Personalities, Promises and Policies

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When Ed Miliband stood up to decry a political and media that places image above policy, it was easy to both agree with his argument and note the inconsistency in any politician making it.

There was Miliband, in front of a carefully selected human backdrop, speaking without notes or written text, about the importance of substance over style.

Inevitably, the speech prompted thoughts of earlier speeches, earlier moments. Hugo Rifkind and Andrew Rawnsley recalled the leadership election slogan handwritten on posters by his campaign team: ‘Ed speaks Human’. Iain Martin noted the the Labour leader had just returned from a White House visit apparently constructed to make him look ‘Prime Ministerial’.

I was most reminded of the exultant reaction to Ed’s Conference speeches, when he has spoke fluently, and well, and passionately, without notes. There was little rejection of ‘image’ back then by Labour advisers or supporters. As Polly Toynbee said, it was Ed Miliband “Honest, at ease in his skin, without pretence, he turned a moving story of his immigrant parents into the reason why he is drawn to give back to British society some of what its welcome gave to all of them.” .

Image has meaning. As Polly Toynbee also said then, ‘Subtlety is Miliband’s style“. The medium can be the message.

Miliband acknowledged all this – the fact that as a politician he cannot afford not to care about his image, can’t afford not to care about how his enemies seek to define him. He knows that you cannot govern through policy papers, tracts and pledges alone. He would like, as we all would, I think, a more mature, reflective, less ‘image based’ politics.

The problem is that, as a politician, he cannot make that happen, as seen in the fact that a speech about the irrelevance of image became a speech about image.

A politician can’t make such a speech, without projecting an image – and  contrasting their own self-defined persona with that of an opponent. “I am serious and thoughtful and caring” carries with it the implication: “While he is cynical and lightweight and callous.” Whether you say it out loud or not is irrelevant. Your quality is their failing.

This seems to make Miliband’s case. An obsession with style, and persona, and image consumes any debate – even one clearly seeking to reject the importance of these issues, perhaps even especially one intended to do that.

To adapt Bill Hicks, we say to any politician who makes such a point: “Ah, I see you’re going for the anti-image vote. Smart move. There’s a big vote in sincerity and depth“. Worse, any deviation or inconsistency can be painted as typical political hypocrisy.

The question we need to ask before rejecting a politics of image is why image matters so much. Is it media conspiracy, the triviality or the political class, the shortening of attention spans in the 24 hour, internet enable age?

A little bit of each I guess, but behind it all is a bigger issue. We use image of politicians as a shorthand, a signal, as a heuristic.

Nor is it merely those who don’t pay attention who use such a shorthand. Recent Research on the AV referendum by Clarke, Sanders, Stewart and Whitely suggests that the more knowledgeable voters were, the more they use leadership as a heuristic for their votes.

Think about that: Perhaps the more you know about politics,  the more you rely on your perception of a leader to guide you.

Why might this be a smart approach to politics?

Gerd Gigerenzer argues that such Heuristics are a ‘fast and frugal’ way of assessing complex problems.  In this light, an obsession with image begins to make more sense. If there is much we can’t know about the future,  then our assessment of how a party leader ‘projects’ themselves may be a better guide to what they will do in office than what pledges or promises they offer.

For example, I have no rational basis for knowing how David Cameron or Ed Miliband would react if in 2016  Russia cut off energy supplies to Western Europe. However, their image might work as a useful shorthand. If I think one is ‘Aggressive’ and another ‘Diplomatic’, I can begin to feel a preference emerging.

This preference might become even more important if I don’t really place much weight on ‘official’ promises. If I doubt that any political party can achieve all or most of its stated agenda -again because the world is complex and unpredictable- then perhaps I will regard the image of the leader as a useful guide on what they will ‘really’ attempt to do.

In this analysis, image is not at all ‘beside the point’. Rather, it is the point, because it might be a better guide to how a government will act than any rational statement of policy aims, or another blizzard of piecrust promises.

Imagine David Cameron tomorrow told us that he would increase spending on the NHS significantly. How many of us would believe him, and how many would apply our accumulated perspective of his leadership and be doubtful?

I believe the debate over ‘image’ is in the wrong place. Voters are not being stupid, but being very smart to care about political personalities.

The challenge is not to stop caring about ‘image’ but to focus on what clues voters seek for their most significant preferences.

If voters want a leader who is intelligent, humble, compassionate and brave then how do they conclude those qualities are possessed? How do voters make that assessment – by what is said, or what is done? How do politicians demonstrate such qualities, and how not?

Looked at it this way, the problem with a politics of image is not that we think about it too much, but that we think it is not meaningful enough.

