Winning elections is about two pretty simple things. You’re either trying to change a voter’s mind about you or, if they like you just fine already, giving them a poke to get them off their arse and to the polling station.
The two major party campaigns are doing lots of voter-poking. Barely an hour goes by without a press release intended to remind voters that the other lot are rubbish and we better stop them do their rubbish things. The NHS is being privatised. The Economy could be wrecked. The Economy could be privatised. The NHS will be wrecked. So it goes.
Fair enough. It’s just that with both parties in the low thirties, I’m not sure why the ‘changing voters minds’ bit of winning elections is being neglected. Labour and Conservatives are now both polling what William Hague was scoring in early 2001. In January 2001, Mr Hague was scoring between thirty-one and thirty-four points. Let’s be even more unkind. Both major parties are scoring roughly what John Major was getting in January 1997. This is not very good.
Of course, these elections were very different to the ones we face this May. Yet there are lessons. Danny Finkelstein might correct me, but I suspect Tory strategists knew that persuading remaining Conservative supporters to vote was not enough to ensure victory. They needed to persuade some new people too. They just couldn’t do it (( They were stuck with either trying to persuade potential Labour voters that they were buying a Kinnock in a poke (1997) or describing what Labour policies in increasingly apocalyptic terms)).
Telling voters about the awfulness of the other lot is a form of persuasion, yes. You dissuade those open to voting for your opponent as well as poking your own supporters with the cattle-prod of fear. It’s just a rather limited form of persuasion.
The relevant problem is if you’re both unpopular, you can’t be certain that persuading voters that your opponents are awful will help you. If you spend a very high proportion of your time denigrating your main opponents and they spend about the same amount of time attacking you, would a voter being foolish to conclude that you are both wazzocks? (I imagine it being a bit like the end of the first Rocky movie. You’ve spent 15 rounds smashing each other, and both collapse at the end for a dodgy points outcome.)
Of course, if you have a strong support base of your own and a healthy lead, you don’t fear wazzockification, which is why the most effective political messages of this sort remind us of landslide victories (Tories in 1983, LBJ’s Daisy ad, Hague/Thatcher in 2001)1.
Whatever else we say about contemporary politics, no-one is campaigning from a position of strength. So why are parties trying to do so little to change voters minds, instead reminding voters of what they already know? The Tories tell us they care about economic growth. Labour politicians talk passionately about the values of the NHS. Whatever the merits of either case, this is absolutely confirming voters opinion of both parties. When you’re on thirty-two percent, shouldn’t you be aiming to change some minds? Even William Hague regularly tried to persuade us he was a different kind of Tory, until he got sick of people laughing at the notion.
The biggest reason neither party is trying to change minds is both parties are confused about which minds they want to change. In the wake of big party unpopularity and the scuttling of the traditional lifeboat of voter discontent, a flotilla of alternatives have arrived2.
The Tories can’t decide whether they want to hoover up UKIP voters or floating ex-New Labour voters. Labour wants to simultaneously hold on to ex-Lib Dems, stop a loss of working class voters to UKIP, persuade swing voters in Tory marginals, fight off the Greens and inspire young voters. For both, this leads to a pushmepullyou political strategy, with strategists sending apparently contradictory messages to protect each flank, while assuring themselves with a lowest common denominator internally unifying message.
What this fretting over the growing fringe misses is that for all the differences in how voter discontent plays out as policy demands, growth on the edges of politics derives from some pretty similar insights about the big parties.
UKIP and swing Labour voters will agree that the Tories are out of touch, disinterested in the many, complacent about growth and too close to the wealthy and privileged. From UKIP, Green/LibDem, and swing Tory voters, you might hear that yes, Labour is more sympathetic to the many, but wants to spend money that isn’t there, knows what it is against, but not how to change things, and doesn’t know how it’ll make voters better off.
Further, there’s a broad consensus that both parties are narrow, bad at doing what they say they want to do, will break their promises, and are more concerned with securing narrow political advantage than in working together for the good of the country.
The parties should see these similarities in voter discontent as their main challenge in changing minds. Worse, by attacking each other rather than worrying about how they appear, the parties are underlining the very discontent that fuels defection. Mutually Assured Wazzockification.
With both parties now suffering Hague/Major levels of popularity, I’d want to be the party that puts effort into changing minds about both our own weaknesses, and the weaknesses of politics as a whole, not defensively telling people the other lot are useless.
After all, people already agree that the other lot are shit. They just think we are too. Changing that last bit seems kind of important.
- The second problem is that your portrayal of the other lot has to match what they’re actually up to. It was no good for John Major to paint Tony Blair as a puppet of lurking leftist forces as Blair was able to demonstrate he was no such thing. Worse, the Tory message even helped Blair dramatise his own message – that Labour had changed. No good comes from giving your opponent the chance to prove you wrong [↩]
- The change here isn’t big party unpopularity, by the way. It’s that the Lib Dems are not in a position to exploit it [↩]