The General Election and the Curse of the Median Voter

Posted on April 28, 2010


The United Kingdom has, in many respects, tough choices to make in the face of an uncertain future. That is why the election on 6 May garners so much attention and debate. Or at least that is what one might hope. Throughout the last winter and spring one was often left with the thought, ‘Why is no one saying anything significant in the approach to the election?’. We have heard the occasional lambasting of opponents or a populist response to this or that event, but specific ideas and visions have been rather scarce. Even the Conservatives’ high-sounding ‘Big Society’ seems, on closer inspection, more about form than substance. With a few days to go this blogger is none the wiser about what the main parties actually wish to achieve over the next parliament, apart from quietly maintaining a sort of status quo. The manifestos were, as expected, unimpressive; the leaders’ debates presented, in essence, mere nuances on the same theme; and proposed budgetary measures reflect this.

This is rather disappointing, especially for voters but also for political debate. Important questions that need to be addressed, among them:

  1. The Budget Deficit and the Economy
    Not only does a net deficit of 13% of GDP have to be cut – and fast – but a new approach to government spending is urgently needed to prevent this ever occurring again. All parties are determinedly ambiguous on both points.
  2. Morality
    What kind of society should this be? What values should inform public policy and relations in society? Should the current utilitarian rant be allowed to take hold or should we strive for something higher? These questions need clarification from party leaders in the face of vexing moral issues such as stem-cell research, abortion, euthanasia, the role of the family, marriage, ‘equality’ legislation, etc.
  3. Foreign Relations
    What is the UK’s role and place in a post-colonial world experiencing momentous geopolitical shifts? Will the UK be prepared to go to war again and, if so, with what justification? Will the next government allow the devaluation of the nation-state underway in Brussels to continue or will it strive for a different EU? Last week’s televised debate offered, to this observer, little but populist bickering.

So why has political debate in the run-up to an important election been stifled? Perhaps some explanation can be found in Duncan Black’s very simple median voter theorem: by occupying the centre ground (and capturing the median voter) a party will, if political preferences are normally distributed across a single dimension (e.g., left-right), gain a majority. This is what lies behind the drive of both the Labour and Conservative parties to the political centre and the result is essentially variations on the same policies and an avoidance of any clear message that stands out. As a consequence, there is much pandering to ‘focus groups’. Politics is no longer about governing or leading the country as a whole but about buying off interest groups whose support politicians ‘need’. The customer-salesman relationship between the electorate and politicians must change.

The UK needs a new kind of political leadership and discourse but the parties and their leaders offer little hope in this respect.