We see ‘image politics’ as a mere mask, a soundbite, a photo-opp and a pose, when instead it is a shorthand for everything you are and all that you seek to do.

Your image is not a thing you can move about by a briefing or a speech or the deployment of a partner – indeed thinking that it is shows you don’t understand what your image means to voters, and how they form their views.

This might, ironically, give politicians a way out of the trap that obsession with ‘surface image’ puts a politician in – that in the attempt to portray themselves as something, anything positive in the short term, they neglect to consistently focus on what really signals to a voter that you are the leader they seek.1

Turn that thinking around, and place your political personality consistently at the core of everything you do, and you might well reap the electoral rewards. Image is deeper than you think.


  1. Or perhaps, the problem is that people don’t believe your promises, in which case, you need to carefully consider the believability and attractiveness of those promises – and of course, your image might affect their believability, as with the Cameron example I gave earlier []

The long overdue death of the ‘Progressive moment’?


There are many default responses in British politics, reactions to occurrences that don’t require much thought. A good Tory one is the desire to lower regulation in the face of any downturn.

One of my favourites on the left is to declare that whatever has just happened, it is evidence that we live in a ‘progressive moment’ and represents a chance to unite the ‘progressive majority’.

No matter how bad things are politically, events can always be interpreted to vindicate our philosophy. Gordon Brown thought the aftermath of the Crash was a sign we were living in a ‘profoundly progressive moment’. Peter Mandelson said the same. Unfortunately, the electorate strongly disagreed.

It’s not hard to see why this is tempting. If we believe that we live in a time that calls for progressive ideas (which is, of course, all the time), then we live in a ‘progressive moment’, and further, if people want the nice things that we want, (which naturally, they always do) this always creates the conditions for a ‘progressive majority’, a majority whose wishes are only frustrated by misfortunes of following the wrong leaders, or having the wrong electoral system, or the left being divided.1

No surprise then that over the last few years, we’ve heard a surprising amount about how 2015 could be a progressive moment for the progressive majority. (more…)

  1. Even Tony Blair recently said he thought there was a progressive majority in the country. Though being the cut above politician he is, he did hint that it was a question of a progressive majority for something subtly different to what the party traditionally offers. []

Gaza: Avoiding ‘Victory’


I wanted to write on Gaza in the hopeful calm of a temporary ceasefire. It was not to be. Within a couple of hours of the Ceasefire, rockets were fired at Israel, and a tunnel was used to attack Israel. Israel responded, and, while the ceasefire may continue, it is not hopeful. As I write, I’ve just heard a BBC correspondent say he recently saw three rockets launch from Gaza towards Israel.

I’ve tried to avoid writing about Gaza for several reasons. Besides the fact that it seems one of those issues on which minds don’t change, I’m sharply aware of my ignorance. Hearing the debates carried out in Britain, so much of it appears to be unwilling to discuss how Hamas’s relationship with Turkey, Egypt, Iran, Qatar, and Hizbollah affects what is happening now. The relative silence of Fatah and the Palestinian authority is not often raised, nor is the refusal of Hizbollah to get involved.

In a sharp contrast to the usually pointed critique of the ‘liberal’ interventionists’ as simplistic and moralistic made by the anti-war left over Libya and Syria and Iraq, the Gaza tragedy is often painted as a simple, straightforward morality tale, with Israel as the overbearing ‘bad guy’.

Yet I understand that impulse towards simplicity very well.

What is happening in Gaza is an awful, awful thing. The death of children, the destruction of family life, the unbridled, full agonising horror of war. These are simple, straightforward horrors. Compared to the death of an innocent baby, all of the rationalising and historical perspective in the world appears cold and inhumane. Look at a shell exploding in a playground, or on a beach, and say ‘well, the causes are complex and the roots of this are deep’, and you are not just foolish, you are deliberately looking away. (more…)

How to win an argument on Twitter


I’ve had several twitter spats over the last few years. Shamefully, I’ve used the below techniques to win arguments.

They’re utterly pointless, because they don’t actually advance any debate, but do give you a superficial sense of victory, and usually a few extra followers

I thought I’d share them, mostly because spotting the tactic is probably a good way to beat the tactic.  

1. Start the Fire

Make a controversial or combative statement on a subject you feel reasonably confident on.There are two main ways of doing this. If you have lots of followers, make your statement universal and await replies. For example, you might say “Recent event A proves that all who hold view B are idiots”.

If you have a relatively small number of followers, you will need to target an opponent with more followers than you who has expressed a view on the subject. Ways to do this include: asking them to condemn X, or demanding to know why they haven’t condemned Y, or claiming that their views on Z show their ignorance of the topic.

