The Tragedy of the Commons

By JubileeCentre 11 May 2015

By Guy Brandon, 11 May 2015

Thursday’s surprise General Election result left a lot of people – politicians, pollsters and regular voters – unDowning stcertain about their future. No one saw it coming. After months of polls consistently showing a hung parliament, the Conservatives’ slim majority caught everyone off guard (including, we have to assume, the leaders of the major parties themselves, who had unconvincingly insisted that a majority was within their grasp).

It’s unclear what happened. Late swing is possible but seems unlikely, since re-contact surveys by the pollsters show that people voted in practice as they claimed they would. Some kind of systemic methodological error is a possibility, perhaps because the polls were honed in an era of two- and three-party politics, and couldn’t cope with the sudden expansion of our political landscape. (Neither, it seemed, could voters, who maintained the three-party system they were used to – though swapping Lib Dem for SNP as the third party, leaving all the others trailing in the single digits of MPs.)

The polls dominated the election as much as policy. Instead of judging each party on their vision for the country, pundits and voters were caught up in the problems that would result when the parties tried to work with each other in coalition or confidence-and-supply after the election. The parties themselves used the polls as leverage to encourage people to vote tactically – the starkest example being the Conservatives’ warning that a vote for Labour would mean an SNP-backed government, bent on tearing apart the UK.

In the event, we returned to what we are used to: majority government, albeit a narrow one. Given that the polls barely changed in the weeks leading up to May 7, we have to assume that this was always going to be the case – meaning that the election was fought on grounds that were misunderstood at best. People voted based on an outlook that was fictional.

In Scotland, people voted overwhelmingly for the SNP, hoping to gain representation in parliament as a part of a Labour-led government. Would they have done so if they had realised that, far from ‘locking David Cameron out of Downing Street’, as they were promised, they would themselves be excluded from government? And would people in England have voted so decisively against the Lib Dems had they realised they would return a Conservative majority?

Based on these events there’s surely a case for excluding opinion polling from election campaigning, though that will hardly happen. For Christians, it raises questions about tactical voting and casting our votes with integrity – seeking the best option, not merely the least worst. Perhaps, as a result, next time we are more likely to get the government we want, not just the one we elect.

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