How important is a leader’s image?

Voting behaviour is one of the most intriguing questions in politics. Traditionally, before the 1970’s class was the key factor that influenced how people vote. P.G.J Pulzer famously said in Political Representation and Election (1967) ‘Class is the basis of British party politics: all else is embellishment and detail’. Before the 1970’s there was very little swing and the breed of the ‘floating voter’ had not yet been discovered. For example, in the 1966 election the largest swing was 3.9% in favour of Harold Wilson’s Labour government. However, since the ‘Thatcher years’ class dealignment and floating voters have become regular issues in general elections. In comparison to the 3.9% in 1966, the Labour Party recorded an 8.8% swing in the 1997 election. As a result of the fine margins that can be the difference between success and failure in general election (particularly after 2010’s hung Parliament which may happen in 2015 as well) people ask the question as to whether or the image of the party leader is the most important element influencing voting behaviour.

On the one hand, many people do argue the leadership image is perhaps the most crucial aspect that affects voting behaviour. For example, MORI carried out a study asking 1000 British adults at significant political points, questions about party leaders. In March 1997, only two months before the general election, people were asked whether or not they believe the party leaders are out of touch with ordinary people. Forty-seven per cent of people believed Prime Minister, John Major, was out of touch with people. Whereas only 10% of people believed Labour leader, Tony Blair, was out of touch with ordinary people. Two months later John Major suffered a humiliating defeat to Tony Blair who won with a 179 seat majority. Therefore, a link between the poll and the general election result is quite possible as so many people felt John Major was out of touch and only two months later the Conservative party lost 178 seats. Furthermore, YouGov carried out an opinion poll for the Sun three days before the 2010 general election and asked participators ‘Who would make the best Prime Minister?’. The Prime Minister at the time, Gordon Brown, won 26% of the share of the vote. However, David Cameron, leader of the opposition, won 32% of the vote, giving him a 6% lead over his rival. Once the votes were counted it turned out Mr Cameron, although he did not win a majority, he had a forty-nine lead over Gordon Brown. As is evident from these examples, there appears to be a strong correlation between leader’s popularity and how parties fare in general elections.

Moreover, as voters have become more and more volatile and parties vote over the ‘middle ground’ there can be very little to distinguish them from one another apart from the leader. Undoubtedly there are differences in the manifestos parties produce but very few people will read them. The Labour Party’s 2010 manifesto was only downloaded 100,000 times and only 9,000 people bought the hardcopy version. Over 29,000,000 million people voted in that particular election. Therefore, if ‘floating voters’ do not read manifestos they are likely to make their decision by the most distinct difference between parties, the leaders. To many people the policies of the Conservatives and Labour Party are very similar and both are trying to occupy the ‘centre ground’ so it is the leaders who are the most apparent difference to them. Leaders are meant to look strong and decisive as well as appearing to be in touch with ‘ordinary’ people.

Additionally, contradicting Pulzer’s famous quote, it would appear that class is perhaps a less important issue than it was once thought. . Traditionally the working class (or C2 and DE) would vote for Labour whilst the middle/upper class (or C1 and AB) would vote for the Conservatives. However, examining a study produced by MORI it would appear that class dealignment is a very real matter. For example, in the 1997 general election 37% of C1 voters voted for the Conservatives yet 39% of C1 voters voted for Labour. Naturally C1 voters are Conservative voters so for Labour to not only win some C1 votes but more than the Conservative party is huge evidence supporting class dealignment. This occurrence repeats itself in 2001 with Labour once again winning more C1 votes than the Tories. However, it is not just the middle class who are becoming volatile voters. In the 2010 general election the Labour Party win 29% of the C2 votes whilst the Conservatives win 37% of C2 votes. These voters are working class voters who traditionally align themselves with the Labour Party and so for the Conservatives to have an 8 point lead over the Labour Party against their ‘natural’ voters is a massive coup which further reiterates the theory of class dealignment. Psephologist David Sanders summarised this issue with the expression ‘Electoral tribalism has declined and consumer voting has continued to grow’ as people associate themselves less with their class as class identity weakens and parties begin to try and entice voters who are not their ‘natural’ supporters, such as David Cameron pledging at the 2014 Tory Conference to increase the tax-free allowance for the working class.