It’s important not to be too controversial here. Your point needs to be reasonable enough that the opponent feels the need to respond. You’re looking for row-kindle, not great big logs of controversy.

2. Mock the response

If you have been sufficiently provocative, you will get a response. It is vital now  to escalate the disagreement in a way that highlights your superior knowledge and status.

This is harder than it looks, but can usually be achieved. Ways to do this include personal rudeness (“A typically lightweight answer”), sardonic dismissal (“of course you’d say that”). A good technique is to make a controversial statement in a longer article, wait for someone to try to summarise that statement (as they must do, given the format), then accuse them of misrepresenting you in that summary.

3. Flood the zone

Having established your superior credentials and expertise, what you need to do next is tweet several times in quick succession demanding specific responses to a series of points. The key here is to keep your opponent off-balance and to set the terms of the row.

You might demand to hear your opponents views on the relevance of the Armenian Genocide, or ask them to condemn X, where X is similar to, but not quite the same as your topic. If they are advanced twitter spatterers, they may also attempt to flood the zone. Do not be deflected. Keep returning to your questions. the faster you are, the better you will do.

Another technique for flooding the zone is to bring in reinforcements: if there are people who agree with you and reply, keep them in the discussion and demand that their points are answered. Do not be distracted by those who may reply to disagree with you. These can safely be ignored.

Remember, your key task here is to remain on the offensive.

4. Exploit the error fork:

If you’ve executed stage three correctly, you opponent will have done one of three things. They will a) have ignored a point you (or an ally)  made in a desperate attempt to reply to your rapidfire tweets, b) will have generalised, made a slight error of fact, or somesuch – such as misphrasing their views in a way you can present negatively or c) will have betrayed some frustration with your approach to debate.

If they have not yet committed the above errors, simply continue with ‘Flooding the zone’ until they do.

If they continue to make reasonable, salient, well-mannered points, you can accuse them of hiding from the real truth by focussing on detail, implying that they are a bore and a pedant.

5. Spotlight your outrage.

Once they entered the error fork, by ignoring a point, making a factual error or getting annoyed, this confirms everything you have said up to this point.

You now need to ensure everyone knows about their mistake and your disgust with their mistake.

Your best option is to demand an apology for whatever mistake they have made. “You said that I supported X. I never supported X. You must withdraw” “I didn’t say you supported X, I said that your position was the same as Xs” “Don’t wriggle. Will you admit that I am not a supporter of X or not?” Any subsequent answers or clarifications can safely be dismissed as desperate backtracking, wriggling denial, or  the actions of an ill-mannered goon.

If you get the apology, or an admittance of error, you can declare victory. If you don’t get the apology, then you can declare victory.

6. Close the Gate.

Every row needs a good ending. You need to own that ending. After you’ve spotlighted the error fork, now it is the time to close the gate.

If you’ve run 1-5 properly, there are several ways to do this. You can refuse to engage with someone who makes egregious errors. You might publicise their apology or clarification. A good approach is to declare that you are done with the debate, and, preferably, make a rueful comment about the foolishness of engaging with people with such a limited worldview.

It is essential that the closing of the gate and declaration of victory are made to the maximum audience size. If you have a lot of followers then ensure they all see your victory.  If your opponent does, then find someone famous who’ll probably agree with you and tell them about your victory. If you’re lucky, they’ll retweet you and this will start the whole cycle off again, assuring you another victory.


So there you go, that’s how to win any debate on Twitter.

If you spot this technique being used, feel free to accuse your opponent of Senning the debate. That should be enough to shortcut you past the Error fork, and straight on to putting a spotlight on your outrage. 

Three Years Late


Both the British economy and British politics are three years behind where they should be. This will define the next election.

Labour has two messages for the media today. The first, from Ed Miliband, is that we should focus on substance, not style. He’s right. So let us move swiftly on to the second message, from Ed Balls, that the GDP figures announced today represent a recovery three years delayed. This is also right.

In early 2010, the British economy was showing tentative signs of emerging from two miserable years. Instead, we had the Osborne pause. Nearly two years of insignificant growth which with growth returning towards at the start of last year. Calling it the Osborne pause is a cheap shot, but it’ll do me. You could equally call it the Euro-pause, I suppose.

This simple fact, that the recovery is late. It’s later than forecasted, later than politicians expected, later than families and businesses hoped.

At the same time, even though the employment figures are strong, personal incomes are rising only slowly. The hangover of recession is still affecting us. This delay has had many consequences.

