The rational anthem

February 17, 1995

For political scientist Eric Shaw the wholesale application of rational choice theory to political behaviour is deeply flawed - and the earliest warnings of its limitations came from its pioneer.

"Anthony Downs, the original rational choice man in political studies, warned there were distinct qualifications as to how far it could be applied, but those qualifications appear to have been forgotten." Shaw, lecturer in politics at Stirling University and author of a new book on Labour Party communications strategies, argues: "At the most basic level rational choice falls down because it abstracts people from their social context, and ignores any social context to their actions or way of thinking."

He says the view of parties as bodies that use rational means to maximise their vote and office-seeking potential is hopelessly simplistic: "Look at the Crossman, Castle or Benn diaries and their account of how political decisions are taken. It is clear rational choice has nothing to say about either government or opposition. When Crossman was making a decision, electoral considerations were only one among many - and there was no way of his knowing what would be the best decision in electoral terms."

He is similarly dismissive of another rational choice-rooted assumption - that rejection of their tax policies was the decisive element in Labour's 1992 election defeat: "If that were so, how come there was such a swing to Labour among people most likely to be hit by their proposals? Tax played its part, but to assume that it was the only or even the main factor is a vast over-simplification."

Shaw argues that sensible guides to political behaviour are far more likely to be found in social psychology, and in particular in cognitive models. "These argue that the way people respond to political information varies according to their cognitive maps. They respond to particular issues in a number of ways - asking how it arose, who caused it and who is responsible. A good example is the question of whether to blame poverty or social security 'scroungers'."

Labour never came to terms with this, he says, focusing on slogans about the party being "new" or "responsible" rather than on seeking more resonant themes.

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