The Limits of Triangulation
I thought I ought to try to contribute something to the debate about triangulation versus dividing lines as electoral strategies, which in very crude terms is how commentators have characterised the debate between respectively David and Ed Miliband. Certainly David seemed to be advocating a strategy of triangulation with the Coalition’s policies when he spoke about emulating RA Butler’s strategy of the 1950s of the Tories accepting much of the 1945 government’s settlement.
Wikipedia defines triangulation thus:
“Triangulation is the name given to the act of a political candidate presenting his or her ideology as being "above" and "between" the "left" and "right" sides (or "wings") of a traditional (e.g. UK or US) democratic "political spectrum". It involves adopting for oneself some of the ideas of one's political opponent (or apparent opponent). The logic behind it is that it both takes credit for the opponent's ideas, and insulates the triangulator from attacks on that particular issue.”
The key word in that description is “on that particular issue”. Unfortunately there are some colleagues in the Labour Party who seem to think it means taking the entire ideology and policy platform of the party and moving it wholesale to a position far nearer to that of the Tories.
Of course a broadly triangulating strategy worked very well for both Clinton and Blair in the 1990s. I think their strategy was broadly correct given the context then.
But Obama managed to win in 2008 with a strategy that was not just a straight replay of Clinton-era triangulation because the issues, the opponent and the electorate had changed in the 16 years from 1992, and similarly we need to look at the changed political, economic and policy landscape in the UK and come up with an electoral strategy for 2015, not 1997. Even if the circumstances were a complete replay we wouldn’t want to repeat a variation on the same strategy any more than a chess grandmaster would want to replicate their strategy in match after match against the same player– pretty soon your opponent works out a way to beat you if you don’t surprise them with new tricks – and the Tory party has got over it’s dumb phase when it made things easy for us.
The key thing about triangulation is that it doesn’t have to be applied crudely to the entire positioning of a party i.e. throwing the baby of popular policies out with the bathwater of the unpopular ones.
In 1994-1997 we triangulated area by area based on a sophisticated analysis of Labour’s strengths and weaknesses. Our strengths were that people thought we were compassionate and would deliver a properly funded NHS and schools. Our weaknesses were on defence (which we dealt with a lot earlier than under New Labour by ditching unilateralism in the 1988 Policy Review), perceived liberalism on crime (hence Blair’s “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”), and tax (hence the pledge not to increase the basic rate). So we didn’t triangulate our policies in the areas of strength – and went on to do radical things like the minimum wage that had been aspirations of Labour for 100 years but never implemented even by the Attlee government. But we did triangulate on the weaknesses – though I would argue that on defence what we really did was reverted to Labour’s historic pre-1979 positioning.
Some points about why this can’t just be replicated now:
· Then we were triangulating with a Tory government that had won four elections on over 40% of the vote. Now we would be triangulating with a Tory party that didn’t win the general election even with us exhausted after 13 years in power and following a global recession. What’s the point in moving towards policies that weren’t very electorally popular?
· The Lib Dems have effectively already blazed a trail for triangulating with this Tory party through negotiating a Coalition agreement. The net impact has been to halve their support and increase ours’ by a third, suggesting swing voters wouldn’t thank us for moving right.
· The two main parties are already quite close together on the old 1980s areas of Labour weakness such as defence and crime. The areas where we could triangulate are primarily on policies that are at the fundamental core of what it means to be Labour. Triangulation now would involve moving nearer the Coalition position on the VAT rise, public service cuts and economic strategy. I do not believe that this represents the beliefs of any but a tiny fringe in the Party either in Parliament or the country, whereas the mix Blair came up with was proven through the Road to the Manifesto ballot process to represent the broad consensus of party opinion – you can’t ask Labour candidates and members to campaign on a platform they completely disagree with. It would also be abandoning the very areas of policy where we are nearest to public opinion. Swing voters didn’t vote for the Tories rather than us because they were going to raise VAT, cut public services and switch off the fiscal stimulus, they voted Tory despite those things because we did not present an attractive prospectus for the next five years, and because they thought “things could only get better”.
· Triangulation has to have an ideological line in the sand that won’t be crossed. Would we triangulate with the BNP if they were our main opposition? I hope not.
· Our existing set of Labour voters nowadays have other places to go if we move too far from them – to minor parties or abstention. We need to think about retaining our existing pool of voters as well as growing it.
· We don’t know yet at the start of the Coalition’s term what we will be triangulating with. We need to be careful about positioning ourselves too quickly without seeing the shape of the society, public services and economy we will be fighting over in 2015, or the popularity of the Coalition by then. If it becomes grossly unpopular why would we triangulate with it? We don’t even know the electoral system we will be using and if AV came in then we will need a strategic approach based on getting transfers from smaller parties.
There’s also a problem in terms of the groups of electors some people in the party think triangulation would target.
Because people bandy around the terms Middle England and Middle Class as though they are interchangeable and monolithic, they seem to think our swing voters are people like Hyacinth Bucket, readers of the Daily Telegraph, or people who pay higher rate income tax.
In fact swing voters look a lot more like the average Labour activist’s idea of what a Labour voter should look like. That’s the tragedy – that we didn’t get the votes this time (or in the 1980s) of millions of people who we were actually set up to represent.