One is that the hard, long struggle of rebalancing the economy became less essential to the government than achieving growth any way they could. If it took a London housing boomlet to get the animal spirits going, that was not a problem. Another is that austerity abated and deficit reduction was shunted to the next parliament.

If the Government strategy was austerity to drive national reconstruction, Over the last three years they achieved neither, in large part because they cut ‘too far, too fast’. ((And before anyone says ‘But you’re a fiscal conservative: you wanted faster cuts. No, we didn’t. We wanted the acceptance of the need for cuts, not their overhasty introduction when the recovery was not fully established. Now they will have to do it all again.

So if the recovery is three years late, and the strategy that the government strategy of austere reconstruction was abandoned as a result, that has to be bad news for the Government, and good news for Labour, right?

Unfortunately not. While Labour has place itself at a smart juncture in British politics, it too, is three years late. I am biassed on this. Three years ago, I and others wrote a paper calling on Labour to adopt a Fiscally Conservative approach to social justice. After many fits and starts, that battle has slowly, gradually, quietly been won.

It has been won, not because of my paltry efforts, but because the leadership of the party saw that ‘Fiscal caution’ (They wouldn’t accept conservatism, naturally enough!) was needed, and their left-wing critics gradually lost the political will to fight them, realising that a loud left call for higher taxes or more borrowing would be electorally self-defeating.

This journey had several stages: there was the Zero based spending review, embracing the OBR, calling for the OBR to review party spending plans before the election (as happens in Australia), pay commitments, the pledge to clear the current deficit. These finally came together in the National Policy Forum this week, when the wider Labour movement signed up to this agenda – an impressive feat of party management that has gone too little unremarked in the consideration of Ed Miliband’s leadership style.

Labour has reached a very coherent political and economic strategy. This combines an emphasis on fiscal conservatism (in the best, cautious sense of the word) with economic activism to deliver social justice. This involves long-term state action to support skills, infrastructure, business investment, wages, and so on, along with a series of measures to help family finances in the short-term. (If I can blow my own trumpet, may I point out that from a Zero based review to new Fiscal rules, to an enhanced OBR, to an emphasis on infrastructure, procurement, regional growth and innovation, is precisely what we were talking about back then?)

Unfortunately, Labour has reached this position three years late, and the years of diffuse complaining about government mis-steps and miscalculations has meant a false image has been affixed to Labour – that we are inveterate, unrepentant spenders, that we will increase debt, or taxes, or both.

As Anthony and I argued back then Labour “must also resist the temptation of short-term political benefit from opposing cuts while knowing it must make more after 2015. People will see through that. We are in a time of tough choices. If Labour faces up to the challenge of advancing social justice in an era of limited public expenditure it will present a credible governing alternative. If not, the Conservatives may get an undeserved benefit of the doubt“.

We’re there now, but it took a three-year journey. Thankfully, it is not too late, because of the government’s own three-year delay.

What’s more, that delayed recovery means the deficit looms large over every policy choice.

As we argued ” The more Osborne’s plan fails, the more the next election becomes dominated by the deficit“. Look at the IFS projections for the huge fiscal challenges awaiting the next government, and that point is truer now than ever before.

As the economy finally grows, the immediate political salience of the deficit will fall, but its practical and political consequences will be overwhelming. No party can comfortably promise to borrow more, while helping working families with the cost of living  is incompatible with the scale of tax increases needed to fix the deficit without deep, sustained cuts.

This is uncomfortable, unspeakable territory for both parties.

For the Government, it exposes the hollowness of their talk of recovery. The challenges on family finances, of manufacturing, of rebalancing, of exports and, yes, even of the deficit, remain as stubbornly real as they were three years ago.

For Labour, the discomfort of setting out how we would meet the spending pledges we have tied ourselves to without unacceptable cuts or tax increases remains, as does the challenge of showing that our commitments on fiscal prudence are real, not rhetorical.

All of this was true three years ago, and is true now. There are solutions, but they seem dangerous to self-image and misplaced electoral confidence.

The Tories could return to a progressive conservatism, emphasising growth throughout the nation, being passionate about improving incomes, urgent in securing growth precisely so they can defend services as best they can.

Labour can show their willingness to think for the long-term, use the state to drive growth, not merely subsidise existing practice, but support business expansion and science and skills. Both can (in different ways) emphasise housing, and infrastructure and innovation. Both can face up to the consequences of these decisions. Both will need to set out what would not be a tax and spending priority, as well as what will.

The British Recovery is three years late. So too is our politics.

The first party to find a confident, coherent approach to the first battle will surely win the second.

After all, substance wins over style.


