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:
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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