How to win and lose elections.

At the risk of the accusation of being  pretentious, I’ve never won or lost an election ever, I thought I’d deviate from my usual economic commentary and have a try at explaining why Labour did so badly in the recent UK elections and what needs to happen for them to do better in future. There  are are an awful lot of disappointed Labour supporters around, who might be looking for some answers as to why an expected Labour small win suddenly turned into quite a large Conservative win.  There’s probably many Liberal Democrat supporters feeling somewhat depressed too, but they don’t need any similar explanation!  Something went obviously very  wrong for Labour on polling day. Either those potential Labour voters who had indicated to the pollsters they would be voting Labour did not show up on the day, or they changed their minds at the last moment and voted for someone else. The pollsters sampling methods cannot be fundamentally wrong, otherwise their exit poll would not have been as close to the actual result as it was.

The Labour Party had enough potential votes to win, albeit with some support from the SNP, but not enough real or actual votes on the day. So what went wrong?  We need to start with the fundamentals. The Labour Party has a core set of socialist supporters. It can never win an election with just those supporters , though. There just aren’t enough of them. It needs to appeal to enough of another group, the uncommitted voters to get the numbers. There is also another group of voters who are hostile and are never likely to be won over no matter what policies are on offer.  They may as well be ignored. The temptation for any political party is to take its core support for granted and try to appeal to the undecideds or even the hostiles.  I would expect the Labour Party has spent quite a lot of money, over the years, with various marketing and PR companies, to set up focus groups to find out what policies might be popular with those groups and so tailor Labour policies to suit. That’s a big mistake. Anyone who needs a focus group to tell them their politics shouldn’t be in politics. In any case, votes are often not cast totally for the reasons the voter might care to explain to others.

Another mistake is to reason along the lines that because they’ve lost the election to a party offering more right leaning policies previously, that they need to do the same to win the next time, too. That’s not a sensible approach. Why would anyone want to vote for a supposedly socialist party offering conservative policies? Why wouldn’t they vote for the real thing? Parties have to be true to their principles. If they aren’t they risk losing their core supporters. In Labour’s case, to UKIP, the SNP, the Greens, one of the minor left parties or maybe even to the “Apathy party”.  They also risk appearing disingenuous to the uncommitted. Uncommitted voters will vote for politicians they can trust, even if they are not in total agreement,  or at least, distrust little enough for to make them actually turn out on the day. If a party or individual politician appears disingenuous they won’t get those votes even if the policies on offer are carefully tailored to match. There’s no chance of picking up much support from Tory voters even with Tory policies. They are the hostile voters.

Trust has to work both ways too. Labour has lost support to UKIP who have established themselves in second position in many of the Northern English constituencies. It was a big mistake to assume that the rise of UKIP was a good thing for Labour and that it would take more votes from the Conservatives than them. There are potential UKIP supporters in all parties. Whilst they might nearly all break ranks and vote UKIP in a bye election or the European elections,it makes much less sense for Conservative potentials to break ranks and vote UKIP in a general election. The Conservatives pledged that referendum. Labour didn’t see fit to trust the electorate on the EU question.

The full picture is not yet known but it would be a surprise if the reason for Ed Balls losing his seat in Leeds, for example, does not turn out to be that he lost more votes to UKIP than his Conservative opponent.That could have been so easily avoided if the party had said that, whilst it supported the UK’s membership of the EU, it recognised that the electorate needed to have their direct say now.  They needed to offer a clear-the-air referendum, and not just before more powers were ceded. There have been more than enough already. It would have been better to have that referendum under a Labour Government than Tory Government which is the way it is going to turn out.  Democratically elected governments can do pretty much what they choose except give away that democracy. There comes a time if too many powers are ceded, that a change of elected government, is not enough. The Greeks have just discovered that – the hard way!

The Labour Party also needs to remember its own name and the meaning of its own name. The party is meant to be the party of working people.  But do working people now view Labour as their party? They don’t see Labour people like themselves in any positions of influence,  or hear accents like their own, not in England at least. They see Labour standing up for the racially oppressed, the sexually oppressed, the gender oppressed, those oppressed, or disadvantaged, because of physical and mental handicaps,  but if they themselves are not in any of those categories, or don’t see themselves as fitting into those categories, they wonder why the party has forgotten about them. What about those who are oppressed simply because they don’t have any work or they don’t have anything better than a zero hours contract or they can’t find a home? Those workers may not have heard of Keynes, or any of the post Keynesian thinkers, who can well explain why austerity economics doesn’t work, but they just know instinctively, and from their own personal experience that it doesn’t. It also applies to everyone who has an unemployed son or daughter who may be well qualified academically but is unable to find a job to match those qualifications. As the SNP has demonstrated, an anti- austerity message is not at all incompatible with electoral success.

Messages and slogans have to be simple and understandable. The slogan “One Nation” may be simple but it isn’t at all understandable.  What does it mean? That we all live in one country? Well, so what? People don’t discuss politics in those terms. The Scots may have other ideas on that anyway. We don’t all have the same problems, that’s for sure! So there’s a disconnect there between the so-called metropolitan elites, who dream up  these slogans, or in this case use a Tory cast-off,  and ordinary voters. There have always been metropolitan elites. They are nothing new. The term has crept into use simply because of that growing disconnect.

The role of emotion in Labour politics should not be overlooked. Rational arguments will only get any politician so far. Labour victories used to be memorable for the feelings they generated as much as anything else. They generated an optimism for the future. I’m not sure Conservatives can say the same thing about their successes. Let’s get something of that back for future elections and start to win them on our terms.

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6 responses to “How to win and lose elections.