Modern Sherman Statements


I am in a somewhat odd position for a political obsessive. I am simultaneously without any desire to be elected to office, admiring of those that are willing to endure that torment, and a loyal Labour supporter.

The latter is the kicker, because the obvious move for someone in my position is to relay the action from the ringside, but my commentary is partial and coloured. I am rather like a boxing commentator who only speaks when one fighter lands a punch, and sometimes goes on a tangent about the need to keep one’s guard up in case a future right jab makes it through an inadequate defence, apparently àpropos of nothing, but perhaps being meaningful (and irritating) if you are that fighter’s cornerman.

However, I do sometimes get asked if I want to run for things, because A) I used to want to, and not that long ago. B) It’s what everyone interested in politics is assumed to want to do.

What’s more, sometimes I forget how much I hate the poor politicians life. I forget that I like having weekends, for example, or drinking champagne in public, or not having to watch every damn thing I say to anyone. Usually this is rectified by meeting an MP, and sneaking a look at their diary. It’s a handy corrective to personal ambition.

Yet the temptation lurks. I think I have it under control, but one never quite knows. I would like to rule it out forever because other people could do it just as well and I know it would make me very unhappy. In this mistrustful, sceptical age, even such a categorical ‘Sherman Statement‘ is likely to be questioned, however. We have learned that a total disavowal of personal ambition can itself be a clever political move

So the only way to really rule out a political career is to make a Modern Sherman Statement. That is, to express a view that is so outrageous, so contrary to the public will, good taste or common sense, that you are disqualified from elective office forever.

This is harder than you might think, not simply because Nick Griffin exists, but because most outrageously provocative or controversial statements would make you a truly horrible human being (or expose your interior life in an unacceptably personal way), and that seems too high a price to pay for merely limiting a public career. While I’m happy to rule out ever being elected to anything, I don’t want to be a social pariah.

I’ve come up with a few options though, which I hope will be enough to stop me ever having an elected political career without preventing me being around politics and scratching my chin while telling other people they’re doing it all wrong.

All other suggestions gratefully accepted.

Modern Sherman Statements

1. Both Harry Potter and Game of Thrones are terrible, and anyone who likes either has incredibly poor taste.

2. Stephen Fry often seems a bit of a pompous annoying pillock, and not even that clever.

3. Innovative contemporary dance is better than football.

4. I have strong opinions on Cava versus Prosecco, and I share them at length given the opportunity.

5. I have paid £25 for a Cocktail, and regarded it as a wise decision.

6. I’d usually choose a nice lie in to holding a constituency advice surgery. Almost always, in fact. Oh, who am I kidding? Always.

7. If my job had paid my mortgage interest payments, I’d definitely have used it to enrich myself considerably.

8. If nominated, I will peremptorily denigrate all local schools and charities I visit. If unanimously elected, I shall describe local shops and businesses as being rubbish, and declare I prefer big chains for most purchases.

Polling and predictions: Pick your own narrative


The desire to anticipate events is a constant in human history. The world is a big, scary, weird place and it is reassuring to know what is around the corner. Fortunes have been made by apparently superior predictiveness, and fortunes have been lost on models that turned out not to anticipate risks as well as hoped.

The same is true of politics. We all want to know what will happen at the next election. Indeed, talking to politicians and advisers, I’m always astonished by how much mental energy goes into trying to ‘figure’ what will happen, rather than trying to shape what will happen. I’m sure there is a sociological reason for this (We want to position ourselves to take advantage of the most likely scenarios? We want to raise our status with others by appearing to have foresight? We are trying to repress our depressing powerlessness over future events by focusing on their inevitability?).

This leads to very irritable debates among people whose expectations and predictions vary. There’s a lot of status at stake in being ‘right’.

Not that I’m any different. I spend a ludicrous amount of time trying to work out what ‘will’ happen, and I always come up with the same answer.

The range of possible results at the next election is very wide. Even the totally unexpected shock isn’t that improbable. In the last eight elections I can think of three unexpected events that shifted the polls dramatically in the last year of a parliament – The winter of discontent, victory in the Falklands war and the fuel protests.  That’s three ‘black swans’ in eight elections. Two of those undoubtedly affected the result of the Election. In Politics, Black Swans are as common as ducks.

Faced by the huge amount of noise in the data, we can do two things to satisfy our urge to predict. The first is to average out previous polling to election outcomes, and use this to construct some sort of model for the next election. This is the smart, data based, thing to do. This is the basis for the increasingly sophisticated modelling produced by psephologists like Stephen Fisher, Rob Ford and Will Jennings.

