Thursday, 13 April 2023

Appealing to the minority


Most of the most fervent supporters of Laura Norder, in her rawest and most vengeful state, tend to prefer to see her dressed in deepest blue, and are highly suspicious of attempts to lighten the shade a tad, never mind choose a different colour entirely. The result when the Labour Party attempts to steal ownership of the issue from the Tories is that it ends up sounding either like empty rhetoric (“tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”) or like an even more extreme version of the Home Secretary of the day. Tony Blair ‘only’ had to outflank Michael Howard in the role; the increasingly hapless Keir Starmer has to deal with the deranged Suella Braverman. Desperate times call for desperate measures, some might say, which may help to explain Labour’s highly personalised attack ads on Sunak over crime issues.

It's not entirely unreasonable in principle to seek to associate the current leader of the Tory Party with the actions of his party’s government over the past 13 years, even if he wasn’t even in parliament for the first five of those years: the buck stops at the top. It does, though, make it harder for anyone with any sense of rationality or fairness to argue that the actual DPP at the time a decision was taken not to prosecute Jimmy Saville was in no way responsible for the decision taken by the organisation he headed, which was the essence of Johnson’s unpleasant slur against Starmer. And there is at least a danger that extending the criticism of Sunak all the way back to 2010 ends up sounding like a criticism for not changing the rules and processes bequeathed to the Tories by Labour following the 2010 election. Fighting fire with fire is one thing, but joining one’s opponent in the gutter is another entirely. One of the earliest moral strictures drummed into me as a child was that two wrongs don’t make a right; the Tories may have started the descent into the gutter, but that’s a wholly inadequate reason to join them there.

The third attack ad has been widely interpreted as being an attack on the PM’s wife, but it seems to me that, looked at in objective terms, it is the most valid of the three to appear to date. It is a matter of recorded fact that the Sunak household benefitted from the availability of non-dom status for tax purposes, and when it came to light, he seemed to see nothing wrong with the arrangement as a matter of principle. Certainly he did nothing as Chancellor, and has done nothing as PM, to abolish or limit the availability of the status, and whilst that’s a sin of omission rather than a sin of commission, it’s entirely fair to pin that one directly on him, in a way that blaming him for sentencing by the judiciary simply is not.

Whatever the rights and wrongs, all the reports suggest that Starmer is delighted by the reaction to the ads. It’s an approach which has left many, including members of his own party, uncomfortable and uneasy, but he doesn’t care. It’s not as if they’re going to vote Tory as a result. All he cares about is appealing to those voters who can win or lose him the next election. We can be certain that he will have had detailed analysis showing who these people are and what they care about, but we can get a long way towards answering those questions by some simple arithmetic. To win an absolute majority, he needs to win 128 seats directly from the Tories; to displace the Tories as largest party, 79 seats would do the job. Assuming that all the extras come as direct changes from Tory to Labour, he needs about 150,000 people to change their votes to win 79 seats, and around 500,000 to change their votes to achieve an overall majority. They are the only votes in whom he is interested; he can and will forget the other 46 million voters.

The problem with identifying such a minority slice of the electorate is that they are unlikely to be typical of the rest of us: appealing to Tory voters who live in seats with small Tory majorities necessarily involves appealing to a comparatively tiny minority of the electorate, and one likely to hold more extreme views. People who believe that the justice system is about punishment, not protection of the public, rehabilitation or re-education, and that the more people thrown into prison for longer terms in poor conditions the better. Many probably also want to bring back hanging and flogging. People who don’t like foreigners, especially those of a different skin hue, and think the EU is some sort of evil empire. People for whom the not-so-subtle racism invoked by associating a picture of a PM of Asian origin with a message suggesting that he is lenient on grooming gangs is more of a wink and a nudge than a red flag. They could have taken a different decision; they could have decided to try and appeal instead to those Tory voters (yes, there are some) who have been turned off by the dishonesty, sleaze and sheer incompetence of the last three PMs; they have instead decided to go after those voters to whom all the worst attributes of Johnson actually appealed.

At it’s simplest, it’s case of seeing the end as justifying the means, but it’s another serious indictment of an electoral system where parties know that they only need to pitch their appeal to a tiny minority of voters. It would never work in a properly proportional system.


Pete said...

I agree with your final statement. I also agree, broadly, with the overall sentiment. We are seeing appalling examples of hypocrisy. However I don't think these things matter as much as some pundits think it does. Two reasons why the Tories can win or at least end up in a coalition with the Liberals.
First is that there has only been one time that a Labour government has been elected without needing the support of Scotland and Wales, that was 1974. Before and since they have always needed those votes.
Second, when the Labour party canvassers knock on doors they rarely speak about principles or policies, manifestos or commitments. The message is "We have to get the Tories out" The Tory canvassers likewise have nothing to say about Conservative principles. Their message is, "We can't let the socialists in"
Questions about the Prime minister, Boris Johnson, Keir Starmer et al rarely are mentioned. Because at the polling booth those are the questions people will vote on.
Where Plaid Cymru stands, that's another issue.

John Dixon said...

"...there has only been one time that a Labour government has been elected without needing the support of Scotland and Wales,that was 1974..." That's not exactly accurate, I'm afraid. In fact, it's close to being the reverse of the true picture. In 1945, in all three of the Blair elections (1997, 2001, 2005), as well as in 1966 and the second election of 1974, Labour had a majority of English seats (even if only marginally in 1974), and could have formed a government in England without needing MPs from Scotland or Wales. Welsh and Scottish MPs merely increased the size of the majority in the UK as a whole; the Labour majority depended only on those countries not electing more Tory than Labour MPs. Labour were 2 seats behind the Tories in England in 1950, 16 behind in 1964, and 31 behind in the first election of 1974. What is true is that only in 1974 did they need both Welsh and Scottish MPs to overcome the English Tory majority; in 1950 and 1964, either one of those two countries would have sufficed.

"...they rarely speak about principles or policies, manifestos or commitments..." In the case of both Tory and Labour parties, I agree that their message has long been essentially the negative one about keeping the other out. It's depressing, but that's what UK politics has become. And it's part of the reason why they both favour retaining the current electoral system - it serves to polarise people between the two 'main' parties and squeeze the others.

"Questions about the Prime minister, Boris Johnson, Keir Starmer et al rarely are mentioned" Whilst my canvassing esperience isn't recent, in the close to 40 years that I spent knocking doors, I'd have to say that my experience was rather different than you suggest. Choosing a PM has always been very much a part of doorstep conversations in General Elections in my experience, and a part which always puts what are, in UK terms, 'minor' parties at a huge disadvantage.

Pete said...

"in the close to 40 years that I spent knocking doors, I'd have to say that my experience was rather different than you suggest. Choosing a PM has always been very much a part of doorstep conversations in General Elections in my experience,"

My experience too. Except that we both canvassed for a minority party. We always want to put a better alternative and that leads to leadership questions. But that's us. For the two 'main' parties usually can ignore such things.