Governing competency

Governing competency the perceived ability of the governing party in office to manage the affairs of state effectively. It also applies to how voters regard the potential competency of an opposition party, if it were to win office.

Another way of explaining voting behaviour is known as rational choice theory: the idea that voters behave like consumers, deciding how to vote by evaluating what is the most beneficial option for them as individuals. Voters look at the policies on offer and choose the party most closely aligned to their preferences. This is linked to the growth of a more educated electorate, with more access to political information, particularly since the rise of the Internet. This approach is problematic because it assumes that voters make rational choices based upon a knowledge of party policies. It does not explain elections where voters feel differently about different issues, or where there is no single overriding issue.

Performance of government The conventional wisdom on elections has long been that ‘governments lose elections; oppositions do not win them’. This suggests that elections are largely decided by the performance of the government of the day, and particularly by its economic performance. As the reminder on the wall of Bill Clinton’s office during the 1992 presidential election put it: ‘It’s the Economy, Stupid’. If the 2010 general election could be regarded as a ‘referendum’ on Labour’s performance, the party was fatally damaged by the loss of its reputation for economic competence following the global financial crisis and the subsequent sharp recession. In the case of the Conservatives in 2015, it was notable that the claim that their ‘plan is working’ was sustained by an economic recovery that had started two years earlier.

Valance is the image of the party and how well they are liked and trusted. Theresa May identified the Conservative’s valence problem after 1997 when she described them has becoming seen as ‘the nasty party’.

A refinement of rational choice theory is that voters are influenced not by detailed party policies but by issues such as:

· Who is the best potential prime minister among the available party leaders?

· Who is expected to manage the economy most successfully?

· Who will provide the best-quality public services?

Many skilled workers voted Conservative for the first time in 1979, in response to Margaret Thatcher's populist style, and because they had become disenchanted with the perceived incompetence of Labour governments in the 1970s. They stayed with the Conservatives for the next three general elections (1983, 1987 and 1992). However, they transferred their support to New Labour in 1997 as evidence of poor management by John Major's government began to accumulate. They also voted Labour in 2001 and 2005, but abandoned the party in 2010 after their faith in it was weakened by the financial crisis and the ensuing recession.

At each of these elections, voters were passing judgment on the governing competency of the main parties. For a party in office, this means assessing how successfully it has managed the business of government. Policy success — notably in the management of the economy, together with evidence of a clear agenda and united, strong leadership — are key indicators. In the case of an opposition party, voters are deciding on its potential governing competence if it were to achieve office.

A variant of the rational choice theory is the economic voting model. This holds that voters are more likely to support a governing party if it has managed the economy successfully. Alternatively, they may give their support to a party that is thought likely to deliver economic prosperity, either to voters themselves and their families, or to the population as a whole. Voters may be influenced by factors such as inflation, unemployment, interest rates and taxation, or more generally by a broader sense of well-being, sometimes known as the 'feel good factor'. Public anger over the 'winter of discontent' played a major part in the Conservatives' election victory in 1979. The absence of the 'feel good factor' also worked to the Conservatives' advantage in the 2010 election, as they were able to portray Labour as having responded inadequately to the financial crisis.