On Populism And Core Votes

Before I start, a brief apology for not being around much the last few days. I’ve been wrangling home studio software to get some music done for Plok (very soon! I PROMISE!) and also getting some work done on the novel.

But let’s talk about politics for a bit, and in particular about populism and core votes, and how they relate to the Lib Dems.

There’s a recurring pattern that happens on Lib Dem Voice, the major Lib Dem blog. Every few weeks someone says something like “wouldn’t it be a good idea if we did this liberal thing?” — and suggests basic income, or liberalising immigration, or drug decriminalisation, or poly marriage, or something like that.

And every time — every single time — you get a load of comments from people saying “but that thing isn’t popular with the voters. You never hear about it on the doorstep. This poll shows that seventy percent of the public disagree”

The problem with *that* argument is that there are thirty percent of the public who *don’t* disagree, and they have no parties at all taking their side.

We’re doing surprisingly well in local by-elections, as I pointed out the other day. In fact, the graphic there needs updating now — here’s the version as of today:

graphic from political betting showing massive gains for the Lib Dems, tiny gains for the Greens, and losses for everyone else

That’s in large part because we have taken a principled, liberal, stance on the issue of Europe, even though that stance is mildly unpopular in the country at large. However, those gains are not, yet, showing up in the general election polls, where we’re currently languishing at about six percent.

Now here’s the thing. The arguments always say “seventy percent of the public (or whatever the number) disagree with this”. That means there’s *thirty* percent who agree (or at least don’t care). You’ll notice that number thirty is bigger than the other number six.

Given that we’re currently on six percent in the polls, and have got to that low by triangulating and chasing the majority, perhaps rather than worry about trying to take votes from a group of people who are already being catered to by every other party we should try for more of that thirty percent who aren’t being catered to at all.

As an analogy, Apple are the biggest phone manufacturer by a long way. They only have 17.7% of the market. But they have 100% of the iOS market, with dozens of companies competing for a bit of the Android share. If we were vocally pro-immigration, say, we’d have 100% of the pro-immigration vote share (not really because it’s not the only issue people care about — but that also cuts both ways, and we would have at least some anti-immigrant voters who cared more about our other policies) — and might also be able to grow that share by speaking up for it.

This is really just basic sensible strategy. Saying “only five times as many people say they like that policy as say they will vote for us, therefore we shouldn’t go for such an unpopular policy” is just nonsense. It’s *absurd*, in fact.

It makes no sense at all to avoid “unpopular” policies when you’re an unpopular party. What makes sense is to choose at least some policies that are liked by a significant minority who are not catered to by the other parties. Ideally, you should choose policies that go together well, so that there’s as much overlap as possible between the people who like those policies. If there’s, say, twenty percent of the population who would really like a basic income *and* drug decriminalisation *and* land value tax *and* lower barriers for immigration — well, that twenty percent becomes your core vote. If you’re chasing that particular group, then adding one of those “unpopular” policies makes them *more* likely to vote for you, not less.

That’s not even to mention the single biggest point, which is that there’s no point at all in even trying to get into power if it’s not to achieve stuff that other parties wouldn’t do.

Now, there is a time when you compromise your principles, and different people have different points where that’s the case. I can see an argument *when you’re looking to build a broad enough group of voters to get a majority government* for caring about what “the majority” want. If you’re at twenty-eight percent in the polls, and you can get to thirty and a Parliamentary majority by dropping a policy that seventy-five percent of people hate, then I can see doing that. You should water down your policies no more than is necessary to get that majority, mind, but that’s something that’s worth considering.

But, again, the Lib Dems aren’t in that position, and even with the greatest optimism in the world won’t be for *at least* two election cycles. At this point it makes sense electorally *as well as* on principle to actually stand up for policies as distinctive and liberal as possible.

Caring about “what the majority want” makes sense when you’re doing well in the polls and trying to capture a few extra key marginals. In our case, what the majority want is not the Lib Dems. We can either listen to them and just give up, or we can try to build a core vote among those who are *not* the majority.

