Could Voting Advice Applications force politicians to keep their manifesto promises?

In many countries, Voting Advice Applications (VAAs) have become an almost indispensable part of the electoral process, playing an important role in the campaigning activities of parties and candidates, an essential element of media coverage of the elections, and being widely used by citizens. A number of studies have shown that VAA use has an impact on the cognitive behaviour of users, on their likelihood to participate in elections, and on the choice of the party they vote for.

These applications are based on the idea of issue and proximity voting — the parties and candidates recommended by VAAs are those with the highest number of matching positions on a number of political questions and issues. Many of these questions are much more specific and detailed than party programs and electoral platforms, and show the voters exactly what the party or candidates stand for and how they will vote in parliament once elected. In his Policy & Internet article “Do VAAs Encourage Issue Voting and Promissory Representation? Evidence From the Swiss Smartvote,” Andreas Ladner examines the extent to which VAAs alter the way voters perceive the meaning of elections, and encourage them to hold politicians to account for election promises.

His main hypothesis is that VAAs lead to “promissory representation” — where parties and candidates are elected for their promises and sanctioned by the electorate if they don’t keep them. He suggests that as these tools become more popular, the “delegate model” is likely to increase in popularity: i.e. one in which politicians are regarded as delegates voted into parliament to keep their promises, rather than being voted a free mandate to act how they see fit (the “trustee model”).

We caught up with Andreas to discuss his findings:

Ed.: You found that issue-voters were more likely (than other voters) to say they would sanction a politician who broke their election promises. But also that issue voters are less politically engaged. So is this maybe a bit moot: i.e. if the people most likely to force the “delegate model” system are the least likely to enforce it?

Andreas: It perhaps looks a bit moot in the first place, but what happens if the less engaged are given the possibility to sanction them more easily or by default. Sanctioning a politician who breaks an election promise is not per se a good thing, it depends on the reason why he or she broke it, on the situation, and on the promise. VAA can easily provide information to what extent candidates keep their promises — and then it gets very easy to sanction them simply for that without taking other arguments into consideration.

Ed.: Do voting advice applications work best in complex, multi-party political systems? (I’m not sure anyone would need one to distinguish between Trump / Clinton, for example?)

Andreas: Yes, I believe that in very complex systems – like for example in the Swiss case where voters not only vote for parties but also for up to 35 different candidates – VAAs are particularly useful since they help to process a huge amount of information. If the choice is only between two parties or two candidates which are completely different, than VAAs are less helpful.

Ed.: I guess the recent elections / referendum I am most familiar with (US, UK, France) have been particularly lurid and nasty: but I guess VAAs rely on a certain quiet rationality to work as intended? How do you see your Swiss results (and Swiss elections, generally) comparing with these examples? Do VAAs not just get lost in the noise?

Andreas: The idea of VAAs is to help voters to make better informed choices. This is, of course, opposed to decisions based on emotions. In Switzerland, elections are not of outmost importance, due to specific features of our political system such as direct democracy and power sharing, but voters seem to appreciate the information provided by smartvote. Almost 20% of the voter cast their vote after having consulted the website.

Ed.: Macron is a recent example of someone who clearly sought (and received) a general mandate, rather than presenting a detailed platform of promises. Is that unusual? He was criticised in his campaign for being “too vague,” but it clearly worked for him. What use are manifesto pledges in politics — as opposed to simply making clear to the electorate where you stand on the political spectrum?

Andreas: Good VAAs combine electoral promises on concrete issues as well as more general political positions. Voters can base their decisions on either of them, or on a combination of both of them. I am not arguing in favour of one or the other, but they clearly have different implications. The former is closer to the delegate model, the latter to the trustee model. I think good VAAs should make the differences clear and should even allow the voters to choose.

Ed.: I guess Trump is a contrasting example of someone whose campaign was all about promises (while also seeking a clear mandate to “make America great again”), but who has lied, and broken these (impossible) promises seemingly faster than people can keep track of them. Do you think his supporters care, though?

Andreas: His promises were too far away from what he can possibly keep. Quite a few of his voters, I believe, do not want them to be fully realized but rather that the US move a bit more into this direction.

