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The vox pop

Mark Easton | 13:29 UK time, Friday, 7 May 2010

Britain has spoken. But not with one voice.

If voters wanted to give all the parties a dead leg and try to force those quarrelsome politicians to start working together, it might be argued they have got their wish.

But when commentators talk about "the message from the British people", they divine a sophisticated group purpose from individual actions.

What Britain has ended up with this morning is the consequence of tens of millions of different acts, made for an almost infinite number of reasons. It is not a clear message because there is no clear message.

Ballot boxes

Think of it this way. BBC News might ask me today to reflect the way the UK feels about the political impasse it has created. I could walk out into Salford, where I watched Hazel Blears hold her seat earlier today, and ask a few dozen passers-by what they reckon. Then I could select three or four of them, with a range of views, to provide a selection of responses.

We call it the "vox pop" - literally, "the voice of the people". It is anything but.

Sometimes, the technique can be helpful, but to reflect accurately what the people collectively say, we might be best to run them all simultaneously because that is the truth about last night's vote. People from all over the country were talking over each other with different ideas and passions and prejudices, a range of views which together add up to the kind of hubbub and hullabaloo voters apparently dislike so much when they hear it in the House of Commons.

There are some themes, I think, which emerge from the electorate's actions.

Britain appears more politically tribal than the debate worms would suggest. It is one thing to press the button on your gizmo on live TV to say you like the cut of Nick's jib. Quite another to go against the traditions of two-party politics when faced with a blank slip in the anonymity of the voting booth.

Voters wanted change but they didn't know what kind of change they wanted. This sentiment played out very differently around the country with some places much clearer than others about what they saw as the best option.

Britain told the pollsters it was furious about immigration and expenses but, when it came to it, Britons were unable to demonstrate that particularly strongly in the ballot. It was a muted voice within the clamour.

The failure of the system to allow hundreds of people who had queued in the rain to have their vote has been described as a fundamental breach of our democracy. But the bigger picture is an example of how our democracy itself can sometimes find it impossible adequately to reflect the contradictions contained in the voice of the British people.

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