The electoral dogfight

Fran Snyders (d.1697)

There have been some elections in the UK, mostly local or mayoral. A lot of people voted for the party of the current government. It seems that brazen corruption and mishandling of the early stages of the pandemic have had little effect on voters.

I wondered why.

Corruption fatigue

Corruption is priced in. As a reader said, “I struggle to get away from considering all politicians liars, so evidence of this is a bit like the sun rising each morning”.

I think this corruption fatigue is very common. I also think it is very dangerous, and that things are worse than they have been.

Ferdinand Mount, ex head of the Number Ten Policy Unit under Margaret Thatcher, puts it in historical context in his article in the LRB, calling Boris “ruthless and truthless” and concluding “habitual lying may be accepted as cosmetic, merely the wrapping on the pack. That is certainly Boris Johnson’s calculation, and so far he is doing quite nicely”. He also points out “As we are now seeing, any centralisation of power tends also to centralise corruption. The lobbyists gather like flies or vultures round Number Ten, because no other department is really worth nobbling”.

Covid amnesia

There are as many who are sympathetic with the no mask, no lock down, herd immunity approach as there are those who are horrified by it. People don’t trust experts. Most importantly, people have short memories, and vaccine roll out has looked successful. There are even rumours that Boris will try to call an early election to capitalise on the public mood before having to implement new austerity measures.

But there’s also something else going on besides corruption fatigue and covid amnesia. The take back control myth is still winning votes.

The logic of the monkey hangers

In the Hartlepool byelection there have been extraordinary interviews with voters bemoaning the closure of cells, courts and hospitals in their town and celebrating the opening of foodbanks to meet rising need.

Incredibly they felt this was all reason to vote AGAINST the opposition, and FOR the party that has been in power for the last decade.

(It would be remiss of me not explain why people from Hartlepool are called monkey hangers: During the Napoleonic Wars, a French ship was wrecked in a storm off Hartlepool. The only survivor was a monkey, dressed in a French army uniform. Since the monkey was unable to answer questions, and because the locals had never seen a monkey or a Frenchman before, they concluded it must be a spy. So they tried it, sentenced it to death, and hanged it on the beach).

But more seriously, these voters want an improved future, and they want services restored to their community. They have decided that Johnson’s ‘levelling up’ agenda and a Conservative MP offers them the best hope of this despite evidence to the contrary. Mocking them will only make them more committed to that view.

Ferdinand Mount laments “the facts do not speak for themselves. Like the alternative facts, they too need to be woven into — the word cannot be avoided — a narrative”.

Something about the messaging or tactics of the Conservatives is clearly working far far better than those of Labour. What is it?

Class war

Previously I’ve written about the power of right-leaning parties invoking class war, and I think blaming rising inequality on a scoffing liberal elite more concerned with transgender rights than immigration has certainly helped the Conservatives.

Politics as entertainment

There have also been forests of words written about the newly discovered importance of feelings over facts. There’s a strange snowflakiness to people humiliated by the increasing gulf between asset rich and working poor. They don’t look at the structure that causes their distress, but instead — in a ‘down with this sort of thing’ way — they want politicians who do not look like politicians. They seek entertainment, celebrity and simplicity. They find more common ground with the lying latin-strewn piffle of Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson than the grating preachy ernestness of Corbyn or the sanctimonius dull pedantry of Starmer.

Swinging extremities

I think I found some more of the answer reading Dominic Cummings. Obviously the short-sighted shiny-pated Surkov wannabe has an agenda of his own, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some truth nuts hidden in his word salad.

One of the most misleading stories in politics is the story of ‘the centre ground’. In this story people’s views are distributed on an X-axis with ‘extreme left’ at one end, ‘extreme right’ at the other end, and ‘the centre ground’ in the middle. People in ‘the centre’ are ‘moderate’. ‘Extremists’ are always ‘lurching’ while ‘sensible moderates’ are urged to ‘occupy the centre’…

Swing voters who decide elections … do not think like this. They support much tougher policies on violent crime than most Tory MPs AND much higher taxes on the rich than Blair, Brown, and Miliband. They support much tougher anti-terrorism laws than most Tory MPs AND they support much tougher action on white collar criminals and executive pay than Blair, Brown, and Miliband.

One of the key delusions that ‘the centre ground’ caused in SW1 concerned immigration. Most people convinced themselves that ‘swing voters’ must have a ‘moderate’ and ‘centre ground’ view between Farage and Corbyn. Wrong. About 80% of the country including almost all swing voters agreed with UKIP that immigration was out of control and something like an Australian points system was a good idea. This was true across party lines.

I.e., to win, a party should be more extremely populist on the key emotive issues for swing voters.

This sounds obvious when spelled out. However it flies against decades of more patrician politics in this country, when policies were designed ideologically and votes cast tribally. It could move us closer to US-style equations summing block votes of groups exercised by single issues:

E.g., Pro-life + pro-guns + pro-fossil fuel + a + b > pro-choice + BLM + free healthcare + pro-marijuana + x + y.

The Gammons manifesto

Considering corruption fatigue, covid amnesia, class war, politics as entertainment, swinging extremities, and the need to weave facts into a narrative, I recommend Labour look somewhere surprising to inspire their sloganeering: Peter Gammons gammon manifesto for London Mayor.

While it would need to be tweaked to work nationally, if this hadn’t come from UKIP it would have been agreeble to a lot more people; it’s a masterclass in avoiding left / right baggage, in giving something to everyone, and in getting on the popular side of the key topics of the day:

(OK it didn’t work for UKIP, and most votes were still tribal, but still I think there’s something to learn from…)

A progressive coalition?

Whatever happens, I think Labour in its current state is doomed in England outside of the major cities. Their only chance is a ‘progressive’ coalition with the Lib Dems and the Greens (and perhaps a union-busting deal with the SNP), combined with a decent set of sloganeering designed to win elections rather than garner applause at the party conference.

This is a dog fight. Labour have to show up, hackles raised and teeth bared, not lick their wounds in the corner. Whether you want them to win or not, we need an effective opposition.

Of course, absent from this analysis, are the questions of a) how media amplifies, suppresses or colours messages depending on whether they come from Labour or the Conservatives, and b) whether Labour even wants to win an election if the cost is es-chewing cherished topics that don’t sit well with voters.

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