Ed.: I suppose another example of an extremely successful quasi-pledge was the Brexit campaign’s obviously meaningless — but hugely successful — “We send the EU £350 million a week; let’s fund our NHS instead.” Not to sound depressing, but do promises actually mean anything? Is it the candidate / issue that matters (and the media response to that), or the actual pledges?

Andreas: I agree that the media play an important role and not always into the direction they intend to do. I do not think that it is the £350 million a week which made the difference. It is much more a general discontent and a situation which was not sufficiently explained and legitimized which led to this unexpected decision. If you lose the support for your policy than it gets much easier for your opponents. It is difficult to imagine that you can get a majority built on nothing.

Ed.: I’ve read all the articles in the Policy & Internet special issue on VAAs: one thing that struck me is that there’s lots of incomplete data, e.g. no knowledge of how people actually voted in the end (or would vote in future). What are the strengths and weaknesses of VAAs as a data source for political research?

Andreas: The quality of the data varies between countries and voting systems. We have a self-selection bias in the use of VAAs and often also into the surveys conducted among the users. In general we don’t know how they voted, and we have to believe them what they tell us. In many respects the data does not differ that much from what we get from classic electoral studies, especially since they also encounter difficulties in addressing a representative sample. VAAs usually have much larger Ns on the side of the voters, generate more information about their political positions and preferences, and provide very interesting information about the candidates and parties.

Read the full article: Ladner, A. (2016) Do VAAs Encourage Issue Voting and Promissory Representation? Evidence From the Swiss Smartvote. Policy & Internet 8 (4). DOI: doi:10.1002/poi3.137.

Andreas Ladner was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

Is Left-Right still meaningful in politics? Or are we all just winners or losers of globalisation now?

The Left–Right dimension — based on the traditional cleavage in society between capital and labor — is the most common way of conceptualizing ideological difference. But in an ever more globalized world, are the concepts of Left and Right still relevant? In recent years political scientists have increasingly come to talk of a two-dimensional politics in Europe, defined by an economic (Left–Right) dimension, and a cultural dimension that relates to voter and party positions on sociocultural issues.

In his Policy & Internet article “Cleavage Structures and Dimensions of Ideology in English Politics: Evidence From Voting Advice Application Data”, Jonathan Wheatley argues that the cleavage that exists in many European societies between “winners” and “losers” of globalization has engendered a new ideological dimension pitting “cosmopolitans” against “communitarians” and that draws on cultural issues relating to identity — rather than economic issues.

He identifies latent dimensions from opinion data generated by two Voting Advice Applications deployed in England in 2014 and 2015 — finding that the political space in England is defined by two main ideological dimensions: an economic Left–Right dimension and a cultural communitarian–cosmopolitan dimension. While they co-vary to a significant degree, with economic rightists tending to be more communitarian and economic leftists tending to be more cosmopolitan, these tendencies do not always hold and the two dimensions should be considered as separate.

The identification of the communitarian–cosmopolitan dimension lends weight to the hypothesis of Kriesi et al. (2006) that politics is increasingly defined by a cleavage between “winners” and “losers” of globalization, with “losers” tending to adopt a position of cultural demarcation and to perceive “outsiders” such as immigrants and the EU, as a threat. If an economic dimension pitting Left against Right (or labour against capital) defined the political arena in Europe in the twentieth century, maybe it’s a cultural cleavage that pits cosmopolitans against communitarians that defines politics in the twenty-first.

We caught up with Jonathan to discuss his findings:

Ed.: The big thing that happened since your article was published was Brexit — so I guess the “communitarian–cosmopolitan” dimension (Trump!) makes obvious intuitive sense as a political cleavage plane. Will you be comparing your GE2015 VAA data with GE2017 data? And what might you expect to see?

Jonathan: Absolutely! We will be launching the WhoGetsMyVoteUK Voting Advice Application next week. This VAA will be launched by three universities: Oxford Brookes University (where I am based), Queen Mary University London and the University of Bristol. This should provide extensive data that will allow us to make a longitudinal study: before and after Brexit.

Ed.: There was a lot of talk (for the first time) after Brexit of “the left behind” — I suppose partly corresponding to your “communitarians” — but that all seems to have died down. Of course they’re still there: is there any sense of how they will affect the upcoming election — particularly the “communitarian leftists”?