Now the trend on which these prediction are built is that, in general,the past usually suggests that oppositions lose some support in the run up to an election, and Government’s usually recover some support. (There’s a lot more to the different models than that, but bear with me, psephologists). So it’s reasonable to assume that something similar will happen again. Reasonable, but far from certain. There are examples of this trend not happening at all: 1979 being the most obvious, but you can also make a case for 2001.

So the margin by which a perfectly sound prediction could be wrong is very large. Steve Fisher’s latest suggests that the Labour share of the vote next year will be within 26 and 38 with a 95% confidence. Tell that to an MP, and they will not be greatly impressed by your knowledge of the future and the human heart. “I predict that Labour will almost certainly get one of the election results we’ve had in the last 30 years….” does not tend to impress. This also means that even if the trend suggests one thing, there is no inevitability about that trend. There’s no de facto reason why the next election can’t be like 1979. Nor 1983.

This is where, our second option arrives. We can look at the past, and apply our judgement, and with this, our prejudices.

It would be perfectly reasonable to make the argument that the past election 2015 most resembles is 1987. A first term opposition leader whose party suffered a significant defeat at the last election, facing a fairly established but divisive Prime Minister with the economy finally recovering from a deep, painful recession. A year before the election, the opposition leads by five points or so, but goes on to lose by a large margin.

Yet it would also be entirely reasonable to argue that 1970 is a better comparison. An opposition leader widely dismissed as inadequate, and with a poll lead that is large but not decisive, facing a Prime Minister who has strong personal ratings but who leads a divided government that has not delivered significant personal incomes growth. Result: Decent opposition majority, confounding pundits and expectations.

Does either of these narratives feel more ‘right’ to you? Do you see clear flaws in one example, but not the other?

If so, I expect that is a reflection of your past experiences, or your personal feelings about the current political situation, and the current parties and the strengths of their leaders. We’re imposing our own judgements on both the data and the few examples of the past that we have to hand.1

Personally, I find myself always returning to the averages, but I can’t deny that I find myself drawn to the more pessimistic of the available past models for the Labour party. This is likely because my first experience of politics was the 1992 General Election, which has predisposed me to a certain political caution. It’s also partly because I think it’s better to assume no election is won until it is.

However, that is my prejudice, not a data driven analysis. We can choose to live with the great uncertainty the data really gives us, while also highlighting the past examples that most fits our own analysis. What we can’t do is be certain of the future.

If we want to be constructive rather than mystic, however, perhaps the best thing we can do is understand why the more pessimistic examples turned out the way they did, and invest our efforts in avoiding those mistakes.

  1. An example: I was once asked to discuss AV with a group of senior progressively minded Labour people. There was much talk about the divide of the left in the Eighties handing Thatcher power. After a while, I could bear it no more and piped up to point out that in fact the data showed that AV would have given the Tories an even bigger majority in the 83 & 87 elections, as SDP/Alliance voters would have given Thatcher more of their second preferences. There was a brief pause, then the conversation continued as if I hadn’t spoken. It was really annoying. I always think of how much it irritated me when women tell me that they regularly get treated like this in rooms full of men. []

A polling diversion from internal Labour briefing


I could be talking a lot about Labour internal politics. My God, I could be talking about Labour internal politics.

I’m not sure what good it would do though, because people are doing what they’re doing to protect their positions, their status and to make sure someone else gets the blame for bombs both exploded and unexploded, real or only imagined. This won’t stop, no matter how many calls for loyalty are issued.1

If you don’t see the various briefings, scores being settled and the daggers sharpened as I do, then a) You won’t believe my interpretation of them and b), you probably believe that when someone calls for a bold agenda that fits with Labour’s values and narrative, they actually have a list of policies that add up, make sense and won’t blow up in somebody else’s face.

Gordon Brown rode that particular trick pony all the way to Ten Downing Street, and it hasn’t lost its appeal since.

Instead of worrying about this, which won’t change, because the people, position and the structure of our party all dictate we do this to each other, I decided to look at the polling numbers.

There have been two interesting shifts recently. The first was a post election increase in Labour’s polling lead. This seemed to be to do with a move from the Conservatives to UKIP after all the election coverage, and perhaps an increase in 2010 Labour voter enthusiasm. This seems to have abated in the last week’s polling.

The other shift is interesting, and perhaps a bit surprising. According to YouGov, the Tories have been increasing their share of 2010 LibDems.


In July last year, the Tories scored 11.4% of those 2010 LibDems who intended to vote.

In June 2014, the Tories got 13.7% of 2010 LibDems.

In the last ten YouGov polls, that has increased to 15.3%. In the last five polls, the Tories average 16.8%.

