this basis the winning party in an election can reasonably claim that its

This basis the winning party in an election can

This preview shows page 30 - 32 out of 40 pages.

this basis, the winning party in an election can reasonably claim that its policies most closely correspond to the interests of the largest group of voters. On the other hand, it can be argued that, rather than 'buying' policies, voters are typically poorly informed about political issues and are influenced by a range of 'irrational' factors such as habit, social conditioning, the image of the parties, and the personalities of their leaders. Moreover, the ability of parties to attract votes may
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VOTING BEHAVIOUR 223 have less to do with the 'goods' they put up for purchase than with the way those goods are 'sold' through advertising, political campaigning, propaganda and so on. To the extent that this is true, election results may reflect not so much the interests of the mass of voters as the resources and finances available to the competing parties. A further, and some would argue more intractable, problem is that no elective mechanism may be able reliably to give expression to the multifarious preferences of voters. This is a problem that the US economist Kenneth Arrow described in terms of his 'impossibility theorem'. In Social Choice and Individual Values (1951), Arrow drew attention to the problem of' transitivity' that occurs when voters are allowed to express a range of preferences for candidates or policy options rather than merely cast a single vote. The drawback of casting but a single vote is not only that it is a crude all-or-nothing device, but also that no single candidate or option may gain majority support. For instance, candidate A may gain 40 per cent of the vote, candi- date В 34 per cent, and candidate С 26 per cent. The situation could nevertheless become more confused if second preferences were taken into account. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that the second preference of all candi- date A's supporters go to candidate C, the second preferences of candidate В favour candidate A, and the second preferences of candidate С go to candidate B. This creates a situation in which each candidate can claim to be preferred by a majority of voters. The first and second preferences for candidate A add up to 74 per cent (40 per cent plus B's 34 per cent). Candidate В can claim 60 per cent support (34 per cent plus C's 26 per cent), and candidate С can claim 66 per cent support (26 per cent plus A's 40 per cent). This problem of'cyclical majorities' draws attention to the fact that it may not be possible to establish a reliable link between individual preferences and collective choices. In other words, election results cannot speak for themselves, and politicians and political commentators who claim to find meaning in them are, to some extent, acting arbitrarily. Nevertheless, the latitude that this allows politicians is not unlimited, because they know that they will be called to account at the next election. In this light, perhaps the most significant function of elections is to set limits to arbitrary government by ensuring that politicians who claim to speak for the public must ultimately be judged by the public.
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