A blog by Luke Akehurst about politics, elections, and the Labour Party - With subtitles for the Hard of Left. Just for the record: all the views expressed here are entirely personal and do not necessarily represent the positions of any organisations I am a member of.

Monday, August 30, 2010

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting and well thought through analysis, Luke, but misses the overwhelming importance of leadership.

Regardless of policy trends, to win a cross section of voters the party leader must have universal charismatic appeal over that range. Tony Blair had it in abundance, Gordon Brown did not.

Ed Milliband was a devoted Brownite yet now he condemns the last Labour administration and has moved well to the left. This makes him an opportunist at least and, in many peoples eyes, a changeling.

The election of Ed M to the leadership could cost the party David M, who would be unlikely to serve under his younger brother, and with it one of its brightest stars. A man with appeal across the spectrum.

Real worry should be, and of middle England I probably mix with more Tories than socialists, that the Conservatives would be happy with any leader other than David.

9:41 am, August 31, 2010

Blogger Old Politics said...

Oh come on Anonymous - falling for the Tory spin? You can do better than that. We choose our own leaders, the Tories don't choose them for us any more than the Lib Dems.

Call Ed a 'devoted Brownite' all you want, but of the candidates in the race I'd say he's the least closely associated with any past faction, and the best unifier.

10:16 am, August 31, 2010

Anonymous Alun said...

Excellent post, one of the most thoughtful and intelligent things I've read on the subject for quite a while. Only two quibbles:

1. the ABCDE system of social classification is more than a little dubious these days; C1 includes many occupations in the public sector that we would now consider to be working class (because the people that hold such jobs *are* working class), while C2 includes (and has always included) quite a few occupations that are obviously not working class. Which doesn't really detract from your argument, of course.

2. Wirral South isn't quite the area you seem to think; the bulk of the Labour vote comes from places like Bebington (full of the sort of people who you described as being the important 'swing' voters), rather than genuinely affluent areas. It's boundaries are reasonably similar to the 1950-1970 Bebington constituency, which was a key marginal.

11:18 am, August 31, 2010

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Old Politics, whilst I could not agree more about choosing our own leaders, the Tory spin would favour Ed Balls. David is the one they are generally keeping quiet about.

We have seen the results of poor leadership choices over several elections now to be wary. Foot, Kinnock, Major, Hague when he was too young, Howard and Brown all failed for lack of universal appeal. Ed M is too narrow for my liking but to each his own. Democracy can levvy a high price at times.

12:10 pm, August 31, 2010

Blogger Luke Akehurst said...

I was a ward organiser in Bebington during the 1997 Wirral S by-election!

1:07 pm, August 31, 2010

Anonymous Anonymous said...

the straw man running through your argument Luke is the idea that a candidate - David Miliband - is intent on pursuing continuity blairism - triangulation writ large. When in fact all the evidence is he recognises that strategy is finished. he said so explicitly in his keir hardie lecture.

the political differences between the two are more differences of tone and emphasis than substance. They are instinctively similar in most respects.

so it comes down to who can win. and this is where I just cant see Ed M matching Cameron at the dispatch box, in debate. i just cant imagine him as prime minister - which is a big problem.

Though I agree he is a good speaker and connects on a personal level better than his brother - is too soft/nice and lacks steel/ gravitas. Im closer to him politically - but I just think his brother would make the better leader. every test of public opinion outside the party supports this.

1:20 pm, August 31, 2010

Anonymous Anonymous said...

A very interesting article and with much to commend it!

However, I think that Labour should have stuck with its opposition to nuclear weapons but should have argued clearly for it. In 1988, John Biffen did a better job on this issue than Neil Kinnock did!

And let's be clear about the fact that countries make unilateral decisions all the time. A past Conservative government unilaterally abandoned chemical weapons.

Labour went into the 1997 election committed to a unilateral abandonment of landmines and then worked for a global ban.

We should never be afraid to abandon weapons that add nothing to our security. By abandoning Trident we could help secure a global ban on nuclear weapons, and, at the same time, we would soon have the money to spend on a large programme of housebuilding like the one Ed Balls now advocates.

2:10 pm, August 31, 2010

Blogger Gabriel Puricelli said...

Thoughtful and very, very informative for someone as far South as Argentina. Cheers from a IUSY veteran, dear Luke!

Gabriel's Blog

2:22 pm, August 31, 2010

Anonymous Alun said...

"I was a ward organiser in Bebington during the 1997 Wirral S by-election!"

Maybe it just seemed more affluent in comparison to Birkenhead? :-)

(it's actually remarkably close to the national average on most sets of occupation statistics, though less in both the highest and lowest groups).

3:08 pm, August 31, 2010

Anonymous ex-Labour voter said...

I think David Miliband does represent continuity with failure.
He still defends ID cards and is not comfortable with the 50p tax rate. Ed Miliband is clear in his opposition to ID cards now and his endorsement of the 50p rate has been totally unapologetic.

I would much rather Ed wins.

3:46 pm, August 31, 2010

Anonymous Anonymous said...

You've got to have personality in the mix.

It's the key.

Best is DM but that's not going to be good enough. He doesn't go bloke.

Triangulation is for wonks.

Triangulation only comes into play when personality is on the money.

Brown could triangulate night and day but was always a no-hoper: his personality was toxic.

Blair could triangulate in his sleep but it counted because his personality made the difference.

6:38 pm, August 31, 2010

Anonymous Anonymous said...

"We should never be afraid to abandon weapons that add nothing to our security." Ever asked an infantry soldier how he feels about having no anti-personnel and no anti-tank mines in front of his defensive location. Especially when most of your own sides casulties come from mines and road side bombs.