Nonetheless, there are other factors that are also considered as important, if not more important, than leader’s image. For example, the media is considered to be very influential in influencing voters. A study conducted by MORI analysed how regular readers of particular newspapers voted in general elections from 1992 to 2010. One of the most respected broadsheet newspapers is the Daily Telegraph that has supported the Conservative party in every general election during this period. Over 55% of Daily Telegraph readers voted Conservative with the figure being 70% in the 2010 general election. Quite clearly there is a strong correlation between the Telegraph’s endorsement of the Tory party and the number of readers who voted for the party. Similarly, the Times backed the Conservatives for the 1992 general election. Subsequently, 64% of readers who voted did vote Conservative, with only 15% voting for the Tory’s main rival, Labour. After losing the 1992 general election Neil Kinnock blamed the Sun for his loss to John Major. The Sun replied with the famous headline ‘It’s The Sun Wot Won It’. As a result, it is obvious the media does play a significant role in influencing voting behaviour.

However, there is also evidence that suggest voting behaviour is no as significantly affected by the media as it is portrayed. For example, the Daily Express has endorsed the Conservatives in all general elections form 1945-2010 with the exception of 2001. In 1997 when they supported the Conservatives 49% of readers voted Tory with 29% voting Labour. After Tony Blair’s landslide victory in the general election the Daily Express switched allegiance and endorsed the Labour Party for the 2001 election. Even so, only 33% of readers decided to vote for Labour whilst 43% decided to vote Tory. Therefore, the readers of the Express have ‘rebelled’ against who the paper supported which implies the media may not actually be as powerful as it is portrayed. Furthermore, another factor that affects voting behaviour is valence issues. These are a set of ‘common’ issues that the majority of people have a similar outlook on, such as ‘economic growth is important’. Parties are judged on how competently they will be able to handle the issues. One example of a party being judged on valence issues is the Labour Party in 2010 election. As a result of the ‘Credit Crunch’ and a large government deficit that the Labour Party was responsible for people did not trust them to handle the large debt the UK had incurred.

On the balance of the argument I acknowledge that party leader’s image is vital for them to win elections but I could not agree it is the most important factor. A party leader may look young, vibrant and ‘in touch’ with people but if their policies do not attract people beyond the party’s partisan voters then it is highly unlikely they shall win an election. For class dealignment to occur and majorities to be won parties have to alter their policies to engage with other people. Not only this, age is yet another factor that I have not even touched on in this essay. For example, the writer G.B. Shaw once wrote ‘if you are not a socialist by the time you are 25, you have no heart. If you are not a Conservative by the time you are 35, you have no head’ and there is plenty of evidence to support theories such as older people are more likely to vote Tory. Therefore, it is clear that the image of the party leader is crucial to a successful election campaign, but voting behaviour is a far more complex issue than simply image and other factors must be considered.

Conservative Party Funding- Right or Wrong?

The means as to which the Conservative Party have sought funding in recent years has been highly controversial. Labour’s Deputy Leader, Harriet Harman, said the Tory Party rely on ‘shady money’. In an age where more and more money is being spent on campaigning and employing the very best political analysts, politics has become as much of a financial competition than a clash of ideologies. However, as a result of declining membership numbers the Conservative Party are having to rely on other tactics such as donations to keep the party afloat, some of which have been questioned by the media for threatening democracy.

Funding is crucial for any political party for several reasons. First of all, parties are employing more and more ‘SPADs’ (Special Advisors) who do research for politicians, help write policies and draft speeches. For example, the Conservative Party employed Barack Obama’s campaign manager Jim Messina for the upcoming general election as well as Australian strategist Lynton Crosby. Hiring such respected strategists results in high expenses. Messina was paid $172,000 for Obama’s 2012 election as well as a further $68,550 in bonuses. David Cameron alone employed 19 SPAD’s in 2012, with the number highly likely to increase this year as a general election looms. Therefore, as these officials are not in government jobs the Party has so pay for their wages rather than the tax payer which results in high expenditure. Not only this, parties also spend their income on campaigning. The Electoral Commission has a cap of £19.5 million that can be spent by any political party fighting for all seats at the general election. The Conservatives famously spent double the Labour Party’s budget at the last general election, spending in total £16.7 million whilst the Labour Party fought on a budget of £8 million. Such money was largely spent on advertising (e.g. TV adverts and posters on billboards) and SPADs.

Party membership has fallen to a historic low in recent years. The Conservatives have as few as 135,000 members now according to a recent report by Alberto Nardelli. As recently as 1991 the Tories had 1 million members. Such a radical decline not only results in fewer campaigners on the streets for the Tory Party, but also income. To become a member of the Conservative Party currently costs £25. Therefore, to lose 90% of your party members creates a severe deficiency in income for the Party, losing millions of pounds worth of income that members previously provided.

