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How To Win and Lose Elections

By Peter Martin

At the risk of being accused of being a little presumptuous, I’ve never won or lost an election.

I thought I’d deviate from my usual economic commentary and have a try at explaining why Labour did so badly in the recent UK elections and what needs to happen for them to do better in future. There are are an awful lot of disappointed Labour supporters around, who might be looking for some answers to why an expected Labour small win suddenly turned into quite a large win for the Conservatives. There’s probably many Liberal Democrat supporters feeling somewhat depressed too, but they don’t need any similar explanation!

Something went obviously very wrong for Labour on polling day. Either those potential Labour voters who had indicated to the pollsters they would be voting Labour did not show up on the day, or they changed their minds at the last moment and voted for someone else. The pollsters sampling methods cannot be fundamentally wrong, otherwise their exit poll would not have been as close to the actual result as it was.

The Labour Party had enough potential votes to win, albeit with some support from the SNP, but not enough real or actual votes on the day.

So what went wrong?

We need to start with the fundamentals. The Labour Party has a core set of socialist supporters. It can never win an election with just those supporters though. There just aren’t enough of them. It needs to appeal to enough of another group, the uncommitted voters to get the numbers.

There is also another group of voters who are hostile and are never likely to be won over no matter what policies are on offer. They may as well be ignored. The temptation for any political party is to take its core support for granted and try to appeal to the undecideds or even the hostiles.

I would expect the Labour Party has spent a lot of money over the years with various marketing and PR companies to set up focus groups to find out what policies might be popular with those groups and so tailor Labour policies to suit.

That’s a big mistake. Anyone who needs a focus group to tell them their politics shouldn’t be in politics. In any case, votes are often not cast totally for the reasons the voter might care to explain to others. Another mistake is to reason along the lines that because they’ve lost the election to a party offering more right leaning policies previously, that they also needed to do the same to win.

That’s not a sensible approach. Why would anyone want to vote for a supposedly socialist party offering conservative policies?

Why wouldn’t they vote for the real thing? Parties have to be true to their principles. If they don’t, they risk losing their core supporters. In Labour’s case, to UKIP, the SNP and the Greens, and by appearing disingenuous to the uncommitted. Uncommitted voters will vote for politicians they can trust, even if they do not in totally agree with their party’s policies or at least, distrust little enough for to make them actually turn out on the day.

If a party or individual politician appears disingenuous they won’t get those votes even if the policies on offer are carefully tailored to match.

There’s no chance of picking up much support from Tory voters even with Tory policies.

They are the hostile voters.

Trust has to work both ways too. Labour has lost support to UKIP who have established themselves in second position in many of the Northern English constituencies. It was a big mistake to assume that the rise of UKIP was a good thing for Labour and that it would take more votes from the Conservatives than them. The full picture is not yet known but it would be a surprise if the reason for Ed Balls losing his seat in Leeds, for example, does not turn out to be that he lost more votes to UKIP than to his Conservative opponent. That could have been so easily avoided if the party had said that whilst it supported the UK’s membership of the EU, it recognised that the electorate needed to have their direct say now.

They needed to offer a clear-the-air referendum, and not just before more powers were already ceded. There have been more than enough democratically elected governments that can do pretty much what they choose except give away that democracy. There comes a time if too many powers are ceded that a change of elected government is not enough.

The Greeks have just discovered that the hard way.

The Labour Party also needs to remember its own name and the meaning of its own name.

The party is meant to be the party of working people.

But do working people now view Labour as their party? They don’t see Labour people like themselves in any positions of influence, or hear accents like their own, not in England at least. They see Labour standing up for the racially oppressed, the sexually oppressed, the gender oppressed, those oppressed, or disadvantaged, because of physical and mental handicaps, but if they themselves are not in any of those categories, or don’t see themselves as fitting into those categories, they wonder why the party has forgotten about them.