Added to the equipment shortages, banning weapons your enemies still use is all about political decision making and nothing to do with giving our troops an edge.

You don't exactly see the Americans rushing to ban anything from mines to cluster bombs. Only the fool Brits with their PC politicians do it.

8:05 pm, August 31, 2010

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Red Ed would be a more credible candidate if he explained to the C1',2's,D's et al, why he set up such elaborate arrangements to protect his inherited wealth from tax.

Do as I say,not as I do,comes to mind.

John Zims

8:45 pm, August 31, 2010

Blogger Luke Akehurst said...


Bebington didn't feel that affluent but bits of the seat further west did.

9:06 pm, August 31, 2010

Anonymous Rich said...

Same old problem in that the south is and will be always be conservative. If you want to win back traditional Labour support then there must be a shift to the left and an adoption of more robust working class policies.

The problem with the last Labour government was that even the left of the party made it perfectly clear they were not really interested in traditional policies to protect workers. Too concerned with left middle class objectives.

Personally I don't think Labour have a leader that can stand up to the coalition. Labours only hope is that the coalition fails and Labour steals the lib dem vote.

However, polls suggest that it would now be a tory landslide if we had an election today. Which would mean deeper cuts etc etc

11:00 pm, August 31, 2010

Anonymous Anonymous said...

What "polls" are those, Rich??

Btw, excellent piece, Luke ;-)

12:20 am, September 01, 2010

Anonymous Anonymous said...

A part of the alleged right-wing lead on crime comes from people who think fighting crime is the same as asserting the ascedency of property rights. No votes for Labour from them. Seriously dealing with crime; votes for Labour there.

7:57 am, September 01, 2010

Anonymous Rich said...

Just about every poll is showing increasing support for the conservatives while the Lib dems are losing votes to Labour.

The shift is clear the conservatives have managed to rally support through a right wing agenda backed by Nick Clegg. While the liberal agenda has been lost and so have their voters.

The conservatives have clearly benefited from this deal.

Remember the Lib Dems only have approx 57 seats and the tories are just 20 seats short of a majority.

Hardly rocket science when you think about it. Just a couple of % rise in the polls means a clear conservative majority.

11:44 pm, September 01, 2010

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Would have to agree with Rich that all the current indicators would mean a clear Conservative majority in an election held now.

What impact Tony Blair's memoirs will have remains to be seen but I would agree with him about getting back to a New Labour agenda. All this left movement is serving up the middle ground to the Conservatives on a plate.

Still reckon the party needs to find an inspirational leader pretty darn quick but, of the contenders on offer, David M is the best in the interim.

1:39 pm, September 02, 2010

Anonymous Rich said...

You say labour needs to return to New Labour policies but its these policies that caused so much unease and even before Blair left the Labour party was losing popularity.

I'm not sure all this can be pinned on Brown and I'm not sure this was an election that Labour could win.

There is a huge mass of voters out there that want a left of centre party. A party that has traditional Labour values for ordinary working people. Blair in my opinion was in bed with the financial system and despite the boom years not everyone in the UK saw the benefits.

9:10 pm, September 02, 2010

Blogger Rob Hepworth said...

Luke this was a really thoughtful and well-argued analysis - deserves re-publishing in a broadsheet. My only significant criticism would be that your analysis (and that of all commentators to date) overlooks Labor’s strong and hard-won grip on the support of voters from the key ethnic minority groups. This tends to cut across the standard socio-economic classifications. It means that triangulation on (im)migration would not only be wrong but also self-destructive for Labour. Why do you think we did so well (relatively) last May in Birmingham, Manchester and London? What Labour really needs to do is nail the manifold urban myths which correlate (im)migrants and "scroungers", and continue to ensure that our party fully represents at every level the key Afro-Caribbean, Indian, Pakistani, Bengali, African, and Chinese minorities who form such a valuable part of our society, and whose acceptance and integration here distinguishes us positively form almost every other country in the world. The insulting failure of the ConDem coalition to include any Afro-Caribbean in the Government, and the related "grassroots racism" of the Liberals who seem totally incapable of getting any ethnic minority candidate elected as an MP anywhere, are facts we should not hesitate to bring out when campaigning - notably in the next London Mayoral election. Triangulation is off limits on immigration – and this includes ID cards - David Miliband and Ed Balls please note !

10:22 pm, September 02, 2010

Blogger Merseymike said...

I think that if Labour could get its act together on housing, immigration itself would be far less of an issue.

It is housing which causes the real antagonism in areas where poor white and black people, some immigrant, are chasing the same few social housing options

6:37 am, September 03, 2010

Anonymous Rich said...

MerseyMike, the problem is immigration was Labours biggest failure. And the voters up and down the country were complaining about it way before our politicians realised it was causing unease.

It's out of control and has caused untold damage to our society and our economy. We live on a small island which even before Labour took power was over populated. Whether this fits Labours left wing agenda or not the reality is that 82% of voters think it is a problem and 69% agreed that it influenced how they voted in the general election. If you ignore this problem then you will never see power ever again, really is that simple.

This is the reason why the left of the party needs to shift its loyalty back to workers and forget the idealistic left wing agenda of the middle class. This is the way to win back the working class vote.

New Labour is dead, Labours policies are in tatters and you need to shift back to its roots by supporting your biggest funders.....the trade unions.

10:12 am, September 08, 2010

Blogger Paulie said...


"82% of voters think it is a problem and 69% agreed that it influenced how they voted in the general election."

Can you source this? (Not necessarily arguing - just interested to know where you got the figs?)

11:57 am, September 18, 2010


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