This doesn’t seem to have come at the expense of Labour, whose share of ex-LibDems seems fairly solid at c30%. However, if the Tories are doing better than they were among this group, it reduces the differential advantage that Labour has enjoyed.

If Labour is now only getting twice as many 2010 LibDems as the Tories, rather than three times as many, that’s a significant shift.

Now this is a very recent trend, and could be related to Cameron’s EU adventures (it’s noticeable that UKIP have lost out). There may also be a slight increase in the number of 2010 LibDems saying they won’t vote, thus increasing the value of those saying they’ll vote Tory.

However, that the Tories are doing noticeably better among former LibDems (even if fleetingly) should remind Labour people that simply relying on a Yellow Tide for victory is, at best, a strategy that is extremely reliant on nothing changing to our disadvantage among non-Labour supporting voters.

Since we are unlikely to be able to influence such voters, this makes it a rather unstable strategy.

  1. Let’s not kid ourselves either. A call for loyalty, hard work and all pulling together is a positioning statement too. I once watched one of the most regular anti-Blair briefers of the 1997-2007 era issue a stirring call for an end to ‘distracting noises off’ under Gordon. Of course, their own status as a Macro to both the current and a hopeful emperor in no way affected their sudden admiration for loyalty. They performed like a pro, which they were. I quite admired it that level of self serving hypocrisy parading as noble loyalty, and am not always sad to see it lives on today []

Can’t we shut up about our sense of mission, and just do the mission?


Jon Cruddas’s interview with The New Statesman (complete with compulsory Gramsci reference)  has kicked off another in Labour’s ongoing series of debates about choosing between a passionate sense of mission and a bloodless technocracy.

As Mark Ferguson says over at Labourlist:

Cruddas himself explains the point well:

“there is always this tension at the heart of social democracy, of centre-left thinking, about the technical construction of policy and that emotional, romantic, visionary element that has to trump that in order to create traction.” 

(Emphasis mine:  Jon has decided who must win this debate)

I would like to propose a third way. It is quite possible to have a driving sense of mission, but not to bang on about how great you are for having this sense of mission the whole damn time.

The choice between bloodless technocracy and visionary passion is a divide that only makes sense if you believe that an effort to convince other people that your plans will work is somehow a sell out and a failure. It is possible to be a motivated technocrat instead.

Too often, the argument for ‘having values and vision’ actually boils down to little more than patting ourselves on the back for being wonderful. ‘We want a fairer society, a better economy, more ponies for all. This is our mission.’ we say, expecting admiring glances and applause from the inspired. Perhaps some are impressed, but what if the people we need to win over are those sitting at the back, sucking their teeth and saying “That’s all very well, but how, exactly?”

Yes, you need a national story of renewal and growth. But you also need to explain how you’re going to do it. In the struggle between romance and engineering, the winner should be whichever speaks more to the doubtful. I’m pretty sure people already know we’d like to do amazingly cool stuff, so I’d rather focus on the teeth-suckers, even if that means not telling them why I’m so motivated and passionate.

Ultimately, having a sense of mission is an internal quality. It is not something that needs to be talked about, but something that needs to be delivered.

So I favour a driving sense of mission that keeps its damn mouth shut, and gets on with the mission instead.

Very little is more irritating than someone who you hire to fix a problem who goes on and on about why they’re so great for wanting to fix the problem, and how important it is to fix the problem, and why they’re obsessed by the problem, but neglects to tell you how the bloody problem is going to be fixed.

Please, have all the sense of mission you like, but let’s not be that guy, ever.




A quiet burial: Labour’s ‘40% strategy’ a year on


Almost a year ago, my good friend Marcus Roberts wrote a pamphlet called ‘Labour’s next majority’.

In it, Marcus set out how Labour could win an election with 40% of the vote,  without appealing to a large swathe of 2010 Tory voters.  His analysis – that a coalition of existing Labour voters, former LibDems, former non-voters and young voters could get Labour to the victory line was rightly greeted by extremely favourable reviews, as a provocative and thoughtful piece of work that suggested a different path to victory for the British centre left. One review dubbed it ‘Labour’s Emerging majority’

Somewhat cruelly, the publication of the report occurred at almost the precise moment the Labour party fell beneath 40% in the polls for the first time for four years.  Yet the political argument that lay behind Marcus’s paper was as significant as the psephological one.

Because ‘Labour’s next majority’  importance was that it represented an electoral guide to a political idea. By setting out a path to power that did not rely on converting Tory voters, Labour strategists had freed themselves from the need to change minds about the Labour party. Instead, the voters were there, already fundamentally sympathetic to the Labour party position. The challenge  was to motivate them, to get them to the polls.

