Monday, 17 January 2011

Picking over the bones

With the Lib Dems plunging ever lower in the opinion polls, it’s no surprise that other parties should be making their appeals to disillusioned Lib Dem voters.  If the polls prove to be accurate, and if those who voted Lib Dem in 2010 don’t simply decide not to bother voting again, then clearly they will find another home somewhere.
I’m not sure, though, about some of the arguments being advanced, particularly the way in which the word ‘progressive’ is again being bandied about.  ‘Progressive’ is a label to which all the parties want to stake a claim, but its meaning is increasingly obscure – it seems mostly to mean whatever those using it want it to mean.
Putting such semantic objections to one side, can Lib Dem voters be described as being supporters of ‘progressive’ policies?  Can they even be treated as being anywhere near a homogeneous group?  I tend to think not.
One of the main factors which has driven the party’s parliamentary representation up from a long period of single figures has been their effective branding of themselves as being ‘none of the above’.  Taken further, their little ‘only the Lib Dems can beat Labour/Tory/Plaid (delete as required) here’ graphs show that they have tended to define themselves not in terms of what they are for, but simply in terms of not being the incumbent. 
It is, in essence, an approach which encourages people to vote negatively rather than positively, and which seeks to mobilise antipathy to others whilst avoiding alienating any sector themselves.
The result is that their voters have, more often than not, just been voting against someone else rather than for the Lib Dems – and that means that they won’t have come from one particular part of the political spectrum.  And by extension, they will not simply return to one particular part of the spectrum – their votes are likely to be distributed amongst all the other parties; probably not based on any particular policies put forward by those parties (let alone any ‘appeal’ made to them by those parties).
I wonder if the real moral of the story isn’t that encouraging people to vote negatively works fine for a party which campaigns at pavement level and remains in opposition, but will inevitably unravel for a party of government, which has to start showing what it is, rather than what it is not.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

John
Spot on yet again
I have a load of respect for Doctor Dai and in following up the LCO blog the fact that in Wales someone dies every 11 days for lack of transplantwas a real eye opener for me
Was this conveniently forgotten by our beloved Secretary of State or as i suspect the post totally irrelevant to Wales

Welsh Ramblings said...

I must defend the word progressive. It is being abused by the right, but it remains a credible term to describe all kinds of politics that are to the left of the centre-ground, usually including liberalism. It is not that modern either, it's been deployed in such a fashion since the industrial revolution. Progressive taxation means something quite specific for example.

"Putting such semantic objections to one side, can Lib Dem voters be described as being supporters of ‘progressive’ policies? Can they even be treated as being anywhere near a homogeneous group?"

Obviously not. But, the current collapse in Lib Dem support stems from them being perceived to have abandoned a set of policies that can all be described as progressive- that of protecting the poor, distributing burdens equally, using collectivism to fund higher education, "fairer taxation" etc. A section of the Lib Dem vote does respond to that centre-left style view, otherwise they wouldn't have abandoned the Lib Dems so dramatically.

You've hit the moral of the story spot on.

John Dixon said...

Ramblings,

"Progressive taxation means something quite specific for example"

Agreed. But that's a slightly different - and significantly more precise - use of the word.

"progressive ... remains a credible term to describe all kinds of politics that are to the left of the centre-ground"

Such a definition is dependent on the definition of another concept which, I'm afraid, is equally loosely used. What, exactly, is the 'centre ground' - you can only use a term to describe those things to the left of it if you know where it is. Common parlance would suggest that, in UK terms, it's that (very substantial!) area of policy where the Tories and the Labour Party overlap. But that's defining it in terms of a very limited political spectrum. Hotelling's Law might suggest that the 'centre' is actually the 'median' - the point where half the electorate are on one side and half on the other.

I'd argue that the UK 'centre' can and does move. It moved to the 'left' in the immediate post-war years and to the 'right' under Thatcher (two other poorly defined terms there, I'm afraid). Part of the problem with using the word 'progressive' to define 'left of centre' in that context is that things which were not 'progressive' pre-Thatcher can become 'progressive' when the centre moves past them. In short it's a relative, rather than an absolute, description.

"the current collapse in Lib Dem support stems from them being perceived to have abandoned a set of policies that can all be described as progressive"

But that's to take only some of the Lib Dems policies. I doubt that the views of the 'orange-bookers' would fit your definition of 'progressive', and they have not abandoned that aaspect of their policies.

"A section of the Lib Dem vote does respond to that centre-left style view, otherwise they wouldn't have abandoned the Lib Dems so dramatically"

I'm not sure that things are quite as simple and straightforward as that. Sometimes, people involved in politics can assume that policy positions have a much greater impact on voting than is actually the case. I suspect that a detailed analysis of the reasons for people regretting the way that they voted last May would reveal a much more complex situation than this.

Welsh Ramblings said...

John, it is relative rather than absolute, but I am comfortable with that because that recognises change. A progressive position on say, rights for women in the 1950s or 1960s might equate to a conservative position now.

"I doubt that the views of the 'orange-bookers' would fit your definition of 'progressive', and they have not abandoned that aaspect of their policies."

That's my point- they have kept the Orange Book, built a programme of government on it even, and in doing so have lost a massive chunk of their support. I would be comfortable with considering those voters that have abandoned them, due to a shift to the right, as being relatively progressive. You can believe that whilst still agreeing that the situation is complex and the Lib Dems, of all parties, have a fluid and sometimes apolitical voter base.

In Wales for example, 5% of the vote could mean the difference between a Plaid retreat and Plaid's best result ever. We're talking small percentages, which is why it is appropriate to depict a section of the Lib Dem vote base as being genuinely centre-left or 'progressive'.

John Dixon said...

Ramblings,

I think that we are going to have to agree to disagree about the usefulness of a term which means different things to different people at different times.

My concern about applying the term to whole parties - which some people have done - is that it ends up giving a hopelessly over-simplistic picture of the political realities. And applying it to those - or even some of those - who vote for 'progressive' parties over-simplifies the process by which people decide how to vote.

Specifically, to argue that supporters of a unionist party will be attracted to vote for a nationalist party on the basis of some shared views in some fairly narrow areas of policy is to concentrate on the small similarities whilst ignoring the large differences.