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2019 wrap-up: Good result for VfP, bad result for democracy

Posted in  by Matt CM
January 9, 2020

Looking back at the 2019 general election, how did it go from the perspective of an organisation committed to improving participation in elections?

One of the more surprising outcomes was that the Vote for Policies survey was taken 1.1 million times in the 12 days it was live. This is more than any other election since we have been running, and we saw traffic levels beyond anything I have previously been involved in (for fellow geeks: 13,000 concurrent users at peak, with 12 servers running to manage the load)

Overall that was a great sign that Vote for Policies continues to offer a valuable service to many people. And if Vote for Policies does help people feel informed and therefore more likely to vote (and independent research in 2015 found that it does), the question is how can we reach more people, and have a bigger impact on voter turnout?

Let's come back to this question, and turn now to the wider context of democratic participation.

Turnout and eligible voters

Based on combined data from the BBC and the Electoral Commission, there are 56.0 million eligible voters in the UK, 47.6 million of which are registered to vote (which is the figure used for 'turnout').  In this context, the figure of 1.1 million Vote for Policies users equates to 2.3% of the turnout, and just under 2% of the total electorate (all those eligible to vote). So while we celebrate more people using Vote for Policies than ever before, we need to be realistic about the kind of reach - and therefore impact - we are achieving. 

In fact, if you look at the graphs below, it's hard to see how the 2019 general election was anything but another bombshell for our democratic system - yet more proof that very few people see value in voting. 

Comparison of representation in UK general election in 2019 and 2017
Comparison of voter participation for the 2019 and 2017 UK general elections.

From a starting point of nearly 56 million eligible voters, the number gets whittled down to 47.6 million who are registered, then down to the 32 million who actually voted. So while the established figure for turnout is 67.3%, the 'actual turnout' in terms of those who were eligible to vote was just 57.2%. And from an engagement point of view, that means that 42.8% of eligible voters did not vote - that's 24.0 million non-voters. A pretty damning figure.

And by including the number of votes for the winning party, we can also highlight the concept of 'mis-representation', given that 14 million votes were enough to elect a majority government (the so-called "stonking" mandate).

These alternative graphs offer simpler views.

Two graphs showing 2019 general election results, comparing number of voters against non-voters, and comparing the number of those who voted for the winning party against those that didn't
Participation in the 2019 UK general election.

Making votes matter

Regardless of which party gets elected (this is about democracy, remember, not politics!) it's important to distinguish the issues of 'non-representation' (those who do not vote) and 'mis-representation' (where votes aren't represented proportionally, or where people don't have the resources to make an informed choice).

When we talk of 'mis-representation', the conversation often turns towards the system of voting. Currently our voting system is First Past The Post (FPTP), and its suitability is challenged by those campaigning Proportional Representation (PR) as a system that provides a more representative share of seats based on the number of votes for each party. While the often-cited objection to PR is that it is more likely to lead to coalition governments, the idea of coalition governments supports the experience of many Vote for Policies, who on average choose policies from 3-4 different parties (when comparing more than 6 issues). Pretty crudely, it's unlikely that one single party will put forward the policies we prefer for every issue we care about (in fact it happens on 1.9% cases, according to our analysis). So if we don't agree with the party we vote for on every issue, it seems unrealistic to expect one party represent the nation as a whole. A voting system that recognises this is more likely to better represent our collective views, and provide a more accurate share of seats across parliament.

So one of the take-outs from this election is how, as an organisation campaigning for democratic participation, we also need to acknowledge the need for a more democratic voting system, so that those who do vote get more value from it. And while the less representative FPTP system is unlikely to be something on the minds of most non-voters, it is likely to be a factor for those who do vote (I say this without the necessary research to quantify it, but knowing that tactical voting was estimated to account for 26% of votes in 2019).

For this reason, we should consider non-representation and mis-representation as two sides of the same coin, and this is why I want Vote for Policies to more actively support the non-partisan campaigns for a more representative voting system, including Make Votes Matter and the Electoral Reform Society.

The 'collaboration election'

Another huge positive from this election was the first real collaboration across voter advice services - of which, excluding the partisan tactical voting sites, there were just three this time (where have they all gone?!). While Vote for Policies has used Democracy Club data for the past three elections, and They Work For You data for the past four, we have been aware of the general feeling of 'competition' between voter advice services.

After the 2017 election, a few of us started discussing the need to recognise the complementary nature of our services, and the potential for increasing our reach collectively by combining skills, technology, or promotional activity.

While that may still be a way off, we certainly opened the doors to collaborative options during this election campaign, thanks to a collaboration with the excellent folk behind Vote Savvy. For the first time ever, voters were able to access Vote for Policies data after completing the Vote Savvy quiz, and the team at Vote Savvy also provided support via Twitter and live chat (yes, live chat!) to help people with follow-up questions after using either of our services.

This was a significant development in how voter advice services approach helping people - much more akin to the multi-channel experience we expect from commercial services. What's more, we're also looking at ways we can align our technology before the next election, to save money and time. Vote for Policies will remain as a separate service, but we hope that by working with Vote Savvy and other voter advice services, we can all be more efficient and ultimately provide better services that help more voters.

The next year for Vote for Policies

Let's return to the question of how Vote for Policies (now with the addition of Policy Tracker too) can have a bigger impact on democratic participation.

Even if the next election is five years away, I recognise the need to be more proactive in making improvements to Vote for Policies. This is so we don't end up rolling out the same service for the fourth election running, with none of the new features that many of you have been suggesting since 2015! In short, we need to be ready.

But we also need to make democratic participation - or lack of it - much higher on the agenda so that we are able to help more people by the time the next election comes around. I wrote a blog post about what I think needs to happen, and this is what I intend to pursue this year. It involves leading with research about which groups are least represented, and prioritising services that are designed specifically to reach them. Delivering these services will require closer collaboration with the third sector, so we can involve the people they are for every step of the way, and know that we have a route to reach them too.

There is plenty of research from which, with a little work, we can draw initial conclusions about which voter and non-voter groups should be our priority. I'd like to see significantly more grant funding flowing to the people who are developing services that support those priority groups. Of course, the research may suggest that services like Policy Tracker and Vote for Policies are not priorities for the limited funding available, but it will give much needed direction for everyone involved in the democracy sector to either pivot the services they provide, or stay as they are and accept that grant funding isn't an option.

Thank you!

I'd like to end with thanks to the many loyal and fervent Vote for Policies supporters, who feverishly promote the website from the moment it is available. Despite the bleak picture I may have painted about participation in the election as a whole (sorry), it was truly awe-inspiring to watch how rapidly the site was shared, and the rise towards the record number of surveys completed. This kind of loyalty and support is what commercial organisations would pay millions for, so despite not having any funding I am conscious that Vote for Policies has something incredibly valuable that funding can't buy anyway. So to everyone who shared Vote for Policies, thank you for helping more people feel better informed, and even being the reason that someone voted who otherwise wouldn't have. I'm very proud to volunteer my time for such a brilliant community of people, so passionate about democracy. Thank you for being part of it.

If you'd like to offer ideas or support for the year ahead, or just have any questions, do please get in touch.

Have a great 2020 - and see you at the next election!