Back in Liberal Democrat Newswire #65 I explained the importance of valence politics:
Political scientists crunching the evidence over how people decide who to vote for (such as in Affluence, Austerity and Electoral Change in Britain) find that policy issues matter much less than ‘valence’ issues.
That is, people don’t decide who to vote for based on looking at policies and seeing how closely a party or candidate’s policies match up to their own preferences. Rather, they lean on decisions over perceived competence on issues where different parties all have the same shared objective. For example, voting Conservative because you think they’ll be best at creating new jobs is a valence choice. All parties want more jobs, so picking the Conservatives is about perceived competence, not ideology.
Although there certainly are ideological choices and they do have an influence, it’s valence that dominates in British elections. Hence the problem for the Liberal Democrats in the general election wasn’t about having controversial policies which people didn’t like. There wasn’t even a small echo of the problems with the immigration amnesty policy of 2010 for example (good policy but burdened with the fatal combination of being both controversial and not amenable to a one-sentence defence). Asked where they put the Lib Dems and themselves on the political spectrum, voters kept on putting the party near to themselves overall.
Rather the problems were valence ones – about competence and trust in particular. Overhauling the party’s perception on those is not going to be a minor matter.
Hence the emphasis on valence politics in the new strategy for the Liberal Democrats set out by David Howarth and myself.
But that evidence of the importance of valence politics predated the 2015 general election. What does the most recent evidence say then? Here’s what: