I don’t think this
is understood by the leadership of the main opposition parties, along
with many others. The Conservatives are way ahead in the polls at the
moment, because the government had the right policy on vaccine
procurement and delivery. That will fade, but it could quickly be
replaced by an economic recovery bounce. The economy is likely to
grow rapidly both this year and next, so the recovery bounce could
last until 2023. As usual, much will be made of ‘record growth
rates’ and rather less to where we are in comparison to
pre-pandemic. For this reason, I suspect Johnson will call an
election well before he needs to (having repealed the FTPA). Their erroneous reputation for managing the economy will appear enhanced. The
Conservative election campaign will be slick, with vast amounts of
money spent on social media, and the electorate will be rigged by
insisting on ID. Johnson's victory will be assured.
Of course, as a
former Conservative PM is said
to have said, “events, dear boy, events”. For
example Johnson could rush on with ending his third lockdown even
though R becomes greater than one, and combined with not enough
people being vaccinated this leads to another wave of COVID cases, possibly involving virus variants that make some vaccines less effective. But even during the second wave, the severity of which was entirely
down to government ineptitude, Labour never
took a consistent lead in the polls.  For reasons including those
outlined in my last
post, everything has been stacked against the
opposition for some time.
Yet it is imperative
that this government is defeated as soon as possible. It is an
authoritarian government with immense power because of its solid
majority, and the longer it stays in power the more difficult it will
make the life of any opposition. So the only relevant question is
what can the opposition to this government do to maximise its chances
of winning before it becomes even harder to win.
The most obvious and
familiar example of how it can be done is the United States, and the
first lesson has to be for all of the opposition parties to cooperate
in fighting seats in the next election. What that has to mean is that
just one opposition party fields candidates in key marginals, as the
LibDems and Greens did in 2019. Biden would not have won if there had
been another significant liberal party contesting virtually every
Another way to see
why a socially liberal (aka progressive) alliance is essential is to
divide voters using two dimensions, the familiar left right and
social liberalism or conservatism (sometimes called authoritarian).
This breakdown is essential to understand politics today, and for
those unfamiliar with it I outline the reasons why it is essential in
an appendix. Without doubt nearly all socially conservative right
wing voters will vote Tory, and socially liberal left wing voters
will not vote Tory, and the two groups are similar in size. The
battle in any election is to win over those in the other two
quadrants: left wing social conservatives and right wing social
Once you see this,
the folly of dividing the English socially liberal vote among three
parties becomes obvious. Cooperation of the kind mentioned above will
greatly increase the chances that the Conservatives will not win.
Given the strong possibility of an election at the end of 2022 or
early 2023, the sooner discussions start the better. An alliance is a clear
win for the two main UK wide opposition parties (by seats). Labour
will play a leading role in the next government rather than staying
in opposition. The Liberal Democrats will win more of their target
seats where there are currently many wasted Labour votes.
But such an alliance
alone is not enough, as the appendix explains. Each party needs to
play to its strength. The LibDems target seats are winnable in part
because right wing social liberals could be persuaded to vote with
their liberalism rather than their pocket. But that in turn means
Labour have to focus on winning socially conservative left wing
voters. The Tories know that is their route to power, which is the
reason for all this nonsense about wokeness, being nasty to asylum
seekers, ending the right to demonstrate and so on.
should say at the start what this post is not about. It is not an
argument for Blue Labour. Labour’s base today is socially liberal,
and if Labour were to become a socially conservative party its core
vote would go elsewhere.
is this post about the left vs centre-left within Labour. What I have
to say is relevant to Labour led by the Left or Centre-Left. After my
last post, many on the left pointed to 2017 as proof that Labour
could do relatively well without compromising its liberalism. But in
2017 the issue that divided social liberals and conservatives in a
way no issue has for decades was Brexit (see appendix). Because
Labour in 2017 supported Brexit, then this together with a strong
left wing economic package helped win many social conservative left wing
activist, marginal voter divide
I recently wrote a
trying to justify Starmer’s strategy of avoiding being seen to
champion social liberal issues. I think it is fair to say that many
people hated that post. But to try and convince people that I was
right in principle, I want to reference a fascinating discussion
between Noah Smith and political data scientist David Shor. Although
that concerns US politics, the parallels with UK politics are very
close. What Shor is saying is very similar to what I was trying to
say in my earlier post.
of the first points Shor makes in this discussion is that party
activists are the worst judge of what works at winning elections. He
gives the example of the mirror
used by Clinton in 2016, which used Trump’s derogatory comments
about women. The Clinton people thought it was a great ad and put a
lot of money behind it. What Shor found was that among the marginal
voters that any Democrat needs to win over, the white socially
conservative working class (and to some extent the non-white socially
conservative), it actually lost votes.
my view a great deal of comment on twitter is based on this fallacy.
Activists typically want their politicians to talk about the issues
they care about, and get upset when they don’t. But if a party
leader just talks about what activists want them to talk about, they
will probably do badly in an election. Specifically for Labour, a
leader who wants to win elections needs to appeal to socially
conservative left wing voters. Labour almost
certainly, and a progressive alliance probably, cannot win
without these voters. No Labour leader in
is going to change these voters socially conservative beliefs (for
what does, see later). That means a Labour leader has to focus on
economic issues from a left wing perspective, and not champion social
liberal issues and concerns.
