Peter Kellner has produced a superb essay on the values of Labour’s lost voters.
I expect most of the discussion will focus on Peter’s point that of the remaining voters Labour needs to gather, very few classify themselves on the ‘left’ of the political spectrum. This is true, and important (and incidentally, backs up my analysis here, from another angle).
In summary, Labour has got back Guardian readers, LibDems and those who identify as being on the left. We’ve not got back Sun readers, Tory defectors or those who think politics is basically all shonk.
(If shonk isn’t a word, it should be).
There’s a slightly different issue at play though. The only policies Peter has tested that met with approval with these voters would be a total disaster if ever put into practice in government.
The terrible policies in full:
Capping maximum pay at £1 million
First, it would reduce taxation revenue. Second, those affected are likely to be highly mobile, so you’d see huge numbers of relocations. Third, it would be like a bullet to the head of the financial sector, which hey, who cares, except we don’t have much to replace it with right now.
Leaving the EU
Let’s assume, for simplicity’s sake, that this really means leaving the EU but staying within the EU free trade association. This would effectively mean moving from a position of ‘In Europe, but not run by Europe‘ to a position of ‘Not in Europe, but run by Europe‘. We would suddenly find that all sort of market rules were being set without us, and while we would have the right to be consulted, we’d rarely, if ever, get a chance to say ‘no’. It’d be like it, or lump it. If say Turkey were to join the EU, we’d have to accommodate that, without a vote, never mind a veto.
On the less negative side, we’d gain the right to make our own trade agreements outside the EU. I’m not sure however, how popular a major pro-free trade argument would be. ‘Leave the EU for cheaper chinese imports?‘. We’d also get more control of UK immigration policy, which would be popular, and leads me neatly on to:
Zero net immigration
Well, the nicest thing I can say about this is that it would at least be feasible if we left the EU.
The last time there was zero net migration in the UK was the early nineties recession, and it was not a good thing. the big shift since then has been a major increase in people coming to the UK for formal study, and while there are certainly some abuse issues there, for the most part this is a huge transfer of income to the UK, without which we would really suffer.
Aside from the ‘cutting off our nose’ element to this policy, there’s a whole host of practical problems. To run this policy, you need a one in-one out style rule. So you’d be trying to estimate how many people want to leave the country, then trying to replace them, preferably with younger, better models. But say you got it wrong, and hit your cap just as Infosys or Wipro say they want to set up a major research centre just outside Cambridge, which would need around a thousand potential migrants.
Do you say ‘No’? Of course not. In which case you’ve just admitted your policy is a joke on the macro scale, which means it’s a joke on the micro scale too.
Pander or Provoke
There are two responses to this problem. The first is to pander. It is to assume a thoughtful, even slightly mournful expression, and say that you certainly understand why people are concerned about these issues, and that their concerns are reasonable, and founded in a real concern for their communities.
You then look a little less empathetic and say that because you feel their pain you can certainly go some way to address some of the most outrageous examples of abuses by doing something that isn’t what they want, but certainly sounds a bit like what they want, and which, if artfully constructed might sound as if you approve of what they want. You might propose an in/out referendum on the EU, or an annual cap on net migration at a set level, or publish some vague figures about pay ratios.
This is a perfectly reasonable political approach. Hell, it’s basic electorate-greasing. You don’t get far in politics without telling voters how right they are.
However, it has one slight problem. If, in the end, you’re not going to do what they want, eventually, the voter will notice this odd mismatch.
So I’m increasingly attracted to the opposite approach, which is to add in the missing bit, the part that explains why you’re not going to do what the voter wants.
Here, you still assume the same empathetic starting point. You compliment the voter on their sensitivity, and their identification of a real issue. You assure them they’re not wrong to care about this stuff. Then you tell that you’re not going to do what they want, because it’s a load of bollocks that would end up costing them their job.
You then soften this blow, by telling them that you are going to correct the things that are most problematic, (and here, if you wish, you can insert your list of things that sound a bit like what the voters want, but are not what the voters want).
I suppose you could call this a form of triangulation.
Whatever it is, it feel a hell of a lot braver than pandering to an agenda you are never going to deliver on.