This is a topic I’ve had on my mind for a couple of months now, but as the excitement over the Corbyn Phenomenon grows in the media, this seems like the apposite moment to actually write it up.
Some great posts by Jemima over at Sometimes It’s Just A Cigar, plus the hysteria in the national press, have come together neatly with an article in the New Scientist about electoral tactics that I read recently (it was actually published before the General Election, but I’ve got a backlog of New Scientists to read).
The article was about a system being used in the USA by the Democrats to target their “swing voters” by assessing them on a chart like this one:
A vertical axis of “How likely are you to vote?” and a horizontal axis of “Support us or Support them?”
Rather than waste time on the fringes of the graph (because people who are very unlikely to vote, aren’t worth the effort to convince; people who are hardline opponents can’t be convinced; and people who are hardline supporters don’t need convincing) they sent their canvassers only to the homes where people in the middle (not sure whether to vote, and not sure who they’ll vote for – the pale blue region in the middle of my diagram) live. It cut down on their costs, and increased the effectiveness of their targeted strategy.
Because the Democrats are doing it, of course, Labour want to try too, ignoring the fact that we are not a 2-party system in the UK (the New Scientist article referenced that point but made the case that the basic idea still works). They also have pursued something like it since the Blair years in terms of policy
Jemima’s piece, “The Myth of the Centre“, highlights just why this is a catastrophic approach in the long run for Labour’s electoral chances, both in terms of a “centre ground” that doesn’t really exist and in terms of the people whose votes they chase:
Blair did not win in 97 because he was centrist, he won because he offered an alternative, on a number of strands, that appealed to diverse groups of people. Labour lost in 2015 not because they were not centrist enough but because they did not offer an alternative. The race for the center will always be lost, because the center is an El dorado, a mythical land which can never be reached. Labour won in 97 because they showed, in a number of ways why they were different to the tories. They will win in 2020 by doing the same.
The thought I had when I read the New Scientist piece is that, in chasing the people in the centre of the graph, it is possible to alienate people who are more likely to support you, but are undecided whether or not to vote at all – people on the right arm of the graph I drew. It may also have an effect on people on the top arm (very likely to vote, but undecided). I’ve shown these patches in orange on the diagram. Implicit in the assumptions of the pollster-driven campaign is that, if someone is unsure of who to vote for, they are unlikely to be undecided, and conversely, if they are sure about which side they support, then they are unlikely to abstain from voting. This creates a rough “V” shape where most voters will be found, that must also encompass the central patch where they target their campaigns. Outside of that V, there are assumed to be very few voters. A bit like this:
This is a catastrophically flawed assumption in the British electoral system, and in British politics. The assumption is flawed because there is not only “us” versus “them”, there are other parties to support. There are also many more views than those contained in the “consensus about what “the centre” is and “the people” want. For my birthday, I was given Tariq Ali’s “The Extreme Centre” and, while I haven’t got far with it yet, this idea of an alienated mass outside of the central politics seems to be in there (it was published before the General Election, so he didn’t know about Corbyn). What Corbyn has done is appeal to the bottom right hand corner of the graph, moving people who want to support Labour from “unlikely to vote” into the “likely to vote” region:
This has revealed the flaw in the pollster-driven argument, because his campaign has taken off. The Guardian has a piece about just how effective the appeal to the bottom right-hand corner of the graph has been:
The longserving MP has tapped into the strong public antipathy to slick, PR-trained politicians, careful with their soundbites, sticking close to the centre ground. What especially angers them is being patronised, being told their views are old-fashioned and redundant, and that their preferred candidate is incapable of winning the 2020 election.
“There seems to be too much of a view around Westminster that only people who have ever been involved only in Westminster have any views on anything,” Corbyn said. “Well there are tens of thousands of people out there who have very good, very intelligent views. And they need to be heard.”
One of the young Corbyn supporters, Heather Shaw, 23, who met the candidate in London on Tuesday, echoed this, listing some of the issues that mattered to her. “A large part of his support is from young people. People say he is an old left-winger or an old Marxist but to my generation his ideas seem quite new,”
Shaw, originally from Wigan, works for an online company in London. She recalled how despondent she and her friends had been after the election, gathered in the Cock pub near Oxford Circus. “We were talking about how there was no hope. Nothing good is going to happen. Labour will not get in for the next 10 years. It is only because of Jeremy Corbyn that there is excitement in British politics.”
If it had only been Cooper, Burnham and Kendall in the contest, she said she would not have become involved. “I would just be watching from the sidelines,” Shaw said.
Houbart, who was at the Luton meeting, said [Corbyn] had created a sense of excitement in politics not just for her but among her friends in Brighton. “It is the first time in our lives that there is someone in Labour we can identify with,” she said.
In The West Wing (my go-to source for apposite political commentary from fictional media), Amy Gardner as consultant to the Stackhouse (Independent) Presidential campaign explains to Josh, “When a 3rd party candidate wins, don’t you think it’ll be down to those unlikely to vote?” Well, while again pointing out that the UK system isn’t like the US one, this is the electoral mathematics that Corbyn’s leadership bid is pulling off. And, with good management, may yet win the 2020 General Election.