Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the UK Labour party, pointed out this morning that 36% of the electorate didn’t vote in the last election. He underscored the need to “grow the electorate”. New research that we’ve conducted provides insights into how this might be achieved.
The appeal to non-voters is not new. In the UK, general election turnout dropped below 70% for the first time since 1918 when Blair came to his second ‘quiet landslide’ victory in 2001, and it hasn't recovered since. Many have tried to understand what might explain or remedy this, pointing to the need to believe that your vote makes a difference (demonstrated in the recent Scottish referendum, where turnout was very high, and thereafter sustained in unusually high Scottish turnout in the general election). Others have cited the need to believe that political parties offer real choice, pointing to the perceived narrowing of the political mainstream under New Labour’s shift to the right. Both these explanations suggest a wider perception that people feel increasingly alienated from – and distrustful of – the political process.
Our new research adds a further, and complementary, idea: that voting is importantly affected by what Brits think other Brits value.
Earlier this year we worked with Ipsos MORI to survey a thousand UK citizens in the run up to the general election. We asked people about three different things: their own values, their perceptions of the values held to be important by a typical compatriot, and whether or not they had voted in the last five years.
We followed a well-used and validated values survey that asks about a broad range of values, including both self-transcendence and self-enhancement values:
Self-transcendence values include helpfulness, honesty, forgiveness, peace, justice, equality, beauty and protection of the environment. These values are known to be consistently related to greater concern about social and environmental issues.
Self-enhancement values include social power, wealth, authority, public image, social recognition, success, influence and ambition.
In line with plenty of other research, we found that a large majority of UK citizens (74%) place greater importance on self-transcendence values than self-enhancement values.1
There is already considerable evidence which suggests that civic action, including voting, is shaped importantly by what people value, with self-transcendence values associated with greater motivation to vote. Our research found this same effect – a highly significant positive relationship between a person’s self-transcendence values and their voting behaviour. We also found, as expected, the reverse effect for self-enhancement values.
But what we found particularly interesting was how our participants then rated the values of a “typical British person”. Across our whole sample, people significantly under-estimated the importance that others attached to self-transcendence values, and over-estimated their concern for self-enhancement. In other words, it seems that most UK citizens have an inaccurate perspective on what their compatriots value.
How does this affect peoples’ likelihood to go to the ballot box?
We were totally unprepared for the results, which may point the way to new strategies to encourage people to vote: particularly people for whom social and environmental issues are important:
- Voting is as strongly related to peoples’ perception of what other Brits care about, as it is to their own values.
- People who already care strongly about self-transcendence values are particularly sensitive, in their voting behaviour, to their perception of other peoples’ values.
It seems possible that if we are able to convey to people that their compatriots do in fact share their value priorities, we might well see voter turnout going up. And this effect would be seen most strongly among people who already themselves attach greater importance to self-transcendence values: the type of values, in other words, to which Corbyn seems so clearly to speak.
Voting can only ever play a part in helping to build the strong social movements that will be needed if we are to begin to tackle the biggest social and environmental challenges. But it seems that if this part is to be played fully, it may be very important to nurture greater awareness of the values of our fellow citizens.
1Importantly, we were able to control for bias in the way that people reported their values - for example, because they felt that they would appear to be ‘better people’ if they reported placing more importance on self-transcendence values. The results we report here were not importantly affected by such bias.