  1. reallyniceguy2014

    Hi Peter,

    I prefer working class people, if we limit it to those in or wanting work we exclude the disabled, the ill, carers, parents and those doing unpaid work.

    Think about it, there are basically two kinds of people, those who inherit enough wealth to live off, but from that can take the ‘risks’ to get well paid and bonused work creaming off the wealth created by workers and mass demand. The rest of us are working class as we have to work or get social security income to live.

    How difficult can it be to get 40% of us to vote for Living Wage Job Education Training and Income Guaranteed Full Employment at Stable Prices?

    Add in quality public services with high value highly paid good quality workers, throw in Free Lifetime Education fit for the Modern world.

    What”s not to love and appeal?

    One has to appreciate the efficiency of the Cons at scaring turkeys to vote for Christmas and looking after their super rich backers interests.

  2. Peter,

    Labour’s crushing defeat is easily explained. Off the top of my head:

    1. Contrary to all the political analysts explanations, most of Labour’s policies were not particularly leftwing. The very idea that Labour had drifted to the extreme left is absurd. Its policies were not much different to one nation conservatism.

    Labour’s core economic policy was that they would implement fairer cuts, hardly a tub-thumping rousing policy to get the nation rallying around.

    2. Labour was incapable of countering the core Tory message that Labour crashed the economy and the Tories were picking up the pieces. In that regard, 2015 was a continuation of the rout of 2010. In many respects it may have been irrelevant what Labour’s message was and who their leader was given how toxic Labour post-2008 had become.

    3. Whatever message Labour had, it was very poorly articulated. When Labour did try to articulate whatever message it had it was weak and sluggish, the political equivalent of instant mashed potato; mostly the campaign was verging on the non-existent.

    4. Ed Miliband is Labour’s version of Iain Duncan Smith. Choose whatever synonym you like: clumsy, clutzy, fumbling, gawky, etc. In fact, the whole Labour high command are bungling oafs. Although the deficit and the national debt are total irrelevancies, Miliband not addressing them at his conference because he wanted people to swoon over his ability to memorise a big speech was a clumsy way to shoot yourself in the foot. He may in fact have shot his leg off.

    5. Taking Scotland for granted is not a good idea. Having promised heaven knows what before the referendum, Labour’s great idea was to basically concede that they never had and never will have any intention of delivering the further devolution Scotland wants. What genius! The distrust of Labour us such that if there was another referendum, the UK will be toast.

    6. Labour’s disregard to Scotland is not unique. It has a similar attitude towards its other alleged heartlands in northern England and Wales. As for the working class in general anywhere in the UK, Labour’s disregard is verging on Tory-like hostility. As the scale of the defeat became apparent, the Labour high command spun a tale of how Labour had veered to the hard left and that its loss was an indictment of not showing enough concern for the “aspirational middle class” and “business owners”. Even though the exact opposite is the case, we know what this means: any real or perceived social democracy is a cancer that needs to be eradicated.

    In any case, I can’t say I’m surprised or care that much by Labour’s showing. Miliband showed with his support for the destruction of Libya and his on-off-on-off-on-but-with-provisos for war with Syria that Labour hasn’t changed since the days of Lord Blair of Bloodlust. On that alone, Labour didn’t deserve to win. When you add to the mix the fact that Labour hasn’t ruled out joining the euro, you really have to ask yourself why would anyone vote Labour?

  3. ‘disconnection’ not ‘disconnect’!

    Labour have proven to be a feeble and halfhearted opposition for the last 5 years. What have they managed to stop? The public would be hard pushed to name a single thing Labour can claim credit for preventing in the last 5 years. Previous Labour governments don’t even need to be brought into it, and in terms of the general public previous Labour governments have been mostly brought into it only by the most hardcore group of Conservative and UKIP voters.

    The statistics show that in the 2015 General Election not much changed for Labour and Conservatives alike in terms of share of the vote:

    (figures from BBC News website)

    General Election in 2015
    Conservative – 11,334,520 – share of vote 36.9%
    Labour – 9,347,326 – share of vote 30.4%

    General Election in 2010
    Conservative – 10,726,614 – share of vote 36.1%
    Labour – 8,609,527 – share of vote 29.0%

    The LibDem figures plummeted though:

    2015: 2,415,888 – share of vote 7.9%
    2010: 6,836,824 – share of vote 23.0%

    Guess where the votes went. Mostly to UKIP and the SNP, but also to the Green Party. (Remember a year back Nick Clegg being utterly incapable of making a decent case for membership of the EU?)

    So Labour didn’t just have to compete with the Conservatives, it had to compete with the UKIP, the SNP and the Greens. That’s why Cameron wanted leadership debates to involve other ‘left-wing’ parties. Cameron and the Conservatives used the SNP, the Greens, and the LibDems to attack Labour on his behalf. The result was precisely as the Conservatives wanted it, and the public has yet to notice how they fell for it and set up the next stage of breaking up the UK for the benefit of the SNP and the EU.

    Cameron is picking up where Blair left off, delivering the UK into the hands of the EU in bite-sized chunks (regionalisation as a way to break-up England was picked up by the Coalition and is continuing apace). Labour could’ve won only if it opposed all this and stood up for ordinary English people and ordinary Britons alike, but they didn’t, don’t want to, and won’t. On the contrary, they started much of it. All Miliband’s done for 5 years is say ‘we got it wrong on [insert whatever topic you like!]…. but we’re not going to do much, if anything, about it.’

    Nevertheless, more than 9 million people still voted Labour, and so the Conservatives are going to be going up against a lot of adversaries for a second term. If Labour politicians prove yet again to be useless once Parliament sits, they will deserve their fate and the public will suffer, as per usual.

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