Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Saturday, 23 May 2015

Do politicians need to pander to myths?

About UK politics, but raising some general issues about politicians and popular prejudices

Paul Bernal has a powerful post (HT Chris Dillow) where he says Labour lost the election long before 2015, by pandering towards three big myths: the myth that Labour created a huge deficit which required austerity in the midst of a recession, the myth of the ‘scrounger’, and the myth that Labour made a mistake in allowing excessive immigration. I obviously agree about deficits, I’m appalled at the hostility to welfare recipients stoked by the right wing tabloids and the harm done by inept reform, and I’m dismayed that politicians shy away from putting the positive case for immigration. For that reason I should agree that in England at least one of the three major parties should be standing up against all these myths. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats helped manufacture the first myth, and the Conservatives contributed to the second and pander to the third (although some of their supporters would not favour costly immigration controls). Labour failed to combat all three.

The media have, predictably, reached a consensus about why Labour lost: it was too left wing, it was anti-business, it failed to be aspirational (it wanted to raise some taxes on the rich) blah blah blah. But as Peter Kellner and others have pointed out, there is no clear evidence for these assertions. Instead, they just happen to represent the things that much of the media dislike about Labour’s policies. Watching at least some of Labour’s potential future leaders, who the media as a whole describe as ‘modernisers’, fall in line with the media’s diagnosis makes the Parliamentary Labour Party look pathetic. Perhaps it is?

And yet, Peter Kellner also points out that being tough on scroungers and immigration is very popular. And these issues mattered for many voters. In a tweet about Bernal’s post, I asked was it better to lose telling the truth than lose being complicit in a lie? But it would be better still if a political party could tell the truth and win! Yet that seems a hopeless task. Jonathan Portes has championed the evidence on immigration, but as the BBC’s Nick Robinson put it, he would not get elected in any constituency as a result.

It is tempting at this point to blame the media for this state of affairs. In one sense I agree: I think newspapers should have a responsibility to tell the truth, rather than pander to prejudice when it suits their owners to do so. But in terms of practical politics this does not get you very far. One of the depressing conclusions that will be drawn from the election result is that it is fatal to stand up to Rupert Murdoch. [1]

Is it also true that cutting the deficit is widely popular? Here I think the evidence is less clear. I agree with John McDermott that perceived competence is vitally important, and not only in relation to self-interest. That is why Labour made a strategic mistake in not challenging with more force the coalition’s blatant myth making on the deficit issue. As Jonathan Hopkin and Mark Blyth point out, it is incredible how the blame for our current problems has so easily been transferred from the finance sector to fiscal profligacy, and not just in the UK. (But not so incredible if you follow the money, and take media power seriously.) 

Perhaps I can also make a very personal point here. As one of only a few academics who have written an academic paper on the Labour government’s fiscal record, which concluded that Labour profligacy was a myth, you might have expected Labour at some stage to have used some of the many words I have written on this to support their case. As far as I know they did not. Perhaps they were put off by some of the my criticism of other aspects of Labour’s programme. But this didn’t put off Alex Salmond, who was happy to quote my support of the SNP’s line on austerity, suggesting it had all the more force because I was not an SNP supporter.

Talking of which, I think there is one more piece of received wisdom that needs exposing, and that is Scottish exceptionalism. As I hinted at the beginning, there was one major UK party that did campaign against austerity, was pro-immigration and supportive of welfare. No doubt other factors also led to the huge success of the Scottish national party, but their position on these three issues didn’t seem to do them any harm, and in some cases probably helped a lot. This example suggests the answer to the question posed in the title is a clear no. 

It is generally presumed by the media, both sides of the border, that this is all because Scots are inherently more left wing than the English. But the evidence suggests differences in social attitudes between Scotland and England is not that great. The question Labour (or at least somebody) should be asking is why the SNP can avoid pandering to these three myths and win decisively, when the consensus is that doing the same in England would be electoral suicide.   

[1] Some people who comment on this blog say that when I voice concerns like this I’m being a bit passé, but on other occasions I’m accused of being anti-democratic! Somehow a politician choosing to delegate macro policy to experts reduces democracy, but allowing rich media barons to control the information that much of the electorate receives, and as a result have a considerable influence on politicians, is just fine.


24 comments:

  1. It is the Conservative’s representation of all welfare recipients as being scroungers that was and is damaging and should have been countered. Why didn’t Labour link the Tories taking money off the poor and handicapped with tax breaks for foreign fat cat non-doms?

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  2. Some of it was bad timing. In the USA, Obama was not responsible during the Lehman Brothers crash. Gordon Brown was. That was Labour's burden and it would have taken a forceful approach to counter this fact. The shift of the blame from private recklessness to public profligacy is the great con of this crisis. Now there is something we can all really blame Greece for. The political strategy should have been to explain why Greece was a unique case, which probably would have led to some provocative, populist attacks on the Greek population. That would have been the price Labour would have had to pay.

