The left need to realise that just being right won’t win them elections
Ifan Morgan Jones
The political left needs to start winning elections, and soon, or the 2020s are going to be an extremely long decade for them.
In the UK and USA, it is now almost a decade since anyone on the left won a nation-state wide referendum or election. Across Europe, the rest of the western world, and further afield in nations such as India we have seen the rise of the populist right-wing flatten everything before them.
The left have a simple strategy when it comes to an election – be right, have the right policies, arm themselves with facts proving that they’re right, and explain to people that they’re right, and they will (surely, this time?) win the election.
But this isn’t really how democracy works. Truth is a particularly nebulous concept in politics, and even if you have cold, hard provable facts at hand people won’t necessarily listen to them if they think you’re approaching them with the wrong attitude.
It’s a well-documented phenomena by now that people who hear facts they don’t want to agree with will simply disregard them. On every side of the political compass, ‘facts’ are very often things we marshall in order to justify causes we already believe in.
In an age of online filter bubbles this phenomena is made worse because we now live in a world where we are exposes to facts that support our beliefs and are shielded from facts we don’t like.
To win elections, you need to win over people who live in the opposite filter bubble. You can’t win elections just by mobilising your own base.
The paradox of democracy is that for the left, success means winning the votes of people who would usually vote right, and for the right, people who would usually vote left.
Ultimately, two things win elections and you need both.
The first is a message that communicates the fact that you share the voters’ worldview. This is about being on the voters’ wavelength. ‘I am like you. You are like me. Because we are alike, I will look after your interests, which I understand.’
Because of this, nothing can damage your relationship with voters more than giving the impression that you don’t like them, or even worse look down your nose at them.
This is why Hillary Clinton’s comments that Trump supporters were ‘deplorable’ and Remainers’ insistence that Brexit voters were thick were so damaging.
If you were a Trump or Brexit supporter but were open to change your mind, nothing would bring down the brain-barricade faster than even the hint of a suggestion that you’re a bad or stupid person.
I’m sure that some will inevitably claim that what I’m arguing here is that the left should simply ‘give in’ to the right’s views, and pander to their beliefs.
But that’s not what I’m arguing. What I’m saying is that the left should modify their arguments and attitude so that they are on the wavelength of those voters who have been turning towards right-wing parties.
Let’s take Brexit as an example. Remainers’ strategy throughout has been to denigrate people’s pride in being British and list all the bonuses such as freedom of movement that will be lost.
They may well be correct, but this is arguing for Brexit from the point of view of a Remainer. To win you have to argue from the point of view of a person who doesn’t share your values and beliefs. You have to put yourself in their shoes.
In the case of Brexit, I always felt that the argument was ultimately about identity, not the economy – as well as giving the political establishment a slap.
Therefore the most effective Remain argument would be to emphasises the extent to which Brexit would give the EU an advantage over Britain, and how it would empower all the worst people at Westminster.
The same principle applies in the case of arguing for Welsh independence. If you wave an Owain Glyndŵr flag and talk about Wales being a nation again, you’re making yourself feel good but not doing anything to convince those who don’t see the relevance of medieval Welsh princes or don’t necessarily even feel Welsh.
What people do tend to agree on is that Westminster is rotten to the core and that Wales tends to get a bad deal from them. You need to frame the argument to suit the people who don’t agree with you, not repeat the arguments that got you and your peers on board.
The left need to start treating elections like a game of limbo. You have to contort yourself to get under the bar and through to the other side.
The left’s current strategy is that if they just run into the bar hard enough it’ll get out of their way. That if they just call out views they disagree with forcefully and angrily enough, and demonstrate enough moral superiority, they will win some kind of war of attrition and everyone will be cowed into accepting their point of view.
The truth is the opposite. Such aggressive tactics will just make people less likely to accept their point of view, and they will keep losing, and the right winning, in perpetuity.
Lord Ashcroft‘s report on Labour’s election campaign, based on a poll of 10,000 and 18 focus groups in seats Labour lost, was particularly telling on this point:
“[Labour] seemed not to understand ordinary working people, to disdain what they considered mainstream views and to disapprove of success… As far as many of these former supporters were concerned, then, the Labour Party […] looked down on people who disagreed with it, […] disapproved of their values and treated them like fools.” [My italics]
Even if individual Labour policies were popular, even if they were right, their attitude was what turned people off.
The second essential thing that’s needed to win elections is news access. By this I mean having a platform to espouse your message in order to reach the bulk of the population.
Repetition is key here. If a simple message can be repeated often enough it will eventually be hammered home. ‘Get Brexit done’ being the most famous recent example.
If you don’t have a simple message that will convince people that you are like them and on the same wavelength as them, this will of course not matter.
That was the fate that befell Labour and Hillary Clinton, and it’s a fate I fear will befall Bernie Sanders (if he is the Democratic nominee) in November. They had and have plenty of news access but swathes of their former electoral fortresses just didn’t believe they were on the same wavelength as them.
But you can have the best message in the world and if you can’t reach the public with it, it won’t make a difference. You need both.
As well as Labour, in the context of Welsh politics, there is, of course, a party that is currently struggling in the run-up to the 2021 Senedd elections with both these conundra – Plaid Cymru.
Like Labour, they are a left-wing, broadly-Remain party concerned with both social and economic justice. Unlike Labour, they are also a party without a great deal of news access.
In the case of Plaid Cymru, there is also, in fact, a double danger of people perceiving the party to be looking down its nose at them.
Firstly on the issues of Brexit and social justice and secondly on the issue of the Welsh language, where there is an (erroneous but understandable) perception by many that Welsh speakers consider themselves a level above in a hierarchy of Welshness.
On the issue of news access, Plaid Cymru need to find a way to reach beyond the weak and fragmented Welsh media and reach voters that wouldn’t usually hear from them.
Ultimately there is no way forward on this point apart from supporting the Welsh media, and boost of the ground.
But perhaps a trickier battle will be to convince voters that Plaid Cymru are on their wavelength. This doesn’t mean giving up their causes and pandering to the right. It’s about showing people they want to stand with them, not preach at them.
That battle will be won not just in the messages created at Tŷ Gwynfor in Cardiff but also in how the party’s supporters reach out to potential voters, both on the doorstep and online.