Opinion

The left need to realise that just being right won’t win them elections

13 Feb 2020 8 minutes Read
Image by Mohamed Hassan from Pixabay

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.

 

Wavelength

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.

Struggle

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.

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Ben Angwin
Ben Angwin
1 year ago

A guy knocked on my door; I let him speak. In about 50 sentences he’d mentioned Palestine, something about binary I didn’t know what it was, showed me a Worker’s magasine, talked about ‘the elite’, corporate produce, veganism and something called intersectionality, about which time I just blanked it out.

Then I said to him, ‘Your shoes cost more than mine. Why aren’t you talking about jobs?’ And I shut the door.

Rhosddu
Rhosddu
1 year ago
Reply to  Ben Angwin

No mention of Wales and its problems, then, in that bloke’s spiel? My guess is there wasn’t.

Simon Gruffydd
Simon Gruffydd
1 year ago

This article is itself an good working example of where “the Left” get it wrong – although not in the way Ifan espouses. First of all, Ifan states his belief that policies of “the Left” are the best ones and correct (making any contrary positions de facto wrong). Quote: “The left have a simple strategy … explain to people that they’re right …”. We are immediately confronted by a lack of self-reflection and an authoritarian level of certainty. “We can debate – but I am always right”, so to speak. It resembles conviction of a religious mind, not an open,… Read more »

John Ellis
John Ellis
1 year ago

Surely the drift of the author’s argument is irrefutable. The simile for me is the Jehovah’s Witnesses who’ve turned up on my doorstep at least occasionally in every single place where I’ve lived. The ones likely to get furthest with me – if by no means all the way – are those who, in their opening gambit, take a little time and make some serious effort to first explore where I’m at, and then tune the communication of their message accordingly. The ones who get absolutely nowhere are those who from the outset make it clear that they’re the enlightened… Read more »

Rhosddu
Rhosddu
1 year ago

The article is a frank and open admission that the middle-class self-designated “left”, armed with the axiomatic certainty of the rightness of their position (“four legs good, two legs bad”) in the manner of Oliver Cromwell or Lenin, made the rookie mistake of treating the working-class section of the electorate with contempt while trying to secure their votes. I mentally shake hands with Ifan Morgan Jones for being man enough to acknowledge that. The adoption and use, however, of the emotive terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ contribute nothing to any political debate today (this is not the 1930s!) and should be… Read more »

Alwyn ap Huw, Ysw.
1 year ago

The problem is that the right hasn’t “won” by doing what Ifan suggests, by respecting opponents. The right has won by demonising and othering opponents, we are “traitors”, “Europhobes”, “anti British”, “deserve to be executed for opposing Brexit” etc. The problem is that the left can’t do the same, because of who controls the MSM. Fake Labour “antisemitism” is called out, true Tory blaten racism isn’t! And the idea that social media can somehow overcome MSM right wing bias is also fake, the Facebooks / Googles / Twitters of social media are bigger right wing corporations than even the Murdoch… Read more »

j humphrys
j humphrys
1 year ago

Before 2016, I was pretty much in the Brexit camp, then drifted bit by bit to being pro European and Plaid. This happened because I took time from doing stuff I liked, to the pain in the butt of looking at politics. Horrible.
How to ease others into doing the same? I noticed a stat. showing why Bernie has done so well, so far, in the US primaries; legwork. Bloomberg uses his billions to hire lobbyists. Bernie supporters are so young and idealistic, that they work for love, and in New Hampshire knocked on 157,000 doors!

Huw Davies
Huw Davies
1 year ago
Reply to  j humphrys

Spot on there jh with your closing line – “Bernie supporters are so young and idealistic, that they work for love, and in New Hampshire knocked on 157,000 doors!” I don’t think Bernie will beat Trump because of an embedded prejudice that still lives on in USA. Had Corbyn and Labour campaigned like that in the UK he probably could have dumped Boris through the ropes, indeed might have dumped Mrs May in 2017 ! Lesson learned ? not likely. The nearest you got to that here is the dreaded demonised Neil McEvoy whose activists are out in the community… Read more »

j humphrys
j humphrys
1 year ago
Reply to  Huw Davies

Yes, as Ifan says in his last line.
All the best to Neil, of course.

Gaynor
Gaynor
1 year ago

Cytuno gyda chi parthed PC, y camgymeriad yw tybio fel mae’r woke yn ei wneud bod pawb wnaeth gefnogi brexit yn adain dde, tydyn nhw ddim.. agree re comments on PC, but those who supported Brexit are not all right wingers. Can we just forget this right/ left business it’s total easte of time

John Evans
John Evans
1 year ago

avail yourself of the information you need. stop ‘straw manning’ everyone. I don’t need ‘left’ ‘right’ or ‘centre’ telling me ‘facts’ when I bothered to find out for myself. My political conclusions have been reached by what I learned myself – not from the vague opinions of phantom strangers that allegedly knock on doors. Who exactly is defining these political stances? Despite having the same political outlook for years, I have been accused of moving accross the spectra depending on who I’m speaking with!

John Ellis
John Ellis
1 year ago
Reply to  John Evans

I take your point and indeed largely agree with it. But my impression is that previous posters arguing in favour of ‘strangers that allegedly knock on doors’ were thinking primarily in terms of those strangers going out and about to build up a picture of the real priority concerns of individuals and communities rather than trying to hammer home the doctrines of their own political tribe.

Citizen
Citizen
1 year ago

It’s good for Ifan to be honest in his views but all this divisive talk of left and right is a bit archaic and , it has to be said and as Simon Gruffydd has mentioned , the worryingly authoritarian talk of ‘the left being right’ and the paranoid creation of ‘populist right’ bogeymen is, indeed, a bit worrying. As is the ‘othering’ of how ‘they’ should ‘not be pandered to’ as if they were some diseased people in need of banishing. If left and right has to be brought into it, it’s worth remembering that the old left actually… Read more »

Walter Hunt
Walter Hunt
1 year ago

The Labour Party was transformative in the 20th century when it understood people’s fears: the fear of getting sick, losing your job, getting old and understood the self respect that came from meaningful work and supporting yourself and family. In the 21st century people are oppressed by feelings of loss of control over their lives; the uncertainty of “JAMs” and “gigs” and “hustles”; generation-can’t-afford-to-rent-let-alone-buy; mountains of debt; toxic lifestyles affecting relationships, mental and physical health. “Left” or “Right” the answer is not sticking-plaster policies or invented scapegoats.

Clive
Clive
1 year ago

There are rare polticians who when faced with truth being spoken to power, either they explain in terms you get why your world view is missing a few important items of information or they nod, agree and try to enguage in a shared empathy and frustration with you about why the particular issue is so hard to fix. I have only encountered 2 such politicans, 1 in Cardiff and 1 in Westminster. From Council Office to Westminster, the rest are scared of anything that embarrses or exposes them. Until these muppets gt over their ego being more important than the… Read more »

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