Underneath this thinking lay an older, more battle-scarred concept – the progressive consensus, which held that a fracturing on the left was truly responsible for the Thatcherite ascendency of the Eighties.  Many in the Labour party, witnessing the collapse of the LibDems, post coalition, saw an exciting chance to, finally make that progressive consensus real.

So it’s no coincidence that the policies Labour has announced over the last year, and which we focus on today, are ‘motivational’ policies, rather than ‘conversion’ policies. If you already feel fundamentally sympathetic to the Labour party, but are not sure what it will do for you, then policies like an energy freeze, action the cost of living, more home building, NHS protection are designed to encourage you to the polls. They are, if you like, a ‘strong retail offer’.

If however, you are sceptical to the party for other reasons, for example because you believe that we would risk the economy, or increase taxes, or not close the deficit, or simply because you think the party itself is ineffective compared to the others, these same policies will be unlikely to change your mind, even if you like them. Indeed, how could they?

Labour’s approach has been an attempt to motivate, rather than convert voters, in large part because of an analysis that held that such conversion was not needed. The Coalition, the progressive consensus reborn, already existed. What was needes was to drag it to the polls.

Unfortunately, the recent European and Local election suggest there is a problem with the theory in practice.

Despite all the attempts to motivate the vote, the community organising, the grassroots mobilisation, the policy agenda, and so on, the army of eager Labour voters the strategy relied on simply did not arrive at the voting booths in any great numbers. In the polls, Labour has not scored 40% or more for almost three months now.

Now it’s very tempting for me to say I told you so. Because I did.  A few times.

Indeed, I remember discussing alternative numbers with Marcus that are not unlike the 32% he projects in his latest article. The problem with the 40% strategy was threefold.

First, it relied on outstanding turnout from traditionally low turnout groups, which was always going to be a demanding target.

Consider this: If Labour’s margin of victory in the 40% strategy relies on non and young voters, what does it suggest that when given the chance to kick the government and signal their desire for change, Labour could not reach 35% of the vote? Does this make you feel confident there is likely to be a swell of motivated new voters next year?

Second, by focussing only constructing an electoral coalition needed to win, building block by building block, it neglected the possibility these ‘blocks’ would seep and fracture.

Labour was, and is, going to secure a large number of 2010 LibDems at the next election. But the difference between getting a third of them and a fifth of them is enormous. In assuming that all these voters were ‘in the bag’ and simply needed to be motivated, Labour may have neglected to observe that some of these voters had significant doubt about us, that could be exploited.

Finally, of course, by focussing on a relatively narrow political coalition, you leave yourself very vulnerable to the unexpected loss of a proportion of that support, and indeed Labour found that an opponent was both converting  voters. UKIP may not have made the progress it desired, but it certainly converted some former Labour supporters, in large part by focusing on two issues, immigration and Europe.

As a result, post the elections, a re-assessment  has been taking place. Both Marcus Roberts in ‘Without change, Labour is choosing to lose’ and Jeremy Cliffe with ‘The new Working Class‘ have written up their revised takes.  They are both  thoughtful articles, with interesting and insightful glimpses of the new demography of Britain.

However, they both represent another attempt to motivate a coalition electoral bloc by electoral bloc, rather than to change minds and perceptions voters by voter. Let me put it bluntly. Electorally, we should stop thinking of ‘the working class vote’. (Whether new, old or in between).

Instead, consider individual members of the working class, with different interests, views, barriers and motivations, many of which are similar to those of other voters. From 1979  until 1997, the Conservative party regularly scored 30% of voters in Social group DE. Those voters were not repelled by Thatcherism, and Labour’s then powerfully pro Working class message did not appeal to them.

Further, amongst voters in social group C2, the Tories scored 40% in every election from 1979 to 1992. The idea that the working class is uniform, or shifts in ways that can be easily separated from the electorate as a whole is for the birds.

Show me a party that has significantly increased their appeal to DE voters, and I’ll show you a party that has increased their appeal to ABC1 voters.

The problem for Labour is fundamentally not that we have insufficient electoral blocs to construct a majority from, and we need to add more to, but rather that there are too many people in all electoral blocs who see the party as ineffective, unlikely to make positive changes, incompetent, or irresponsible.

These perceptions are not true, naturally, but to try to construct a victory without changing minds on these topics, at best reliant on a perception of greater incompetence, irresponsibility and ineffectiveness elsewhere, and at worst doomed to failure.

If Labour’s bright strategists want to win next year, they should stop worrying about how to build coalitions block by block, and start thinking about changing minds voter by voter.