The Median Voter Rules — OK?

Cabinet reshuffle montage: ministers in Downing Street
David Cameron used his reshuffle to promote a number of women – and to sack Michael Gove

Francis Elliott, Michael Savage and Laura Pitel, The Times, July 16 2014:

Michael Gove was removed as education secretary after David Cameron’s election guru warned about his “toxic” polling. Mr Gove paid the price as the prime minister reshaped his cabinet into an election-fighting unit, more than doubling the number of women in a top team that he claimed “reflects modern Britain”. . . [P]olling showing that more than half of voters thought the education secretary was doing a bad job fatally undermined him. Insiders say that Lynton Crosby, the Tories’ election strategist, led a powerful coalition inside No 10 calling for Mr Gove to be removed.

Michael Gove was the architect of the government’s ‘free schools’ policy, which was intended to encourage state-maintained schools to aspire to the values and achievements of independent (fee-paying) schools. This was certainly not a policy designed to appeal to the ‘rich and powerful’ (who can afford the fees of independent schools) as it increases the competition for places in top universities. The toppling of Gove is, ironically, a victory for the rich and powerful, but it was instituted by the need to pander to the preferences of the median voter. The commitment of the government to free schools was ideological, as opposed to reflecting the interests of the ruling elite, and the overturning of it was in response to the perceived [i.e. short-term] interests of the median voter. The main reason that Gove appeared unpopular with parents in Crosby’s focus groups, was his insistence on rigorous examination standards and the attempt to return to a traditional (ie academically challenging) core curriculum. David Cameron and the vast majority of the cabinet supported Gove’s strategy but he was sacrificed for purely electoral purposes (another factor being the need to reduce the alienation of teachers and other public-sector workers).

The other feature of the reshuffle was the appointment of a number of prominent Eurosceptics to address the electoral challenge of UKIP. Although UKIP has been viewed as a home for disaffected conservatives, new research has indicated that most of its recent growth has come from poor, ill-educated former Labour supporters (Ford and Goodwin, 2014).

Both of these developments indicate how political parties are constrained to move towards median-voter preferences. As we have discussed elsewhere, the median voter is a purely arithmetic construct (the mid point between opposing poles), leading to the paradox that median-voter inspired policies may very well not please anyone (they are merely, on average, less worse than the partisan alternatives).


Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin, Revolt on the Right: Explaining support for the radical right in Britain (Routledge, 2014)

(Revised version.)

4 Responses

  1. So if the politicians are so busy trying to satisfy the voters, why did they pursue the unpopular “free schools” policy to begin with? According to you if there is a more popular alternative they should have been pursuing that all along.

    The more straightforward interpretation of the events you are describing is that the politicians have their own agenda that they are pursuing, unrelated to public opinion and quite possibly contrary to public opinion, and if as elections draw near they feel that it is an electoral liability then they make some meaningless gestures such as some personnel reshuffling to try to appease public opinion and give the superficial impression of responsiveness. Obviously, some people find this charade convincing.


  2. Yoram,
    Things aren’t so darn absolute.

    An even more straightforward interpretation is that politicians have to balance both short-term popular preferences and long-term outcomes. It seems they simply underestimated the short-term opposition to a policy that was meant to yield long-term gains. Once that error became clear, they reversed course.


  3. I agree with both comments. Politicians are (as Yoram argues) pursuing their own agenda, but this is an ideological one (intended to yield long-term epistemic benefits), rather than an epiphenomenal product of class-based interests. The interests of the rich are to keep state schools underachieving, so that their own, privately-educated, children will gain entry to the best universities (Gove was himself educated at a state grammar school).

    But politicians’ options are constrained by public preferences and the 4-5 year electoral cycle is not nearly long enough to implement successful policy changes. From the perspective of the voter, parents want their own children to achieve the highest marks but overlook the fact that the grade inflation involved means that in the long run the school grades (and subsequent degrees) are of little value.

    The reshuffle was anything but a meaningless gesture or a ‘charade’ as it means that the educational establishment (referred to by Gove as ‘the blob’), has won and Cameron has acknowledged that UKIP is winning the battle on EU membership and immigration, hence the need to bring in ministers more closely aligned to the UKIP position. The ‘rich and powerful’ are wholeheartedly in support of EU membership and mass immigration (in order to provide cheap labour for their enterprises and accessible markets for their products), so this is a clear indication of a move towards median-voter preferences. I recommend the Ford and Goodwin book (part of the same series as the Paul Lucardie work discussed earlier on this blog) in order to better understand this.


  4. Naomi:> It seems [politicians] simply underestimated the short-term opposition to a policy that was meant to yield long-term gains. Once that error became clear, they reversed course.

    That’s exactly what happened with Thatcher’s poll-tax “debacle” (and most attempts by governments to institute policies that are in the long-term interest of the public, such as balanced budgets). This is in line with my argument that we live in an age of direct democracy by proxy. Most politicians do not believe that the policies that they are championing are in their own interests or the long-term interests of the public, they are offered merely to win elections (hopefully without doing too much harm in the process). The case for the move to allotted juries has more in common with the conservative fourth-century reforms (nomothetai) than the Athenian “revolution”.


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