British voters don’t care and Americans hate each other: is there any hope for either?

A defining characteristic of American politics in recent years is bitter partisanship. In the UK, disaffection and disengagement reigns supreme. What can these two different political examples teach us about voting and elections?

Today, the major parties in Congress are farther apart ideologically than at any other time in US history. The distance between the parties in the House and Senate on a liberal–conservative continuum has been growing rapidly since the late 1970s.

But it’s not just members of Congress who are polarised, it’s the American public, too. The Pew Research Center has surveyed more than 10,000 Americans and found that Democrats and Republicans are farther apart now on key socio-economic issues than they have been in the past two decades.

In other words, Democrats today are more likely to support consistently liberal issue positions, while Republicans are more likely to be conservative. Scholars who study this type of polarisation often refer to it as “partisan sorting”.

However, partisan sorting is only half of the story. Party politics in the US has become entrenched in bitter stalemates and serve as a source of anger and hostility among voters. Data from the Pew Research Center also shows that compared to previous years, there is much greater partisan antipathy, making it all but impossible to find common ground and compromise on key legislation.

Hence, it’s no accident that the Republican Party has voted more than 50 times to repeal all or parts of the Affordable Care Act (otherwise known as Obamacare), much to the delight of its staunch adherents. And if that’s not enough, the parties even bicker about the exact number of votes they’ve held on this issue.

Disaffection in the UK

How does the political landscape compare in the UK? First, the major parties don’t appear to be ideologically polarised; instead, their party platforms have converged in recent decades. Data from the Manifesto Project Database, which places political parties along a single left-right ideological continuum (based upon independent coding of their election manifestos), suggests that Labour and the Conservatives are closer together on the issues, a trend which began in the late 1990s.
To put this in a comparative context, the ideological distance between the major parties in both the UK and US appears to move in concert throughout most of the post-World War II era. Then, the parties begin a period of polarisation in the 1970s and are at their ideologically most distant point in the early 1980s before eventually converging in the late 1990s. Where the countries differ is what happens next. In the US, the party platforms have oscillated back and forth between elections and are now quite ideologically distant. In contrast, the distance between the platforms of the major parties in the UK is at its closest today than at any point in the past 40 years.

Partisanship and engagement among UK voters is also down. Using data from the latest wave of the British Election Study (BES), it seems most voters only weakly identify with the parties. For instance, only 18% of voters refer to their preferred party as “my party”, while only 27% take attacks on the party as a personal insult.
The same data reveals that as many as 42% of respondents say “it takes too much time and effort to be active in politics” (another 38% could neither agree nor disagree with this statement), while 64% of those surveyed agree that “politicians don’t care what people like me think”.

Turnout has been at its lowest levels since 1945 in recent general elections, and voter registration has decreased across the country. In fact, half of all young people in the UK say they are not registered to vote less than two months before the election.

What does this mean?

In the US, bitter partisanship means compromise is discouraged, making it nearly impossible to pass major legislation. Yet, party polarisation does provide one electoral advantage: it sends clear signals to the voters allowing them to easily differentiate where the parties stand on the issues.

In the UK, party loyalty has decreased, political scandals are rampant, and the major parties have converged ideologically in recent years. These factors make it more difficult for voters to draw distinctions between the parties and see why their vote should matter. Some activists such as Russell Brand have even encouraged potential voters to abstain from elections altogether.

Yet, the glass is still half full. The remarkably high turn-out in the recent Scottish referendum – 84.6% – suggests that voters can be motivated to participate and engage in politics when there are clear electoral choices and important consequences for their vote.

The real question is whether voters will believe that their vote matters in this election cycle. A recent YouGov poll suggests voters do see some distinction between Conservatives and Labour, but this same survey also reveals that the parties could do considerably more to differentiate their brands. For instance, at least one-third of those polled think that the parties are still too similar and would prefer “a clearer choice between them”.

And there doesn’t appear to be a hot-button issue like we saw with the campaign for Scottish independence, which politicians could use to directly engage and mobilise the electorate.

On the other hand, daily tracking polls suggest the election will be very close, and most forecasters are projecting a hung parliament. This means that the public is likely to believe that their vote matters. What’s less clear is whether that will directly translate into votes for the major parties.

The article was written for The Conversation UK as part of its Election 2015 coverage here