Consequently, as a result of such high expenditure and falling membership the party has had to rely on other means of income to pay for their extortionate expenditure. The Tory Party now relies on donations from wealthy businessman and industry to keep the party afloat, but this has become highly controversial as people question the motives behind businessman deciding to donate millions of pounds to the party. Links have been made between Conservative policies as well as peers whom have donated to the party.

‘Cash for honours’ is a term for political parties awarding life peerages to big party donors. One such example is Robert Edmiston who was appointed a Lord in 2011 after several years of donating millions of pounds to the Conservative Party, including a £2 million donation in 2005 before the general election. Such cases have been widely criticized by the media and public as it appears people are now able to buy peerages providing they have donated enough to the political party in question. Furthermore, these cases could also be seen as undermining democracy as wealth appears to buy influence in the current political climate rather than merit. At a time when turnout is also decreasing, perhaps scandals such as ‘cash for honours’ further isolates normal working people from politics as it is portrayed as a vocation for the rich to get involved in as they have far more influence than the electorate through their donations.

As well as honours being exploited by the party, access to influential politicians is also something the Tory Party have been charging people for. In September 2014 the Guardian exposed how much donors were paying to have dinner with David Cameron and other Tory ministers at various functions. The Conservatives were charging £2,500 for a ticket to the Tory ‘business day’ at their Birmingham conference, which included a lunch with Mr Cameron and dinner with Mr Osborne. Moreover, to sit with ministers such as Theresa May and Philip Hammond at the 2013 Conservative Summer Ball it cost £12,000. These private dinners and fund raising evenings have yet again damaged the Tory Party image as it portrays them as the party for the rich whom the members have to buy themselves in, segregating them from ordinary working people who cannot gain such exclusive and intimate access to Tory politicians.

Even so, all of these ‘dodgy donors’ have been approved by the Electoral Commission who regulate party donations as well as campaigning. The Electoral Commission states ‘Parties have to record donations and loans they receive’ as well as ‘check they are from a permissible source’ and any large donations (such as the previous examples given) must be reported to the Electoral Commission who will scrutinise it. These measures are to try and ensure that parties are not receiving donations from illegal sources whom may be trying to influence party politics. There have been occasions when the Conservative Party have had to give back donations as the Electoral Commission did not deem the source permissible. For example, in October 2014 the Conservative Party had to hand back a £28,000 donation from a company associated with an exiled Russian banker, Andrei Borodin, who fled to UK from Russia after facing charges of £220 million in bank fraud from the Kremlin. Consequently, the Conservative Party’s issue of funding was once again highlighted as this case suggests they are desperate for capital even if their methods of obtaining it are suspect and perhaps even corrupt as they are happy to be sponsored by potential criminals.

Subsequently, there have been several suggestions as to how the current problems of party funding can be resolved to make the parties more transparent, not just the Conservative Party but all the Westminster parties. The Phillips report of 2007 concluded that state funding may be a solution to make parties more transparent. Parties could gain funds by a ‘pence-per-voter’ formula where parties receive 40p for every vote they receive at the most recent general election and a further 20p for every vote cast for them at the Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and European Parliament elections. As well as meaning parties are able to stay afloat in terms of funding, this system could also be viewed as more democratic than the current one. Instead of parties, notably the Tory Party, having to appeal to the wealthiest people in Britain for donations, offering them peerages or policies that may favour them (e.g. Bernie Ecclestone’s £1 million donation to Labour that prompted the Tobacco Advertising Ban not to apply to F1), the parties have to appeal to the electorate. Therefore, parties are more enticed to engage with people as they decide how much shall be donated to the party which could result in Westminster and the electorate ‘reconnecting’ again as politicians engage with the electorate as their party depends on it. Furthermore, unlock democracy advocate tax relief for political parties, allowing them to claim tax back as charities so they can utilise more of their funds and become less dependent on donations as money is less of a problem for them.

Nonetheless, party funding is a huge issue for the Conservative Party, logistically as well as morally. Conservative Party MP Brian Binley perhaps symbolised the crisis the party has with its image concerning funding and donations when he said ‘we are all totally corrupt’. Although this statement is an exaggeration it does show how the party has become disconnected with the electorate as party membership sinks to an all-time low of 135,000 and the donors the party have to rely have dubious motives and backgrounds so they can pay for their enormous expenditure.

Like what you see? You can follow by email subscription or follow me on Twitter @ThePolitical_

Do comment if you have a view!