I have just sent the following review through to Amazon for Putting Voters in their Place by Ron Johnston and Charles Pattie.
Johnston and Patties book is a gold mine for anyone trying to achieve elected office. The ideas are presented clearly and straightforwardly but with substantial academic rigour being applied.
The book’s core thesis is that geography is a key determinant of voters’ political preferences. This is not too surprising given that the authors are political geographers, but what is new is the clarity with which they present their case. My most common reaction when reading the book was, “well, that’s so obvious why doesn’t everyone already know that?”
The chapter structure makes it an excellent choice for students of electoral politics since they take key issues in turn, summarise the existing arguments, present their data and then their conclusions without ever becoming impenetrable. It’s like an eight week seminar programme in a single publication.
For me they make two core insights. The first is that the vast majority of voters make the same political choices throughout their life. So, an elector who chooses not to vote in their first election is likely to carry on being a non-voter thereafter. The second is that if you take two otherwise identical voters and place one in a predominantly Labour area and the other in a predominantly Conservative area, they are each more likely to assume the voting preferences of their neighbours.
These insights may not seem on a par with developing the theory of relativity but taken together they say something very important about how a party should approach an election. If I were a Labour Party politician in a comfortable suburban neighbourhood I would be doing three things – I would be making great efforts to identify new arrivals in the area and convincing them that it was OK to vote Labour because most of my new neighbours do; I would make sure I had a big display of posters up come election time to reassure people of just that point; and I would be spending a lot of time talking to those who were coming up to age 18.
Johnston and Pattie identify the importance of conversation networks as the main contributor to this phenomenon. Where I was slightly disappointed with the book was that they didn’t seem to fully follow through on the logic of their own argument to identify changing patterns of communication as a means of explaining partisan de-alignment. In the British context there is a clear trend since the early 1970s for voters to be come less strongly attached to one particular party and for aggregate support for both major parties to fall. Might it not be the case that this trend is fuelled by voters gaining access to a much wider range of social networks? Changes in education (more people going to university); work patterns (the service economy is vertical in its organisational structure rather than the horizontally stratified factory); technology (just the TV for example, let alone the internet); and the economy (more firms and people having contact with an international customer and co-worker group) might all bring a greater range of political influences to bear on voters. Given that partisan loyalty seems more persistent among Labour voters, this would seem to be borne out since relative poverty seems highly likely to be a factor in limiting access to a broader range of conversation networks.
My other slight disappointment is their apparent unwillingness to challenge what the academics would call ‘normative assumptions’ about voter turn-out. There is widespread angst among the liberal elite about falling voter turn-out and possibly rightly so. But there seems to be a lack of willingness to consider this as a factor of contentment – that individuals and groups mobilise when they feel their interests to be directly threatened. Maybe in the UK (and the US) rising levels of aggregate wealth account for the lack of interest in voting – and maybe the final consequence of the triumph of liberal economics is the marginalisation of liberal democracy since government is increasingly irrelevant to people’s lives. Maybe not, of course, someone will have to do the research…
Overall, this is a fine book that should be widely read by students and those with a wider interest in politics.