The Vote-Match Trap (or “Personalities, Not Policies”)

There’s a superficial intellectual appeal to these quizzes that are supposed to match you up to a political party. But fun though the quiz format may be, I think there’s a danger that they devalue important aspects of the democratic choices we make.

Tony Benn was fond of saying we should focus on policies, not personalities (even if his actions belied the statement). A popular website during the 2010 election,, took the idea, and used a quiz to ‘show’ which party most closely matched their views. Now I’m seeing similar sites being Tweeted, uncritically (, buzzfeed) on the eve of the European elections. Leaving aside whether any given site is set up out of the best of motives, or just as linkbait – and how the algorithms actually work – here’s what I think is a serious problem.

Policies are enacted by people (personalities, if you will).

What people (parties) say in their manifestos and public policy statements is not necessarily what they will do. Either because they never really intended to, or because they lack the capability.

The obvious example of the first case is the LibDems and tuition fees. Nick Clegg and his party made a solemn pledge not to raise tuition fees, but as he later revealed, despite saying publicly it was an absolute commitment, privately they were not sure they would stick to their word – and indeed, as we all now know, they did not even try to make it a priority in government. Now, anyone whose most important concern was tuition fees might have been matched by ‘Vote for Policies’ to the LibDems. Yet those who voted that way, for that reason, can now be seen to have voted unwisely.

An example of the second – not being able to deliver – is reform of the House of Lords. The LibDems got it into the coalition agreement, but despite having 6 seats in cabinet and holding the balance of power in the House of Commons, they were insufficiently forceful to to be able to ensure the deal they’d entered into was honoured. Another example is the Conservatives’ promise to ensure net migration would be brought down to under 100,000 by 2015 (it rose 58,000 to 212,000 in the year to September 2013). That’s either poor judgement in assessing what is achievable, or lacking the competence to actually deliver. Yet the matching algorithms would have taken none of this into account.

Shorn of context, these quiz results can give a misleading indication of how a vote should be cast. All policy statements are not equal. The idea of a more methodologically sound way of deciding who to vote for that a feeling that partly leader X looked a bit shifty on breakfast TV is intellectually appealing, but these quizzes deflect from the need to critically evaluate the sources of the information upon which they are based.

Democratic literacy involves more than a simple policy matching algorithm. Integrity, honesty, ideology, past performance and future potential are all critical factors. So if you just want a fun quiz, maybe stick to Which Muppet Are You?

About Simon Wood

Lecturer in medical education, lapsed mathematician, Doctor Who fan and garden railway builder. See for more...

2 thoughts on “The Vote-Match Trap (or “Personalities, Not Policies”)

  1. Agreed! I would add philosophical basis of the party into the equation too.

    I’m not attracted to the basis of Toryism which is look after yourself so that you can look after others – paternalism really; I can’t accept the concept of state socialism – although as a youth I advocated non-state, or libertarian socialism; I’m just a liberal who believes in individual freedom and personal responsibility, working together for the common good. Idealistic maybe, but that’s where I fit.

    1. Absolutely. Which means one needs to understand some of the history and cultural roots of different political parties (eg. the link between Labour and the unions, the fact that the party was born out of workers acting collectively) and how they’ve developed over time, because otherwise these philosophical foundations get ignored or traduced in favour of a marketing a kind of consumerist menu of narrow managerial fixes.

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