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23 April 2015

Who asks websites who they should vote for, and who listens?

The Internet is awash with vote-matching apps. But who uses them - and which party benefits most?

By Alan Wager

One of the eternal, and eternally depressing, truths drummed into anyone interested in the political process is that you’re in a minority. No one is really listening, watching or caring. The lack of willing participants in the political conversation results in glib pronunciations on the plight of our politics – forgetting, of course, the eternal bit stretches right back throughout the past, as well as the present.

Within this tale, the plight of the folk who write the party’s manifestos is often forgotten. Poor Jo Johnson for the Tories, stress-testing every word as his brother freestyles across the capital from City Hall to Whitehall.  The Lib Dems’ David Laws, hand cramped as he typed out ‘Stronger Economy, Fair Society’ 100 times like an Orange (Book) tinged Bart Simpson. Academics, including us political scientists, know the feeling of well-crafted copy that barely sees the light of day. So it’s lucky Labour recruited Jonathan Rutherford – one of our own – to head their effort.

Except, party’s manifesto commitments in 2015 are far more widely read than ever before. The proliferation of ‘Voter Advice Applications’ (VAAs) means the small print of party manifestos is writ large across computer screens of voters yearning for the minutiae of party policy. Imaginatively named websites such as ‘ISideWith’, ‘Who Should You Vote For?’ and ‘Who Gets My Vote?’ are the closest thing yet to digestible, informed democracy for the digital age.

Almost twenty years after Paddy Ashdown predicted Athenian-style e-referenda ‘if a town decides to have a bungaloid outcrop with 1,000 new bungalows on its outskirts’, the awkward marriage of ‘the internets’ (Bush, G.W, 2000) with party politics has produced the nearest thing yet to a genuinely digestible democracy for the internet age.

Well, that’s the sell anyway. While an inevitable result of technological progression, voter-advice websites have experienced a curiously glacial rate of adoption in Britain. The Dutch StemWijster application had a reach of over 2 million – equivalent to Britain today – over ten years ago and 4.7 million voters, some 40% of the electorate, used it prior to the election of 2006. The German equivalent, the Wahl-O-Mat, was used over 13 million times in the federal elections of 2013.

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This means it is possible to confidently predict some of the inevitable questions they create for us luddites in the UK. Who seeks advice from these websites, and do they have any affect on how, and whether, people put pencil to paper in polling stations?

The first question is easy to answer. If you’re reading this article and got this far (and therefore slightly engaged in politics, or masochistic) you are far more likely to have used a VAA. Of course, this slightly undermines their normative function of engaging the disengaged.

Another significant factor is age, education and where you live. Work by Kristjan Vassil has found visitors to be young, urbane and educated. The over-representation of young voters (how often do you hear that?) on these websites partially explains why the Green party and (though perhaps less often shared) the Lib Dems perform against the odds in these tests. Indeed, well enough for Natalie Bennett to implicitly mention them in the election debate, and explicitly on election literature.

Of course, this leads to the question of whether online policy preferences translate into voting behaviour. The evidence, for example from the work of Stefaan Walgrave in Belgium, suggests that the answer is yes, but that the impact is modest and unlikely to have a significant effect on the overall outcome.

The one party in Belgium that positively, and significantly, benefitted was VLD-Vivant, an amalgamation of social and economic liberals in the modern Liberal Democrat mould. Which gives some hope to David Laws not have toiled over those lines in vain after all.

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