one I’m in.

In reality I imagine we won’t do much different at all, at least not for now, and I do understand that. But in that case, and on the understanding that I really will do everything I can to winkle better data out of voters before I use it, please can I have a ‘damned if I know’ box?

* Adam Killeya is a Lib Dem member, activist and town councillor. He has held various positions in the party including as a parliamentary candidate and agent. He is currently Regional Chair of Devon & Cornwall Lib Dems. In the real world he is Head of Sixth Form of a Secondary School in Cornwall.

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  • Richard Shaw 23rd Feb '15 - 12:17pm

    If you speak to someone and they are genuinely and equally undecided between all the parties (as opposed to being undecided between two parties) I would simply mark them as “Come/Call Back” – that way we keep asking them until they give us useful information (which includes telling us to stop asking them).

  • Bill le Breton 23rd Feb '15 - 12:37pm

    Exceptionally useful post – thanks. It raises serious questions over the ‘weighting’ formula used by polling organisations and so-called professional forecasters.

    As Mike Smithson recently tweeted, “Back in Oct 2013 Oxford’s Stephen Fisher model predicting CON 40.2% LAB 31.8* Latest CON 33.7 LAB 31.4% “.

    Given the choice of learning from Fisher or Adam Killeya, I’d opt for Adam.

  • Well written piece by Adam.
    Much better than some of the nonsense that has come from the “experts” at the top of the party when briefing The Times and The Guardian during the last week.

    Meanwhile the latest from Lord Ashcroft says — “: Labour’s lead up to four points in my latest poll ”

    Labour’s lead is up from one to four points in this week’s Ashcroft National Poll, conducted over the past weekend. The party’s 36 per cent share is the highest recorded in the ANP since July, while the UKIP share of 11 per cent is the lowest I have yet found in my national polling. The Conservatives are up two points on 32 per cent, the Liberal Democrats down two at 7 per cent, and the Greens and the SNP unchanged at 8 per cent and 4 per cent respectively.


  • Charles Boney 23rd Feb '15 - 7:43pm

    The decline in class based voting and the general reduction in ‘tribal’ loyalty have become very clear in the 40 years I have been canvassing. But since Blair et al, have all three ‘main’ parties become just Election ‘clubs’?
    It’s now all about ‘messaging’ and keeping ‘on message’. This means that someone in HIgh Command decides (based on testing in focus groups) what policies they think play best and expecting candidates and campaign teams to conform.
    Policies, leaflets and Press Releases are tuned to the different ‘target groups’and ‘swing voters’. Training courses are mostly about topics such ‘getting out the vote’ and how to use modern technology.

    Nothing seems to come any longer from the fundamental core values of the Party, just in case it upsets anyone in our target groups. All three have condensed the image to middle ground slogans of about six words.

    The result of all this? Labour don’t mention socialism (but most activists are socialists), the Tories don’t mention free market capitalism (most activists are hard right free marketeers) and the Lib Dems side-step individual liberty and Europe in the top 5 policies – and even produce draft election literature with scary ‘border control’ stories.

    No wonder the voters don’t know what anyone stands for any longer because all three Parties ignore what they used to stand for – values replaced by the imperative of getting elected.

    And the young? As I have said elsewhere, most of them think John Stuart Mill and the Utilitarians are a boy band.

    My prediction? The individuals who stand out in all parties will be the ones re-elected or gain surprising victories.

  • Philip Thomas 23rd Feb '15 - 8:04pm

    I was asked what the Liberal Democrats stood for by a voter at the weekend, and I said we stood for freedom (free speech, free movement). Bit off message really- it is “stronger economy, fairer society” right? Well she could have read that on our leaflet so maybe a more individual point was worth making.

  • This chimes with my experience of canvassing too. A small majority will give you enough of an indication to put something down, but a substantial minority of voters just haven’t got a clue yet.

    Philip, I say ‘freedom, equality and opportunity for everyone’. The last three words are actually part of our slogan now too!

    Charles, what a patronising comment about the young.

  • I agree fully that we need to get back to campaigning on our core values & recognise that votes are as important as Seats.
    On the polls; of the last 6 polls 2 had Tory leads (both 2%) 2 had zero leads & 2 had Labour leads ( 1% & 4%). Thats only 6 polls, all of them done more or less at the same time so it could be just a blip. Or, the steady Labour lead of 1% of the past month or so might have evaporated.

  • I suppose the absence of a simple don’t know category is to push canvassers into asking probing questions such as “How did you vote last time?” which may well reveal an inclination. if only “For you, but I won’t do it again”. But if the response does not give you an opening to ask more questions, this does lead to records that are simply wrong and might lead to targeted literature going to precisely the wrong people. Some years ago I canvassed a young Black woman in east London, in a ward marginal between us and Labour. She was marked down on the last canvass as Labour. Would she vote for us, I asked? No, she wouldn’t. How would she be voting? Conservative. Said simply and with conviction. The previous canvasser had got a negative response and had assumed a young Black woman not for us was Labour.

  • Richard Shaw 24th Feb '15 - 12:24pm

    @Charles Boney

    “And the young? As I have said elsewhere, most of them think John Stuart Mill and the Utilitarians are a boy band.”

    As much as I like a bit of ol’ JSM from time to time, I actually prefer Danny (Alexander) & The Junior Ministers, especially the tracks “At the Polls” and “Liberal democracy is here to stay” from their album “Record of Delivery”.