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  3. Simon, in the case of SNP, the volume of immigration into Scotland is tiny so being 'pro-immigration' was a risk-free option. And in this era of collapsing North Sea oil revenues, welfare spending in Scotland is heavily subsidised by English taxpayers. So another example where the SNP could sound cuddly knowing that someone else would bear the consequences.

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    1. But attitudes against immigration are generally stronger where there is very little. On welfare, I think the issue is fairness (why should people be paid to do nothing ...), not so much who pays, so again I'm not sure your point is relevant.

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    2. "On welfare, I think the issue is fairness (why should people be paid to do nothing ...)"

      On this topic, I have repeatedly noticed that people who most forcefully opposed ideas such as a living wage on precisely this kind of arguments (often personalising it even more: "I don't want to give money to someone who did not work for it" - as if it was your money in the first place...) tend to just as vigorously oppose very high, or even full, inheritance taxation. Odd that.

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    3. Or people who will on one hand ridicule even the concept of full employment as a policy goal and in the next breath demonise the unemployed for being workshy,

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  4. When the Labour leadership candidates gather, all should be banned from using the words 'aspirational', 'aspirational class', 'middle England', 'centre-ground', and (less necessary, perhaps) 'socialism'.

    And if any are to say they were 'too anti'business', they should be honest what that really means, which is back to trying to get into bed with Murdoch at a time when being pro-business sounds a lot like treating liquidationism as appropriate economic policy in 2008.

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  5. http://www.3spoken.co.uk/2014/06/how-immigration-affects-uk-economy.html?m=1

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  6. How To Work Out Why Labour Lost on Blue Thusday

    List all the policies/people you don't like in the Labour Party. Labour need less of these if it is to win again.

    List all the policies/people you do like in the Labour Party. Labour need more of these if it is to win again.

    WARNING!! Your list may be very different from my list.

    My own extensive research has traced the origins of the defeat on Blue Thursday to one Keir Hardie and some of his regrettable decisions in 1900.

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  7. Simon, I am generally very, very, very (is that enough verys?) sympathetic to your point of view expressed in this post. However...your analysis falls short for being both a bit blinkered but more importantly ahistorical.

    It is incorrect to imply that the path you recommended ex post (or perhaps not much ex ante) was not seriously considered by the Labour hierarchs at the appropriate times. And indeed, the recommendations are really so obvious for a center-left opposition it is now posed as a bit of a mystery as to why the straightforward path wasn't followed. Where the analysis goes off track is in forgetting one goes into an election with the electorate (and media) one has, and the first obligation of an opposition (or government) is to plot the course, four, three, at most two (?) years in advance, based upon the economic realities (in the instance) that one anticipates on election day will bring them victory. Recognizing path dependency is critical and the history cannot be well recounted otherwise.

    And were Labour's bets as to economic policy strategizing back in the relevant day incorrect? Perhaps. And perhaps not. They anticipated (quite rationally) that the 2015 battle would be fought, conventionally, in Labour/Tory marginals, where they would have to "pander" within measure to get elected.

    What was not (could not be?) anticipated by anyone immediately, say, post-Omnishambles, when economic strategy got locked in, is that in spring of 2015 Labour would both have lost their Scottish base but more importantly had to inoculate themselves against Tory accusations of selling out England.

    When the pollster navel-gazing, hand-wringing, and curiously-British apologia is all said and done, my guess is that the "Shy Tory" effect this time around will be seen to have been decisive, and centered on scaring the bejeezus out of English Oldies and near-Oldies - what had nothing to do with whether the Shadow Chancellor should have advocated for counter-cyclical fiscal policy outside of the capital account.

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    1. Losing the Scottish base was irrelevant; even if they had won all Scottish seats on offer Labour would still have lost by a large English margin.

      I suspect the reason why the polls got it so wrong was because, as I believe Simon wrote in a post somewhere, people didn't make their minds up until they were in the voting booth, or at the earliest the night before. Nothing so galvanises old Tory voters as thinking Labour are even with them. With no polls actually giving a true picture, the OAP Tories, sufficiently bribed with the Pensioner Bond giveaway, scared stiff of their memories of the ultra left wing 1970s SNP by Cameron, and fearing change more than losing their jobs (since they had none to lose) they made the effort and came out en masse.

      Just like the Rating Agencies that said everything was OK before their AAA tips imploded, the pollsters have a lot to answer for.

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    2. Anon. Your point seems to be that one reason Labour lost is that it could not, 2 years ago, have anticipated the Conservatives using the SNP's dominance of Scotland against them. That may well be right. But why does that make anything I wrote wrong, unless you want to suggest that Labour would have romped home without the Scotland effect. The evidence we have is that Labour were consistently losing on economic competence, when the facts suggested that they should be winning. So something was wrong.

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    3. Further data coming out suggests that there were no "Shy Tories" - rather the youth vote collapsed compared to 2010. So lots of (presumably) previous LibDem voters who said they would vote Labour actually didn't turnout...

