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Voters, not shoppers

The General Election is at the stage where the parties announce policies and make manifesto commitments: legalising Cannabis, tax rises to fund additional NHS and education spending, renationalising the UK’s infrastructure, and many more.

This inevitably leads to plenty of discussion about which policies will appeal to undecided voters and how they will be received in marginal seats. But this misunderstands voters: they are not shoppers looking for individual policies. Voters rarely change their vote on the basis of an individual policy.

Instead, they make broad judgments about potential Prime Ministers and political parties. Voters look for a leader who seems strong, capable, and that they trust. Most want to support a party which is united enough to get on with the job of governing. Voters look for a general sense of competence and good intent, rather than policy specifics, on key areas like the NHS and education.

Polling is sometimes used to test individual policies in isolation and this can find support for strongly left-wing ideas like renationalisation of the railways or right-wing ideas or mandatory whole of life sentences. Indeed, individual voters can support both strongly left-wing and right-wing policies, as well as those requiring significant public spending increases and wide-ranging tax cuts. The dilemma for political parties is voters can look at policies in isolation and like them, but then decide that taken together they are too radical a set of ideas, or ones that seems old-fashioned, or simply too difficult to deliver.

When the nation votes on 8 June, voters can’t take a pick-and-mix approach to the policies and spending plans they like drawing from across the manifestos. Rather, they’ll make a single choice based on leaders and a general sense of competence and good intent.

Whose policy is it anyway?

New Populus polling suggests another reason to be sceptical about the impact on policies: they are overshadowed in the minds of voters by other campaign events.

A quarter, 26%, of voters can identify Labour’s flagship investment in education policy. Just 16%, know the Liberal Democrats’ plan to better fund the NHS by an income tax rise.

In contrast, other campaign events are better known. Both Jeremy Corbyn’s interview in which he suggested he would remain Labour leader if defeated in June’s vote and The Crown Prosecution Service decision not to prosecute the Conservatives over 2015 election spending are recalled by around two-in-five voters. Theresa May’s pledge to deliver ‘strong and stable’ leadership is noticed by 57% – a similar figure to when we asked voters earlier in the run-up to the election.

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats have reason to be concerned by this latest polling. While 45% of the public have noticed the Liberal Democrats proposal to increase income tax by a penny to fund additional NHS funding, more mistakenly believe it is Labour policy than can correctly identify it as a Liberal Democrat one.

For Labour, while three quarters of those aware of its plans to invest in education by increasing the rate of corporation tax know it is Labour policy, awareness of the proposal itself is very low amongst the public – at just 35%.

Full data tables are available here.


Populus interviewed a nationally representative sample of 2,008 GB adults aged 18+ on the 12th to 14th May 2017.

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