A political problem: Labour’s lost voters are.. wrong.

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.

10 Responses to “A political problem: Labour’s lost voters are.. wrong.”

  1. Brian Hughes

    Explaining why you’re not going to do what “the voter” wants might be OK if the voter is with you. It might even work occasionally

    Doing it en masse, when the person controlling the main communication channel to the voter believes (or pretends to believe) that you should be doing what you’re not going to do, is trickier…

  2. Brian Hughes

    PS why does your blog only accept comments from me occasionally and why does it sometimes advertise Viagra?

    I think we should be told.

    • hopisen

      The former is because I have the comment security settings on very high to stop endless spam.

      The latter is a persistent problem with a hack/exploitation, I think. Keeps getting caught, then finding another way in. Still, if people want vi-gra, I’d advise other sources than this blog!

    • PooterGeek

      Oh bugger. Is the Viagra thing happening again? Sorry about that. Do send me a link to the relevant page, Brian, if you see spam. I’ll fix it.

  3. Botzarelli

    I don’t think you need to dismiss “leaving the EU” so breezily. You’re making an assumption, i think that people care about the single market et al. However I’m not sure most people do and so being at the Brussels round tables to hone regulations is not likely to be seen as a high priority. The perception, for good or ill, is likely to be that we don’t get much out of the process and that in any case, those dastardly Europeans end up ignoring half of it while we stubbornly implement stuff we argued against.

    What leaving does give the left is the ability to do things like take an explicitly interventionist approach to industrial support. Yes, subsidies. It also lets the public sector buy British. Not to mention British jobs for British workers. As part of a mixed economy this wouldn’t have to be completely protectionist and inward looking, just that the terms on which we would have liberal internal trade would be set by the government rather than based on the four fundamental and fundamentally neoliberal freedoms of the EU.

    Your argument is more of one showing the limits of euroscepticism for those who are keen on liberal economics and free trade. Although in practice it might be possible to get the benefits surreptitiously as being a major economic power I doubt it would be hard to persuade say Ireland to act as the uk’s entry point into EU markets even if the EU were formally to attempt to impose tariff barriers.

    • Brian Hughes

      “What leaving does give the left is the ability to do things…”

      In or out British governments have increasingly limited powers to “do things”. Even way back in the 1940s Attlee’s government had to stay in line with what the City and the Americans wanted. That’s why it ended up paying over the odds for the railways, coal mines etc, sending troops to fight in an unpopular US-led war in the east (sound familiar?) and heavily in debt.

      It’s a wicked old world and Britain’s influence in it is even lower now than it was at the end of WWII. It’s a delusion to pretend that outside the EU we’d suddenly be free to do as we chose…

    • john b

      What leaving does give the left is the ability to do things like take an explicitly interventionist approach to industrial support. Yes, subsidies. It also lets the public sector buy British. Not to mention British jobs for British workers.

      All of these things can be done within the EU. See: the French economy. The EU procurement rules emphatically do not ban industrial subsidies, nor requirements for public projects to involve local job creation. They ban favouritism for local *companies* – so you can insist in the contract your new helicopters are built in a deprived area of the UK, but you can’t insist that they must be built by BAe rather than EADS (as long as EADS is happy to open a factory there).

      Governments often lie that they’re acting due to EU rules, because making the case to the public that industrial subsidies and British Jobs For British Workers policies are usually a bad idea is difficult-bordering-on-impossible in a soundbite-based political culture.

      I doubt it would be hard to persuade say Ireland to act as the uk’s entry point into EU markets even if the EU were formally to attempt to impose tariff barriers.

      Absolutely not. The whole point about EU tariff barriers is that they’re common: if the EU were to impose tariffs on UK goods, these would be the same no matter where the point of importation was.

  4. therealthunderchild

    Leave the EU?
    Closely followed would be the repealment of the Human Rights Act(ironic since the right-beatified Churchill was its main architect).
    After that’s gone…
    Well so would a woman’s right to choose.
    The death penalty would return.
    Employment rights would vanish.
    And the NHS? Curtains. End of.
    Quite apart from the economy tanking, and jobs dissappearing as British “Mitt Romneys” outsource them all to china.
    Welfare? See Human Rights Act, and hope your car is comfy when you say goodbye to your houset.
    THIS is what the electorate NEED to hear.
    And are they?
    Because Labour don’t want to appear “militant”.


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