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.


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