  • Simon Foster 24th Feb '15 - 7:04pm

    Very good piece Adam on canvassing. I used to despair at academics who say that “Canvassing is useless” at Political Studies Association Conferences in the past. Yes there is interviewer bias. However, if you recognise bias is a constant, look at the range of data sources we have available to us (foot canvassing, telephoning canvassing, resident survey responses, information who did or didn’t vote from a marked register, ballot box counts down to a local level (without breaking the law), internet responses, etc, etc) it is pretty easy to build up a picture where you can track the movement of votes using Bayesian statistics, or in simple English, comparing like with like, to see where the votes are moving to and from, and then comparing them with real results.

    With regards the “damned if I know” box, you’ve answered your own question in the second paragraph Adam. I think the benefits of adding such a box outweigh the advantages, of forcing canvassers to probe respondents with a range of questions. These include:

    1) How did you vote last time?
    2) Are there any two parties you’re split between?
    3) Is there any parties you definitely wouldn’t vote for?
    4) The blunt squeeze you can use on the phone (see below).

    We should remember here that we’re talking about a subset of the population that whilst growing, can be narrowed right down. Firstly, do we hold any historic data on them?

    Eg: Don’t know who were canvassed as Hard Tory last time are likely to be undecided Conservatives (sorry, Yellow Tories in this age of Newspeak 😉 ).

    Next are you split between any two parties? Eg: Yes – Labour or Lib Dem. Right – undecided Labour (sorry, Yellow Labour, still getting used to this).

    Still not sure? Are there any parties you definitely wouldn’t vote for? Eg: Yes. Conservative. Over my dead body.
    At which point I’d venture “So it’s Labour and the Lib Dems you’re split between?” and they’re Yellow Labour if its us and Labour for example, or Undecided Green if they’re thinking about the Greens (which can be appreviated to UG, which I find appealing – well, campaigns can be long, you have to find someway of staying amused, IMHO 🙂 ).

    Finally, a thought on probing which I’ve used on the phones. This is with the real antis, who just plain didn’t want to tell us who they were voted for. I used this in OxWAb in 1997:

    “So basically what you’re telling me is that you’re not voting Lib Dem, but you’re going to be really happy to see John Major back in Downing Street…”

    Which sometimes got the response of “**** off, did you call me a ****ing Tory?”

    Ah, I’ve found another Labour activist. Hard Labour. Or very Red indeed.

    (Note: nowadays I’d have a Europe probe in here, to check that they’re not UKIP…)

    With the ones that are left Richard hits the nail on the head. The answer is campaign, campaign, and campaign again (you can tell I’ve spent months in an office with Neil Fawcett, can’t you? 😉 ). Use different methods. They may say no on the street, but give you a straight answer on the phone – I’ve seen some anecdotal evidence to suggest that phone canvassing is slightly more accurate that foot canvassing, due to the lack of personal interviewer bias and more of a communications space between the interviewer and interviewee.

    So outside of election time, do residents surveys. Have a canvass feedback box on the occasional leaflet. Do telephone surveys. Run social media campaigns. If a person tweets that they’re going to vote Labour, record it and when and where the information came from. At election time – foot canvass them, then phone canvass them. Then send the squeeze literature out. Run more social media campaigns. Then phone them again. And then keep campaigning….

    In the real world, there is the concept of “partisan de-alignment”, which is on the A level politics syllabus that both Adam and I teach at AS Politics. 2 party and 3 party politics are falling away – 2010 was just the pre-cursor – it seems we really are moving into multi-party politics in the UK – with it being very dependent on where you live in the UK – 4+ party politics in England (Con/Lab/Lib Dem/UKIP plus the occasional Green foray), 4 party politics in Scotland (Con/Lab/Lib Dem/SNP) which has been there for a while, 4 party politics in Wales (Con/Lab/Lib Dem/Plaid) and Northern Ireland having its own political system anyway. And then there are the Independents. Or Con-dependents as they sometimes turn out to be…

    Fortunately, Connect seems to be flexible enough to cope with the “I’m split between you and the Conservatives” at the General Election and “you and the Labour party” at a local election.

    Seriously though – keep campaigning. Efficiently (god bless minivan, must get a copy), effectively (thank you Connect) and repetitively (keep campaigning).

  • Matthew Huntbach 25th Feb '15 - 9:48am

    Philip Thomas

    I was asked what the Liberal Democrats stood for by a voter at the weekend, and I said we stood for freedom (free speech, free movement)

    Well, what do you mean by that? Who is going to say they are against freedom?

    Many people would say that the biggest barrier to freedom is lack of money. They have to work like slaves in a job they hate just to get enough to live on. Is that “freedom”? But if you were to have a system which equalises wealth and income more than at present, many others (or if not many, at least people who have a lot of wealth and income and so can make their voices heard thanks to that) would say that is an attack on their freedom as it takes away the wealth and income they have freely earnt themselves.

  • Philip Thomas 25th Feb '15 - 6:50pm

    @matthew Possibly this is news to you, but a very large number of people are against both Free Speech and Free Movement. There is always the temptation to give up other people’s liberties for our own temporary security, despite Benjamin Franklin’s well known verdict on the result.

  • Stephen Hesketh 26th Feb '15 - 8:05pm

    “Float like a butterfly, vote like a xxx?”

    Can’t help but wonder – is there is an x missing. 😉

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