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    4. Yes the likes of 'Red wedge' and Spitting Image have been cleansed from youth culture. Simon Cowell and his minions have seen that possibility off. The thoroughness and long-term planning of the Conservative media campaign have Media Corp written all over them. Andy Coulson, may no longer be media advisor to No. 10 , but I guess the plans made and lines of communication established are what made Conservative policy so effective. Poor, Labour and Liberal parties just do not have those tools at their disposal.
      ShaunT

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    5. "Where the analysis goes off track is in forgetting one goes into an election with the electorate (and media) one has"

      That is making the (very strong) assumption that one of the two main political parties has absolutely no effect on the electorate and media.
      Right-wingers took the opposite view in the late 60s / early 70s, reckoning they would never really win an election without radically changing the discourse. And thus they engaged in a long-term plan to change the narrative.

      Yes, in order to do that they lied every step of the way - but boy did they not triangulate!
      Labour's task is the opposite, which means they have truth on their side. Not making much noise about it seems a very strange strategy, especially if the goal is to actually get your policies implemented (as opposed to sometime holding office whilst merely mitigating Tory policies).

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  8. The average voter may not be much more left-wing, but perhaps the Scottish press is much less right-wing than the English press. This doesn't require a sociological explanation: like the prince-electors of the Holy Roman Empire, the media barons are so few in number and resistant to market forces that their individual views could be more or less an accident of history, rather than a reflection of deeper social forces.

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  9. "I’m appalled at the hostility to welfare recipients stoked by the right wing tabloids"
    You shouldn't be. People are naturally resentful. The correct approach is the Job Alternative Guarantee. Jobs not welfare.

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    1. You are forgetting that welfare is made up of more than job seekers allowance with the majority being spent on pensions. Are you suggesting pensioners should get a job instead of the government handouts they have worked towards? Because that would actually increase youth unemployment.

      I understand being resentful at people abusing the system but this is a small minority which will unfortunately incur no matter what government is in charge.

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    2. No I mean we should literally give the poor jobs. Job alternative offer at the living wage for everyone to eliminate shire jobs and unemployment:
      http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Job_guarantee

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    3. *shite* jobs.
      In terms of pensioners, I would just leave it as it is.

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    4. Random, I read a few USA discussion boards and I've noticed that to enter into a debate based on logical argument is a duty of a citizen in a democratic country, it's usually a complete a waste of time, once someone has watched too many episodes of Fox made news stories.
      ShaunT

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  10. I think we should note that Labour's increase in their share of the national vote was actually bigger than the Conservative's increase. This, and the SNP victory, supports much other evidence that the electorate is not as right-wing as our media is now trying to portray as the reason for Labour's defeat. But the problem with Labour pandering to myths, to gut prejudice and vested interest, even if it were necessary to win an election, is that it also defines the policy domain, so that a win risks swapping one party's pandering set of policies for another- though there can be different shades of that. It also reinforces the belief that the issues are as portrayed by our media, this only makes it harder in the longer-run for actual evidence to influence voters. The electorate are conned but they do not like to think they are being conned, I certainly find that when serious people are confronted with the weight of evidence they are shocked at how misleading most of the manstream media is. They do begin to realise just how much they are manipulated by vested interest. So perhaps by sticking much more aggressively to the truth there is a chance that a realisation and resentment at their manipulation will grow and create a backlash. Maybe social media can be a growing counter to the waning power of the press? And at the end of the day, I don't see how acquiescing the narrative of the left to the myths of the right will lead to changes worth having any way. It is possible to be too clever by half, spin doctors make their living by selling the power of spin, but it could turn out that honesty is the best policy after all?

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  11. Simon suggests the facts were on Labour's side when it came to economic competence. Where to begin with this? Labour lost their reputation for competence after the crash. It may have been pure luck for the Tories that they weren't in power at the time but this is how it always happens with governments. Simon also bemoans Labour being attacked for their profligacy when he himself has said that fiscal policy was too loose after 2005. As soon as Miliband became leader he should have fessed up on fiscal policy post 2005 and more importantly given a thorough analysis of what went wrong in the financial sector.

    Simon is too rose tinted about Labour. In The State We're In (1995) Will Hutton bemoaned the gentlemanly capitalists of the City who were bad for UK plc. In his latest work he blasts Alastair Darling as being a GC and I think you could probably say the same about Mandelson and Balls. As for Blair and Brown they were (and I suspect remain) massive egotists who never showed much interest in serious economic reform. This was summed up for me by two things. Firstly how one of the five economic tests (remember those?) was whether the Euro membership would be beneficial to the City. Perhaps I'm just a bitter provincial type from the Sterling Zone periphery but I don't believe any other sector of the economy was given such prominence. Secondly Brown went to the City in 2007, days before becoming PM and lauded them for their remarkable achievements under his light touch regulatory environment.

    I despise the Tories as much as anyone, but firstly blind Tory hatred blinds one to the opposition's weaknesses as well and I'm afraid whilst there's plenty of antipathy to the new 'Etonians' most of the public don't hate them.

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  12. http://www.3spoken.co.uk/2014/06/how-immigration-affects-uk-economy.html?m=0
    Labour *did* make a mistake on immigration.

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