Jonathan: Well this is the very group that Theresa May’s Conservative Party seems to be targeting. We should note that May has attempted to appeal directly to this group by her claim that “if you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere” made at the Tory Party Conference last autumn, and by her assertion that “Liberalism and globalisation have left people behind” made at the Lord Mayor’s banquet late last year. Her (at least superficially) economically leftist proposals during the election campaign to increase the living wage and statutory rights for family care and training, and to strengthen labour laws, together with her “hard Brexit stance” and confrontational rhetoric towards European leaders seems specifically designed to appeal to this group. Many of these “communitarian leftists” have previously been tempted by UKIP, but the Conservatives seem to be winning the battle for their votes at the moment.

Ed.: Does the UK’s first-past-the-post system (resulting in a non-proportionally representative set of MPs) just hide what is happening underneath, i.e. I’m guessing a fairly constant, unchanging spectrum of political leanings? Presumably UKIP’s rise didn’t signify a lurch to the right: it was just an efficient way of labelling (for a while) people who were already there?

Jonathan: To a certain extent, yes. Superficially the UK has very much been a case of “business as usual” in terms of its party system, notwithstanding the (perhaps brief) emergence of UKIP as a significant force in around 2012. This can be contrasted with Sweden, Finland and the Netherlands, where populist right parties obtained significant representation in parliament. And UKIP may prove to be a temporary phenomenon. The first-past-the-post system provides more incentives for parties to reposition themselves to reflect the new reality than it does for new parties to emerge. In fact it is this repositioning, from a economically right-wing, mildly cosmopolitan party to an (outwardly) economically centrist, communitarian party, that seems to characterise the Tories today.

Ed.: Everything seems to be in a tremendous mess (parties imploding, Brexit horror, blackbox campaigning, the alt-right, uncertainty over tactical voting, “election hacking”) and pretty volatile. But are these exciting times for political scientists? Or are things too messy and the data (for example, on voting intensions as well as outcomes) too inaccessible to distinguish any grand patterns?

Jonathan: Exciting from a political science point of view; alarming from the point of view of a member of society.

Ed.: But talking of “grand patterns”: do you have any intuition why “the C20 might be about capital vs labour; the C21 about local vs global”? Is it simply the next obvious reaction to ever-faster technological development and economic concentration bumping against societal inertia, or something more complex and unpredictable?

Jonathan: Over generations European societies gradually developed mechanisms of accountability to constrain their leaders and ensure they did not over-reach their powers. This is how democracy became consolidated. Hoverver, given that power is increasingly accruing to transnational and multinational corporations and networks that are beyond the reach of citizens operating in the national sphere, we must learn how to do this all over again on a global scale. Until we do so, globalisation will inevitably create “winners” and “losers” and will, I think, inevitably lead to more populism and upheaval.

Read the full article: Wheatley, J. (2016) Cleavage Structures and Dimensions of Ideology in English Politics: Evidence From Voting Advice Application Data. Policy & Internet 8 (4) doi:10.1002/poi3.129

Jonathan Wheatley was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

New issue of Policy and Internet (2,1)

Welcome to the second issue of Policy & Internet and the first issue of 2010! We are pleased to present six articles that spread across the scope of the journal laid out in the first article of the first issue, The Internet and Public Policy (Margetts, 2009). Three articles cover some aspect of trust, identified as one of the key values associated with the Internet and likely to emerge in policy trends. The other three articles all bring internet-related technologies to centre stage in policy change.

Helen Margetts: Editorial

Stephan G. Grimmelikhuijsen: Transparency of Public Decision-Making: Towards Trust in Local Government?

Jesper Schlæger: Digital Governance and Institutional Change: Examining the Role of E-Government in China’s Coal Sector

Fadi Salem and Yasar Jarrar: Government 2.0? Technology, Trust and Collaboration in the UAE Public Sector

Mike Just and David Aspinall: Challenging Challenge Questions: An Experimental Analysis of Authentication Technologies and User Behaviour

Ainė Ramonaite: Voting Advice Applications in Lithuania: Promoting Programmatic Competition or Breeding Populism?

Thomas M. Lenard and Paul H. Rubin: In Defense of Data: Information and the Costs of Privacy