I fear that the triangulating centrists who think that the point of politics is to do exactly what the public says it wants, and never to argue a point or to challenge the majority when it’s wrong, would rather we did the former than the latter. And even if they wouldn’t, I fear that if the party listens to their shrieking about electability, they’ll shrink the party so much that the six percent in the polls looks like a glorious golden age, and no-one will even notice when the party finally disappears altogether, because by then it will have no distinctive policies and give no-one any reason to care.

I don’t think we’re going to go that way — I think there are enough good, genuine, liberals out there that the party will grow back to its former strength, or even greater.

But we’ll only do that if people argue against policies based on the policies, not based on the polls.

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4 Responses to On Populism And Core Votes

  1. Iain Coleman says:

    I think it would be a fine and excellent thing if this post were to appear on Lib Dem Voice.

  2. Mike Taylor says:

    I wonder what proportion of all Andrew’s posts begin with an apology for not posting more? :-)

    … we’re currently on six percent in the polls, and have got to that low by triangulating and chasing the majority.

    Really, I don’t think that’s true. Ninety percent of the reason for the LDs’ catastophic collapse in the last election is down to the perceived betrayal over tuition fees. Now I am not here arguing that it was a betrayal — I know the arguments both ways — but that it was perceived that way. It absolutely dominated poeple’s perceptions of the LDs in the run-up to polling. Every single time Clegg made a substantive point in debate with the Tories (or even Labour), all his opponent had to do was say “But you reneged on tuition fees” and the discussion was over.

    I don’t know what lesson can be learned from this. I’d hate to think it’s “Do what voters feel is right, not what you think is right”, but it’s hard to see how to avoid that conclusion.

  3. Nick says:

    If you haven’t already read it, you might find Drew Westen’s The Political Brain interesting, as he makes a similar point when analysing the Democrats in the US. Because they’ve been afraid of offending anyone, and pitching for the 100%, they end up with watered down policies that don’t generate enthusiasm amongst their own supporters. Meanwhile, the right are arguing with strongly emotional policies that don’t appeal to all, but do strongly motivate their core vote and get them out.

    We shouldn’t be afraid to offend people with our policies, because that normally means we’re also enthusing other people. I’ve seen people arguing we should tone down our pro-EU stance because we have some voters (and a handful of members) who voted Leave. By actually standing up for something, we’re now getting a new wave of active support (18,000 new members since the referendum and 3,000 new ones today) in the same way we did when we were vocally against the Iraq War. The more we offend people, the more likely we are to get back to a position where how we compromise for power is likely to become a problem…

  4. Richard Gadsden says:

    I do worry that people don’t quite get why triangulation was called that. It was invented by a group called the “Democratic Leadership Coalition” (DLC) in the US in the late 1980s, and was first implemented in an election by Bill Clinton in 1992.

    The core idea is that there is a triangle – the left-wing core vote for the Democrats, the centrists that the Democrats are trying to persuade across and the leadership trying to balance on top of both. Triangulation was about edging far enough right to win over enough centrist voters without your base giving up.

    What Blair and Clinton discovered in the 1990s and early 2000s was that, under FPTP, you could travel a long way right because your core vote had nowhere else to go. Meanwhile the moderate left parties in the rest of Europe tried the same strategy and found they were being eaten up by parties to their left – Syriza in Greece and the destruction of Pasok being just the most obvious example, but the German SPD, the Dutch PvDA and the Spanish PSOE are all examples of this phenomenon.

    Parties of the right have mostly balanced better – look at Merkel in Germany or Cameron in 2010, but even there AfD and UKIP have created enough threat to hurt the German right, and to force the British right to swing away from the centre again.

    But, for the Lib Dems, there isn’t anyone who has nowhere else to go, except for a handful of tactical voters (mostly in the SW) and the committed self-identifying liberals who are mostly members. So when we try to triangulate – and that’s exactly what the tuition fees thing was – we undermine the very reason we get any votes in the first place.

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