Friday, 8 October 2021

Giving gravity a chance


Last Friday, in the prelude to the Tory Conference, the Guardian’s editorial suggested that Johnson and his party were “defying gravity”. The image which leapt into my mind was of Wile E Coyote, in that moment where he’s run past the edge of the cliff and is suspended in mid air. We all know what’s going to happen next, but he still spends a few moments just hanging there, waiting for nature’s natural force to send him plunging to the bottom of the ravine. It was almost a comforting thought, but Road Runner Starmer, to say nothing of the rest of us, is unlikely to get that lucky outside of cartoon land.

Much of what passes for political analysis assumes, at some level, that voters are carefully weighing up the words and actions of the players before coming to a decision on which individuals or parties to support, and that, as the lies and incompetence become ever clearer, opinions will move. There is puzzlement, even, at how little impact the PM’s obvious character flaws are having on opinion. The underlying assumption, though, is wrong. Most votes are not cast on the basis of a rational analysis at all, and most politicians – and anyone who’s spent any time canvassing for them door-to-door – are well aware of that fact. All the analysis, fact-checking, and earnest debate is relevant only to a comparatively small number of voters. For the rest, factors such as general impressions, family history, and class or national identity count for much more.

Politicians know this, of course, but most of them feel that they need to at least pretend that it isn’t so, an enterprise in which they are aided and abetted by a media needing to justify their serious coverage of elections. Part of Johnson’s electoral strength is that he doesn’t even try and pretend it’s true, leaving him free to make outrageous claims which everyone, including himself, knows to be blatantly untrue. In a flawed electoral system under which a party only needs to win around 30-35% of the vote to be gifted a significant majority in the House of Commons, the two largest English parties can get most of the way there simply on the basis of tribal loyalty (or the ‘donkey vote’ as it is more commonly called, because those electors would vote for anyone or anything, even a donkey, if it was wearing the right colour rosette). Gravity can only do its stuff – and save us from becoming Mr Coyote’s lunch – when the coyote finally departs terra firma and starts hanging in thin air. That, in turn, depends on whether that smallish minority of swing voters (found in a minority of constituencies) are mostly amused or mostly repelled by the antics of the mendacious clown in Number Ten. Sadly, too many are still in the first category and it’s far from clear just how bad things need to get before they will move into the second.

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