Political tradeoffs

Traditional political parties depend on compromise. That is bad news for them in uncompromising times

Koen Smets

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Imagine an election in which a party that did not even exist less than two months before gains one-third of the vote, pushing not only the governing party into fifth place but also the main opposition party into third. Actually, don’t — there is no need, because this is exactly what happened in the elections for the European Parliament in the UK. These elections were not even supposed to take place, since the country should have left the EU on 29th March. Yet they did happen, and they may well have changed the British political landscape for years to come.

The European elections in the UK have traditionally been a very low-key affair. Neither the voters nor the media used to pay all that much attention to it. Turnout has always been much lower ( never more than about 38%) than that of general parliamentary elections ( typically 60% -70% in recent times). Even the main political parties were at best lukewarm about it. For the British, politics was a matter for Westminster, not Brussels or Strasbourg.

Not so this time. Weeks before election day, the polls spelled disaster for the governing Conservatives and, remarkably, also for the Labour opposition, and predicted victory for Nigel Farage’s Brexit party. And the forecasts were right this time. The Brexit party picked up nearly all the votes UKIP, Mr Farage’s former home, got in 2014 and took a good chunk out of the score of the two main parties. Labour and the Conservative Tories, which collectively received nearly half of the votes in 2014 now did not even get close to 25%. All because of Brexit.

But why has Brexit hacked so relentlessly into the support of the two traditional parties?

Voters (not) trading off

One possible explanation can be found by looking at the trade-offs that politicians and voters face. For politics, and particularly party politics, is inherently a mechanism for facilitating and enforcing trade-offs between conflicting policy options. Few voters concur fully with every single point in a party manifesto. They may agree strongly with some of them, and more weakly with others. They are probably indifferent…

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Koen Smets

Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius