Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Tuesday 27 June 2017

When capturing the middle ground works or fails

In 2015 Labour went for austerity-lite compared to Osborne’s full on austerity. It failed. Yet in 2017 Labour went for Brexit-lite, and it worked. Why does capturing the middle ground (often called triangulation) sometimes work and sometimes fail?

The theory behind why it should work is straightforward. Suppose you can grade an issue from 1 to 10, and we have a two party system: you can vote Labour or Conservative. In the case of Brexit, 1 would be staying in the EU and joining the Euro, and 10 would be No Deal. Now suppose voters are evenly distributed along this spectrum of possibilities: 10% want No Deal (10), 10% want a deal where we leave with minimal trade deals with the EU (9) and so on. An even distribution means 50% of the population want options between 1 and 5, and 50% want options between 6 and 10. Suppose the Conservatives go for option 8, which in this case is a fairly hard Brexit. Suppose Labour actually believe in option 3. What option should they campaign for in an election?

If all voters are well informed and are certain to vote, and there are no third parties, the answer is to go for the middle ground. If they campaigned for 3, they would capture only 50% of voters (those who prefer options 1 to 5), and the Conservatives would win those preferring 6 to 10. But if they campaigned for option 7, they would capture 70% of the vote. Indeed those voters who understood triangulation might have reasoned that although Labour were campaigning for 7, they were only doing that to appease some of their traditional core voters, and if elected they would actually go for a more EU friendly option.

You could read Labour’s position on Brexit in GE2017 as being very close to the Conservatives. But the language that stressed the importance of the economy allowed those who prefered options 1 to 7 to think Labour would be better than the Conservatives. Labour did indeed appear to go for something like option 7 in GE2017, and it seems to have worked: the swing to Labour was higher in areas that voted to Remain (their did not alienate voters who wanted options 2 or 3), but they captured some Leave voters as well. Whether that Labour positioning was based on triangulation or did actually reflect the leadership's true beliefs I honestly do not know.

Compare this to the 2015 election and austerity, where option 1 is wanting fiscal stimulus and more public investment because interest rates were stuck close to their lower bound, and 10 was an even sharper austerity than George Osborne was proposing. Instead he proposed option 8, and Labour went for something more moderate: on paper maybe 6, but they kept quiet about the difference so maybe in practice 7. Labour’s positioning is generally thought to have failed. Not only did they lose the election, but afterwards an ‘outsider’ became party leader on a platform that was clearly anti-austerity.

So why did triangulation work with Brexit in 2017 but fail with austerity in 2015? There are many ways of changing this very simple model to resolve this puzzle. My current favourite is as follows. What is missing from the linear scale of options outlined above is any account of the framework by which voters judge competence, and the option of not voting. In 2015 the dominant narrative was the one set out by the Conservatives: austerity was required because they were clearing up the mess left by Labour. By positioning themselves as austerity-lite Labour in effect did nothing to challenge that narrative. This had two consequences. First, those who took a strong anti-austerity line might have been tempted not to vote. Second, those in the middle did not go with Labour because Labour’s competence was questionable: they had caused the deficit problem in the first place.

So Labour’s positioning in 2015 to capture the middle ground failed. By not challenging the dominant narrative they appeared to accept their alleged past incompetence, and committed anti-austerity voters may have not turned up. In 2017 Labour openly challenged the austerity narrative. That meant they didn’t capture the middle ground, but they did not lose it either. (It should also be added that the middle ground on austerity has probably been shifting as the deficit itself falls.)

In 2017 with Brexit, there was no dominant narrative. As I have remarked before, the country is as divided as it was in the original vote. Labour had two options. It could oppose Brexit, and get the anti-Brexit vote. Or it could attempt to capture the middle ground by accepting Brexit but stressing that they would put the economy first. They, by preference or design, went with the second triangulation option and it seems to have worked.

Why were hard line Remainers not put off from voting Labour as anti-austerity voters may have been in 2015? In part I suspect because Brexit was not the only dominant issue. Labour campaigned on its anti-austerity manifesto, and for many Remain voters this was at least as important as Brexit. This meant that not voting was not an option. There may also have been the realisation that had Labour campaigned to Remain, this would have allowed the Conservatives to make the election a rerun of the Brexit vote, and the distribution of voters by constituency would mean the Conservatives would have won more seats even if the national vote had been evenly split. So in the case of Brexit, but not austerity, triangulation made sense.

Whether this is right or not I have no idea as I am very much an amateur on these issues. I only write about it here because I have not seen this comparison between the two elections made elsewhere. To the extent that Labour’s triangulation on Brexit was tactical, it means if (following May's failed election) the Conservatives move to a softer Brexit (from 8 to 7, say), it is important that Labour moves as well (from 7 to 6) to keep their Remain voters on side. 


  1. The Tories barely took a seat from Labour in those regions where a big majority voted Leave.

    The Labour Party also took 38% of FT readers compared to 39% voting Tory, and Labour also got 30% of Sun readers.

    This is David Runciman at the LRB,

    "Underneath the feeling that enough was enough lay a repudiation of austerity. Corbyn surfed that wave, but it was May who set it in motion. George Osborne, still busily fitting himself out for the role of her nemesis, always insisted that austerity was an all-or-nothing political strategy. It had to be upheld unbendingly because any compromise would bring the whole pack of cards tumbling down. May, by contrast, let it be known that she was willing to be more flexible in order to attract working-class Labour voters. That was a contest, it is now clear, she was never going to win. Having supplied the evidence that public-sector cuts were a matter of political choice rather than iron economic necessity, she had no good rationale for the cuts she was determined to make anyway. Her other problem was that Brexit helped put paid to the idea that the country was one false move away from economic disaster. Osborne has to take much of the blame for that. Once his threats of punishment budgets were exposed as hollow it was hard to believe anything was really out of bounds. The irony is that during the period Osborne’s austerity strategy worked politically there was more room for manoeuvre than he was letting on. Now it has been consigned to history, the risks of fiscal profligacy may be rising. But politics trumps economics."

  2. Clever stuff.

    This is a bit tangential but one thing I think academics, and many but not all politicians, seriously understate in these sorts of analyses is the mutability of the ideological axes/distributions that you describe.

    James Goldsmith's Referendum party of 1997 was a laughing stock. But within 20 years not only had there been a referendum, but Leave also won. 1997 would have had everyone distributed between 8 and 10 on your scale, whereas less than 20 years later, for reasons I think seriously underexplored, the electorate shifts drastically towards Nationalism, with an apparent majority below 5.5.

    The profound shift to the Right through the 1980s and 1990s - of the whole electorate, and both political parties - for example in terms of acceptance of privatisation, labour markets and inequality - is another case in point. Even die-hard Tories' eyes watered at some of the stuff which Thatcher got up to. Think of Harold Macmillan's reaction to the privatisation programme - unthinkable from the point of view of the Tory mainstream 10 years previous.

    Thatcher understood that the mindset of the people could be changed (for the worse in my opinion). Perhaps Jeremy Corbyn and Momentum also share the conviction that it may be possible to changes preferences (of course in the opposite direction), at least in the case of the traditional left-right axis.

    However, in the case of our relationship with the EU things look bleak. What is needed is some means of shifting the electorate's preferences (back) towards openness and the understanding and support of mutually beneficial integration with the EU (ideally, membership thereof).

    What would be needed to achieve this is a political movement, perhaps from the Labour party, but perhaps elsewhere, strongly making the Remain case, and succeeding in connecting with voter preferences. No doubt the media has a role...

    Unfortunately, in the case of our relationship with the EU, it doesn't seem like there is anyone at all making this case. Noone in frontline politics is speaking about the benefits of immigration, free trade, common defense policy and so on.

    I don't find much solace in your tentative prediction of a marginally softer Brexit. It seems to me that by taking voters' preferences as given you are making the same mistake of New Labour, that centrism/triangulation/'electability' are essential for electoral success. I don't think they are.

  3. What we're talking about here is electoral hot sauce.

    In the case of austerity, the public have spent years being told that they can tolerate the hot sauce, indeed they like it.
    If I'm in the market for hot sauce, I'm probably after (or willing to accept) the hottest sauce I can get.
    If I'm asked to pick between hot sauce or hottish sauce, I'll damn well have the hot one.
    (The fact that austerity hot sauce killed my children and gave me cancer is neither here nor there, because *everybody* was an austerity hot sauce horror denier)

    Until... until I come across Brexit hot sauce. This sauce is too hot. It burns on the way in, and golly does it burn on the way out. I cannot stand Brexit hot sauce- I know it's bad for me. If I am offered Brexit hot sauce I am not in the least bit interested. When somebody offers me a choice between brexit hot sauce and milder Brexit hot sauce, I'm always going to chose the milder option.

    So, when triangulating, politicians shouldn't be trying to sell their sauce as merely an option, as a different way of doing things. They need to sell their sauce as the only possible choice for anyone without a serious problem.

  4. I'm almost sure your basic insight is correct. Labour's policy on the economy (and on much else) in 2015 was basically "We're a bit nicer than the Tories". A bit nicer doesn't cut it: as you say, by promising to balance the budget Labour was essentially conceding the political argument on the economy to the Conservatives. This time, while Labour's position on Brexit was a turn-off to many Remain voters (I speak for myself here) this was alleviated by firstly the belief that if Brexit has to happen then Labour might do it better - less absolutist than the Tories - and secondly the fact that the local Labour MP (like at least 50 others) is on record as being opposed to Article 50 and Brexit as far as possible.

    Two issues arise from this. First, if economic triangulation was a disaster in 2015, why did it work for Labour in 1997 (when New Labour promised to adhere to Conservative spending targets for at least three years as I recall). Again, as you point out, the contexts were quite different. Labour accepting Austerity in 2015 not only validated the Conservative position but also implied (and the other side did not hesitate to point this out) accepting some responsibility for the situation leading to a perceived need for austerity. That did not apply in 1997 when even the most one sided elements of the press had difficulty in blaming the 74-79 government for the problems of the early 90s.

    The second issue is the Conservative insistence on the hardest of hard Brexits. This was a clear choice by May, presumably to put her past as a (weak) Remainer behind her and signal to the Right of the party that she was One Of Them. It has not been repeated enough that the principles set out by May in the October Party Conference - No membership of the Single Market or Customs Union, No weakening of national sovereignty on immigration and No role for the European Court - were certainly not Tory Brexit positions before the referendum and even UKIP hesitated to advocate strongly for them. Fortunately, the referendum was recent enough that a substantial number of Leave voters were both reassured by the official Labour position and unhappy with the 'Ultramontane' position adopted by the Conservatives.

    The next two years will be interesting, if only because it is clear that the current Prime Minister is one of the weakest politicians - in terms of mastery of the political arts - we have had for a very long time.

  5. 'Yet in 2017 Labour went for Brexit-lite, and it worked.' It didn't work. They have now lost 3 elections in 7 years.

  6. Hello Simon

    As a hardline Remainer (e.g. I want the Referendum result nullified and a public enquiry into the practices of Vote Leave/Leave.EU with the possibility of prison time for those involved), I can tell you why I voted Labour despite their current position.

    If you're interested in anecdote, of course.

    Basically, I voted Labour because they are likelier to shrink from the cliff edge of departure than the Conservatives (who act like a religious cult - mania from a handful of loud individuals, with the more rational in the party cowed and silent). I am hoping that events and the unfolding of time will show a fence-sitting Labour which side they need to be on.

    Corbyn and McDonnell have not been on the receiving end of public anger and protests to date - I don't think they will fare well when 2019's Glastonbury crowd turn against them.

  7. This is an interesting analysis of what does appear to be a bit of a puzzle. I think there are two much simpler explanations. With regards to Brexit, the CLP demographics (66% Brexit) meant a pro-remain position would have been electoral suicide. With regard to the austerity issue, which dominated and in my amateur opinion decided the 2015 election, Labour's position of austerity lite was taken because that is what the leadership believed was the best position for the country (falsely in my opinion). Furthermore, even if some of the leadership begged to differ, there was no general understanding then, in the media or the electorate, of what a credible alternative might look like, despite the valiant efforts of some economists, I hasten to add (this blog being dedicated to that purpose).

  8. The electoral sweet spot for Labour is to be fractionally more Remain-y than the Tories. Which is where they are. Great politics.

    Just disastrously wrong as a matter of principle.

  9. Labours position was quite clear, we campaigned to stay in Europe but lost the vote, when a politician wins by only 10 votes we don't say, oh well that's not good enough, we need a re-run until we get a bigger vote.

    So Labour said, as we are coming out we will seek to get the the best protection we can for all the worthwhile legislation that protects the interests of the people of this country.

    I really don't understand why pro Europeans can't see how transprent that position is, were coming out, and without trying to commit economic suicide or giving up on legislation that is beneficial to all of us.

    The Tories on the other hand want a secret deal that they can lay claim to any outcome as beneficial whether or not that is the case.

    In fact no matter what they say you just can't trust them, they have a record of saying one thing and doing exactly the opposite. They have nothing but contempt for the people of this country, and will do and say anything they can get away with.

    Perhaps that's why this Labour leadership has support, and the more people dig the more support Labour gets.

    The problem with people who want a second referendum or even better for them a government that ignores the reality of the vote, is that a lot of people see that as a dishonest position.

    There are massive problems in Europe and staying in for the sake of it has as many risks as coming out, no one position on Europe is risk free, but the certainty of coming out does provide a framework where honest debate can take place, unless of course a Conservative government is involved. If we can negotiate with Europe on the basis of not doing harm to each other I think it will be beneficial all round, as the Tories are in the Driving seat I believe they would steer us towards a WTO deal that will be disastrous, and they won't care because they are already SELLING THE GROUND FROM BENEATH OUR FEET TO THE HIGHEST BIDDERS.


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