Some of these are the voters Ed Miliband has identified in the DE social classes (the least well off) who we lost in large numbers this time. I suspect they would be happy with quite leftwing policies on the economy and public services, but many of them will be ferociously rightwing on crime, Europe, defence, immigration and welfare reform (if you get welfare yourself because you need it you tend to have fairly robust views on "scroungers" who you think are less deserving). Many of them would link their worries about migrants (who they probably think are here because of the EU’s freedom of movement policy) and welfare “scroungers” (who they suspect are often also migrants) to the practical problems they confront about accessing public services and affordable housing, crime levels, lack of jobs/job insecurity and paying excessive levels of tax given their low incomes. We need to get these voters back because it’s criminally negligent if an avowedly democratic socialist party can’t get the votes of the poorest, because even in key marginal seats there are wards full of this type of voter whose low turnout helps lose us the seat, and because the bit of power they do have is that their vote is worth the same as a stockbroker’s. There’s no point winning switchers if we throw away what should be our base vote through taking it for granted. But we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that the UK’s electoral geography means lots of them are in seats we already win, which will just get safer – assuming we keep the same voting system. The LDs’ insistence that first dibs on forming a coalition goes to the party with the largest popular vote does mean that piling up big majorities in safe seats by enthusing these voters could be important if there is another hung parliament.
Then there are C2 voters, the skilled working classes, and C1s, lower middle class people doing routine white collar jobs. These are the segments everyone agrees we need to go after and which Blair focused on because back then everything was simpler because we just weighed the core vote. These are the mythical Middle England but they are actually distributed across the country in unglamorous and functional places like the M4 corridor, North Kent and South Essex, the London suburbs, the Pennine Belt and the manufacturing areas of the East and West Midlands. They are politically important because their propensity to switch straight from Con to Lab or vice versa gives them a double value – they take one vote off the Tory lead in a seat as well as adding one to us. They include the people who work in our remaining manufacturing jobs in factories (Unite members), and self-employed “white van men” and their families. They would be very unlikely to read a broadsheet newspaper. These are not rich people. The earn salaries in the 20ks or maybe if they have a really skilled job in the 30ks. They are what Aussie politicians call Battlers – materialist (which isn’t an insult, it means they are grounded in economic reality), aspirational but often hard pressed, struggling to pay a mortgage, worried about the impact on their job and home of economic policy. Everything I wrote about the concerns of the DE voters applies to them too. But then you have to throw in additional issues to do with the home ownership rather than tenancy end of housing policy, an even greater feeling of unfairness about the tax and benefit system, and the need for a strong industrial policy.
But the votes Labour need to get to win are not limited to these categories. Long term population movement southwards and to the suburbs and previously rural areas, plus changes in the class composition of British society mean even bolting loads of archetypal switchers to our historic core vote doesn’t deliver a majority. So we have to go after some very counter-intuitive groups of voters: well-off commuters in a seat like Wirral South, Guardianista counter-cultural types in the trendy coastal towns like Brighton and Hove, the liberal elite in our most marginal seat, Hampstead & Kilburn... the list could run to 20 different micro-groups, each with their own Mosaic code. Every one of these groups has their own set of issues, including stuff like the environment, tuition fees and Iraq.
What all of these sets of voters have in common is that I cannot see that they will have a great deal of interest in us triangulating on the major issues where we currently confront the Coalition: taxation, the savagery and speed of their deficit reduction strategy, or public services. I suspect they would view the public service reform agenda as an answer to the last decade’s question of utter irrelevance to the country we will be in in 2015. If anything we need to go for a more populist and progressive stance on tax, shifting the burden from these guys, who are hard pressed, onto people further up the income scale.
The first two groups – the DEs and C1C2s might be pleased if we triangulated on immigration, crime and welfare reform. We need to do this if we can do it in a way that is consistent with social democratic values of fairness in the case of welfare reform, and of fairness and the country’s economic needs in the case of migration policy. And we need to be aware we run the risk of not winning back some of the third set of voters – the small “l” liberals if we get the balance wrong on these issues.
But we also need policies that deal with the demand end of the concerns of this vast set of voters: if they have fair access to housing and other public services, and they live in safe well-policed communities and we can offer an economic policy that will create well-paid, skilled jobs, we will reduce their anxiety about migrants squeezing them out of the jobs, homes and services they need. This implies more radical policies than we pursued in the last 13 years.
My final concern about wholesale triangulation is that it represents ideological capitulation. Why should it always be us running to catch up with their position on the political spectrum? Why shouldn’t we come up with a policy mix that forces them to move towards us as Butler had to in the ‘50s?
We ought to be certain enough of the essential verity of our social democratic values that we can take them, hold them up against modern Britain as it will be in 2015 and a carefully researched understanding of our weaknesses in 2010 and where the views are of the segments of the electorate that we need to win, and craft an attractive modern policy agenda rooted in those values. Are there people in the party who really don’t believe there is a potential majority in the country for our values and that we have to accept an ideological settlement created by Cameron and Clegg?
Readers of earlier posts will know that I think Ed Miliband, from a strong field of candidates, is the potential Labour Leader with the confidence in social democratic values and the intellect and imagination to develop modern policies that will bridge the gap between these values and the fears and hopes for the future of the key groups of voters I have described, as well as a personality attractive enough to sell those policies in a modern TV campaigning age.
I won’t agree with every single policy answer he comes up with, but I think he’s asking himself the right questions and applying the right strategy to work out how to get Labour back into power. That’s why he’ll get my vote.