Fifty shades of sway: how one Twitter bot shows British voters in their whole, messy complexity

We might imagine that we have a good idea of what a "Remain" or "Conservative" voter is likely to think. But in building the British Voter Bot, it became clear the reality is more complex

October 23, 2019
Beep boop! The British Voter Bot shows individual voters—and throws up some surprises. Photo: PA
Beep boop! The British Voter Bot shows individual voters—and throws up some surprises. Photo: PA

I am a 69-year-old Catholic woman from Daventry, I didn’t go to university, and I get my news from the television. I think Brexit will be bad for the NHS, the economy’s getting worse, I support European integration, and voted Remain and Lib Dem. I consider myself to be very right-wing.

I am a 70-year-old Anglican woman from Cambridgeshire. I went to university. I get my news from the television. I think Brexit will be bad for the NHS, and that the economy’s getting worse. I support the death penalty and European integration, and I voted Remain and Labour. I consider myself to be centre-left.

I may contain multitudes—but neither I, nor my colleagues on this project, are in fact retired religious women with strong views on the death penalty or borderline-deluded opinions about our location on the spectrum of political opinion.

Instead, these are two of the profiles tweeted by our British VoterBot, a collaboration between two PhD students at Cambridge and Manchester, and a first-year undergraduate at Exeter.

In brief, the bot takes a cleaned version of British Electoral Survey Wave 13, and after recursively going through a voter list, tweets hourly snippets on divisive issues paired with the voter’s constituency. Is censorship necessary? Is the death penalty acceptable? What about privatised social care? Is austerity the most important issue facing the country today?

First, help animals—then, bring back hanging

Of course, the bot makes no judgement about how a voter’s political self-definition might relate to any objective standard. Nor does it reflect any ranking of priority: one might think that hanging murderers is important, but that could only be 10th on the to-do list after ensuring animal welfare is socially funded and remaining in the European Union.

Nevertheless, VoterBot reveals the voter as a constellation of competing and often incoherent claims. Few political scientists would be surprised by the downright odd politics and voting patterns revealed, of course. In contrast to the slump of the early 2000s, political engagement is rising, even if that engagement is expressed in new ways. Political party membership may be up, but members are no longer happy to acquiesce to a relatively coherent party line as long as it provided a social club of relatively well-adjusted people. Gone are the days when one might join the local Conservative party to find a spouse, or with a vague aim of stopping socialism.

Voter volatility

Instead, parties are dominated by ideological cliques who, after gaining a foothold on power, demand ideological unity from their shortlisted MPs. Whether ERG or Momentum, the legitimacy of general hierarchy has been replaced by a grassroots engagement that expresses itself just as easily in mass demonstrations against climate change as writing letters en masse complaining about Europe.

As we might expect, such a maelstrom of single-issue concerns breeds volatility. A voter who sees themselves as very left-wing and pro-Brexit might nevertheless be willing to do what might have once been unthinkable, and switch party affiliation to achieve their goals. Should Jeremy Corbyn form the next government, Labour might find themselves helped by voters whose other political views, or social background, might once have made such a vote unthinkable.

The question, therefore, becomes whether a government is beholden to the faction in ascendency in its party ranks, or the MP to the single-issue voters who have amalgamated around their candidacy; whether, in other words, the end of hierarchical political identification and the rise of volatile single-issue engagement changes the make-up of parliament.

This, in turn, complicates any existing notion of parliamentary legitimacy as tied to either MP and party or MP, party, and voter base. A useful counter, however, comes from the Whig politician Edmund Burke. Addressing the electors in 1774, Burke argued that “the public will was clearly superior to the will of the representative”. Yet this did not imply that he was a straightforward mouthpiece in the Commons; rather, the multitude of competing claims of rights and interests meant that the representation of the country required the representative to use their reason.

One could act as a representative of local interest, responding to local petitions and interest groups, yet one’s duty in parliament was to the constituency and nation as a whole.

This is not a defence of Burkean conservatism. Nevertheless, if the voterBot indicates a fracturing of 21st-century party political identity into competing and self-contradictory demands, then perhaps a return to Burke’s view of the role of MPs points to a way of reconciling marginal and conflicting political positions and might even preserve stable party politics into the century. This would mean we are less surprised when an SNP voter, whose priorities are reintroducing the death penalty and controlling immigration, declares themselves to be centre-left.