Labour leader who understands the argument above has to walk a tightrope. If
they go so far as to advocate for socially conservative issues, they
risk losing their socially liberal base to one of the other social
liberal parties (or to not voting). The clearest case of that was
Labour during the course of 2019. Labour leaders do best when they
don’t adopt socially conservative issues, but don’t push socially
liberal issues either. (Issues where many social conservatives agree
with liberals are fine.) A progressive alliance avoids that tightrope
to a large degree, because social liberals fed up with Labour’s
silence on these issues don’t get the chance to vote Green or
LibDem in key marginals. But it does not eliminate it entirely
because voters may not vote, but more importantly it is crucial to
keep your base onside .
it is a tightrope, it is very easy for Labour leaders to get this
wrong. In particular a leader, or the team around them, may become so
focused on their target voter that they go too far in denying their
social liberalism.  The recent bill allowing the police to prevent
noisy protests or protests that cause annoyance is a good example of
where Starmer made a mistake and corrected it. The best thing to do
is turn an issue around so that people think about it differently.
Whatever you think about Blair, his ‘being tough on crime and the
causes of crime’ did exactly that.
you do, and what you talk about
of the reactions to my earlier post failed to make the distinction
between what an opposition talks about to win power, and what it then
does in government. Not talking about certain issues in an election
campaign is not the same as being indifferent to them in government.
All I am talking about is what a Labour opposition uses its scarce airtime
to talk about.
point is so obvious to Conservatives that it is second nature. A
Conservative party will not campaign on privatising the NHS but that
does not stop them doing it when in office. Equally the Labour party
under Blair did not campaign for an independent Bank of England, but
it still enacted one.
many people remember is a Labour government, both with rhetoric and
actions, trying to appease the anti-immigration mood created in
large part by the right wing press. That was worse than
pointless, because it failed to put the case for immigration and
validated the idea that immigration was a problem. It failed to use
the government’s ability to put a case (which a Labour opposition
hardly ever has), and alienated many of its own voters. Once again,
that is not what I’m talking about here.
campaigns, which for oppositions last five years, involve promoting
your most popular policies. For successful Labour oppositions that is
going to involve left wing economics policies but not socially
liberal policies. Governments have much more latitude in how they
conduct election campaigns. Because they get much more exposure in
the media, they can focus on the popular things they have done rather
than the more unpopular. To take an example, Shor argues for the US
that on gay marriage making those issues partisan is dangerous.
reaction I got to the earlier post was that someone needed to
champion social liberalism when the Conservatives are in power. But
Shor argues that what changes public attitudes in a liberal direction is the broadcast
media. The broadcast media, either through documentary or fiction,
can normalise minorities among those who were previously antagonistic
to them. The reason the broadcast media promotes social liberalism
(and has done so during the steady advance of social liberalism over
the last 50 years) is that programmes are typically made by younger
people with university degrees, who tend to be socially liberal.
does not mean activists should just sit back and wait for this
progress to happen. There is a key role for non-partisan campaigns to
put issues on the agenda, and to expose government hypocrisy on
issues like climate change. But a Labour leader fighting an election
campaigning on social issues that divide social conservatives and
liberals is unlikely to persuade any marginal voters and will just
lose Labour votes.
The broadcast media is critical here. The Conservative politician
that persuaded Johnson not to follow the scientific advice in
September was the Chancellor Sunak, yet Sunak remains the most
popular politician. The reason is that the broadcast media never
mention this key point, so it remains largely unknown to most voters.
This is one reason why Starmer attacking Corbyn is a bad idea. Not
only does it not play well with many activists, it also reminds
voters of party divisions.
Basing policy too closely on red wall focus groups can be a big
mistake in many ways. To give one recent example, I agree with
Michael Walker here
that Starmer failed to present an alternative way of thinking about
the pandemic. He needed something positive rather than the negative
of Johnson acting too late. In particular he needed to bust the
excuse the government uses constantly of having to trade off lives
with the economy, and
he needed to quote numbers for the deaths the government caused.
What might appear negatively
an aggressive and unsupportive stance among
focus groups will reap dividends in the period which matters, which
is post pandemic.
dimensional mapping of voters
Rather than just
categorise voters as somewhere on the left-right continuum, more
recent voter analysis has looked at two dimensions, where the second
axis is social liberal to social conservative. To assess where voters
are on this axis, a standard method is to look at answers to
questions of national surveys. You can then see how those individuals
voted on key issues. Here is an example from the Financial
Times at the end of 2017.
The labels given to
the extremes of the ‘cultural’ axis vary a lot. I prefer social
liberal to libertarian for obvious reasons. Here is an example of the
kind of questions used to plot where voters are, taken from a
by Paula Surridge.
The FT diagram is typical: most Labour voters are somewhere in the
social liberal/left quadrant, and most Tory voters are in the
opposite quadrant. It is the two other quadrants that are more
contestable by the two main political parties. I’m going to follow
an excellent paper
by Noam Gidron and label those voters who are left wing but socially
conservative 'welfare chauvinist', and those that are right wing but
liberal 'market cosmopolitan'. The trick for parties of the left or
right is to get voters in these two groups to vote for them. Gidron
argues that the decline in left wing parties in Europe is due to both
groups tending to vote for right wing parties rather than left wing
The policy in the UK
that did this most successfully for the Conservatives was Brexit, as
the diagram shows. It is clear that Brexit appealed almost
exclusively to social conservatives, capturing the welfare chauvinist
group. It follows that this was why Corbyn’s 2017 campaign was the
most successful for Labour since Blair: Labour appeased social
conservatives (by accepting Brexit, and also talking about police
funding) and focused on left wing economic policies, thus capturing
many welfare chauvinists.
In both the UK and
US, geography together with unusual voting systems mean that the
marginal voter is left wing but socially conservative (welfare
chauvinists). Social liberals are concentrated in large cities or
university towns, and are normally in the minority elsewhere. That
means that in a battle between social conservatives and liberals
(like Brexit) voters may be evenly balanced in numbers but social
conservatives will win far more seats. The 52% to 48% Brexit
referendum, if fought over seats, is estimated to have produced 406
Leave seats and just 242 Remain.seats.