In this new era of flux, new leaders and new movements can change things remarkably quicklyby Theo Bertram / December 10, 2017 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
British voters are disloyal. According to the huge British Election Study, perhaps the last respected poll there is, around one in five of those who voted Labour or Conservative in 2015 chose a different party just two years later. And they are capricious: Michael Ashcroft’s research indicates that more than half of those who voted Labour made their decision in the last month, and more than a quarter in the last few days. If an example of the new mercurial mood were needed, look no further than Mansfield, which the Conservatives won for the first time in 94 years, and Canterbury, which turned red for the first time in 99 years.
One theory is that voters are acting out of frustration with governments that have failed to deal with the global financial crisis: “2017 may be the year when politics finally caught up with the crash of 2008,” suggested Jeremy Corbyn at September’s Labour conference. Another theory is that the two referendums—on Scotland and Brexit—had created a brief moment of flight, liberating voters from their traditional party ties.
In truth, what happened in June 2017 was no blip. For 50 years, the number of switchers—those who choose a different party from the one they voted for last time—has gradually increased. With each generation, fewer and fewer people feel any loyalty to a party: six out of 10 of the pre-war generation identified with a political party, falling to two out of 10 for those under 25.
Instead of thinking of the volatility in the 2017 election as a freak occurrence, we should recognise it as a part of a more gradual and fundamental transformation in the electoral landscape. We are moving out of an era of “hard-core” politics, where the bedrock of support for parties is solid and dependable, and into an era where core votes are thin on the ground, and a critical mass of voters shifts quickly. This long-term adjustment in the way people vote changes everything about how we do politics.
Let’s start with election campaigns because that is where governments begin.
Message discipline: that was the key in my old New Labour days. Peter Mandelson used to tell us that it was only when we were bored with our message that people were beginning to listen. The assumption was that the great bulk of votes on both sides were in the bag anyway, and the trick was to get through to that fairly small minority of “switchers” (“Mondeo man” one year, “Worcester Woman” the next) who we generally assumed had little exposure to politics, hence the need for that deadening repetition. It was a lesson that Theresa May clearly learned, as her endless repetition of “strong and stable” throughout the campaign proved. But it turns out that this tactic does not work so well in a world where so many of us, including some who do pay attention to politics, are switchers. Public support is now much more highly responsive to individual events. Change can be sudden and dramatic.
Corbyn’s message on the television debates at the start of the campaign was firm: if May did not do them then nor would he. Then, on the day the debate was due to take place, he suddenly reversed his position. This was a pivotal moment in the election: for the rest of the campaign, May was characterised as a leader running scared from ordinary people.
In an era of “hard-core” politics, May might have hoped to clean up by sticking to her message and hammering it, but with a more fluid electorate, campaigns that are repetitive and inflexible—or “strong and stable”—become brittle and break. Responsive, tactical flexibility—not rigid message discipline—is now what works, as Corbyn’s surprisingly strong performance showed.
Nor is this just a British phenomenon. Take France. So poor was the ability of both the established parties to hold on to their votes in 2017, that neither one of them even made it through to the final sprint to the Elysée, leaving the field clear for a run-off between a centrist upstart and a populist who emerged from the neo-fascist tradition. Even in America, where there is so much panic about polarisation at the institutional level, plenty of voters are up for grabs, and many others can be tempted to stay at home. Like May this year, in 2016 Hillary Clinton ran a classic campaign from the “hard-core” era, assuming her base would automatically rally against an extreme alternative, only to watch as voters reacted with indifference to the great ideological divide.
“Hard-core” campaigns are built around their “promises”: not campaign pledges, but the people each party had marked down as not only certain to vote but certain to vote for them. But shrewd campaigners today understand that “promises” may be false: voters are changing their mind and doing so quickly. Because more votes are changeable, the aim now needs to be to benefit from reaching as broad an audience as possible, rather than focusing on narrow segments. The campaigns of Corbyn and Donald Trump made better use not only of organic social media but also television, enabling them to reach places that targeting would never have taken them. Campaigns that get widespread coverage—no matter what for—can start to compete with those parties who have spent millions over decades building up data and expertise for targeting voters.
If political campaigns need to go broad, rather than narrow, then it helps to have 600,000 members. The much-maligned Momentum made a huge difference in 2017. Labour was able to flood marginal seats and knock on doors it would usually ignore. Some anecdotal evidence: a local organiser in a marginal seat told me that he had been sceptical about Momentum turning up for fear that they might turn off moderate Labour supporters; in the last week, as dozens of Momentum volunteers piled into the seat, he directed them to parts of the constituency that had historically been anti-Labour, where the data was poor; when the results were in, Labour’s vote share had unexpectedly risen in those areas. Momentum’s belief that Corbynmania could reach every part of the electorate may have seemed naive but it touched on something real: more people than ever before can be persuaded to vote against the party they
The two main parties are, paradoxically, both for the moment up above 40 per cent, even as their cores have got softer. It would be a huge mistake if they allowed this to blind them to the reality—that their supporters are increasingly blind to ideological difference, and connecting instead through identity, culture and emotion. In fact, there are signs that parties are already adapting their campaigns accordingly: more flexible, more emotional, more ready to ride a wave.
All these things are easier to cultivate in opposition, which makes life harder for parties in power. Oppositions should win more often. More generally, things should get more favourable for new leaders and even new political movements, rather than those whose record and commitments make them inflexible.
But one thing is certain: it is going to be harder to govern, especially for the long-term. Increased flux makes for exciting contests but it does not help governments win mandates for tough choices. In the 2017 campaign, the Conservatives chose to confront a hard truth: the lack of a sustainable social care contract between the young and the old. Labour’s attack on what they branded “the dementia tax” was brilliant and ruthless opportunism, responding quickly with an emotive campaign that played on fears of losing homes. In future, given how unreliable their core vote has become, both government and opposition parties are likely to become even warier of confronting such challenges. If parties can no longer rely on a bedrock of core voters to stand by them, they may prefer simply to keep quiet about difficult things.
A clear blueprint for winning campaigns in new times is emerging: ride the volatility, stay flexible and stay light on the big tough questions. But this is not a plan for government. If Corbyn—or perhaps a new Tory leader—rises to become prime minister in this way, then there is every chance that he or she will fall out of favour just as quickly as May, Trump or Emmanuel Macron, once the heavy-lifting begins. We risk entering a cycle of short-term unstable governance, liberated by oppositions that fail just as quick.
Maybe—over generations—we have become too capricious and too impatient to elect a serious government. In Kenneth Clarke’s view the voters are to blame. “I have never known such ill-founded adolescent cynicism to be so widespread among the electorate,” he complains. “The electorate went back to the old two parties, but I do not think that they were deeply convinced.” The next election, he warned the MPs on the benches around him, “would be a lottery from which we might all lose.”
British politics is more uncertain and unpredictable than it has ever been but this volatility creates opportunity too. It has become something of a joke to claim that a new party can win or that a British Macron will emerge. And yet, besides the financial crash, the two most consequential events in UK-wide politics so far this century—the Brexit vote and the rise of Corbyn—were driven by novel political vehicles: Ukip, since 2004, and Momentum, since 2015. Volatility creates fertile ground for change. A First-Past-the-Post electoral system still poses a challenge to insurgents, but in this new era of flux, new leaders and new movements can change things remarkably quickly.