What about those who are oppressed simply because they don’t have any work or they don’t have anything better than a zero hours contract or they can’t find a home?

Those workers may not have heard of Keynes, or any of the post Keynesian thinkers, who can well explain why austerity economics doesn’t work, but they just know instinctively, and from their own personal experience that it doesn’t work for them.

It also applies to everyone who has an unemployed son or daughter who may be well qualified academically but is unable to find a job to match those qualifications. As the SNP has demonstrated, an anti- austerity message is not at all incompatible with electoral success. Messages and slogans have to be simple and understandable. The slogan “One Nation” may be simple but it isn’t at all understandable.

What does it mean? That we all live in one country?

Well, so what?

People don’t discuss politics in those terms. The Scots may have other ideas on that anyway. We don’t all have the same problems, that’s for sure! So there’s a disconnect there between the so-called metropolitan elites and ordinary voters.

There have always been metropolitan elites. They are nothing new. The term has crept into use simply because of that growing disconnect.

Nor should the role of emotion in Labour politics should not be overlooked.

Rational arguments will only get any politician so far.

Labour victories used been memorable for the feelings they generated as much as anything else. They generated an optimism for the future.

I’m not sure Conservatives can say the same thing about their successes.

Let’s get something of that back for future elections and start to win them on our terms.

Peter Martin is a regular contributor to AIMN and blogs on his own site; Modern Monetary Theory: Real Economics


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  1. paul walter

    Sadly depressingy correct analysis and one that the ALP will surely ignore as it has ignored every other warning as to neoliberalism this century.

    One other factor to consider might be the manufacture of consent and fear campaigns of Murdoch style press and media, and the susceptibility of the public to the whispers of the devil.

    To listen to some poms, you’d think the Tartan Terror was about to descend on them like William Wallace.

  2. Terry2

    Watch out for clever campaigning in 2016:

    From Murdoch and the LNP : “It’s too close to call and a hung parliament will end in chaos”

  3. David

    Peter, interesting you didn’t mention the hostile Murdoch media and friends, presume you don’t discount that influence on the result?

  4. eli nes

    There must be a reason to change government. The rabbott showed the reason doesn’t have to be real or even based on any evidence. A simple lie will do, as long as it is believable and repeated over and over, without challenge.
    Arguably, unlike gillard, cameron did nothing worthwhile in government but won, why?
    I think because he made sure the electorate thought Miliband was a risk and Miliband couldn’t get close to cameron for a comparison and didn’t, as you say, Peter, hit the media showing the risk was another term for the conservatives economically, socially and nationally.

  5. juliefarthing

    This could well be a story about Australia, and I fear that the next election will support this if our Labor party does not wake up. Or maybe it does not want to?

  6. Wayne Turner

    Democracy doesn’t and NEVER works.The majority are too ignorant for that – From those that don’t care,to those that just blindly follow the MSM of the day,and those that claim to vote in self interest,but are too ignorant to know what that is.Our failed democracy has produced a LYING IDIOT like Abbott,who would NEVER have been elected if we had a majority public that was informed.ANYONE that vote for Abbott and these Libs at the next federal election NEVER AGAIN have the right to complain about pollies that LIE,cause that’s exactly what Abbott and these Libs did to get in,in the first place,aided by their MSM mates.

  7. David

    Wayne, its obvious with Abbotts majority it wasn’t just the LNP faithful who voted for the evil cretin, however get someone to admit it? I haven’t been able to. Instead its…’oh what a terrible thing that was done to Julia’ or I’m a Catholic he has never spoken for me et bloody cetera. This compulsive lying is another evil he has encouraged.

  8. Jexpat

    The pollsters sampling methods cannot be fundamentally wrong, otherwise their exit poll would not have been as close to the actual result as it was.

    Exit polls necessarily involve very different sampling methods than pre-election polls, and that’s the case for both cheap media polls -and for more extensive, expensive and objective (i.e. non-agenda driven) academic style research.

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