Category Archives: UK Politics

What do voters want?

The Nottingham University professor, Steven Fielding, has published two posts on the excellent university politics blog, Ballots and Bullets, dealing with the issue of what voters want - and therefore vote for - in their political leaders.

His first post was written after Theresa May appeared on the One Show.  In explaining why she would take part in a light entertainment magazine show, he noted that not only was she after its audience - some 5 million probably not very political viewers - but also needed to use the show to develop her empathy with voters.  Reasoned argument does not penetrate particularly far in a modern election, and some might dispute that two or three repeated mantras amounts to reasonable argument in any case. What voters are looking for is someone they can both admire as leaders and support as individuals who understand their own circumstances.  Fielding notes Aristotle's argument on "ethos, pathos and logos" in developing his point.

In his subsequent post, Fielding looks at the desire for voters to have a "strong and stable" leader.  Again, one might dispute whether the facts of May's leadership thus far really merit those words (weakness in the face of popular press campaigning and U-turning on budget promises within days don't constitute either strength or stability) but the reality is that she and her campaign managers have been successful in instilling that as a feature of her leadership.  Fielding references the arguments on "strong man [or person]" leadership from Plato, via Carlyle to Archie Brown (who disliked it but acknowledged the public's desire for it).

Fielding's two posts are engaging and accessible for A-level students, and help to consider what the features are for a successful leader in elections (both American and British).  They also illuminate the ongoing problem for anyone who thinks electoral politics is about an engagement of rational ideas, competing for the available political space.  It isn't and probably never has been.  It is about an engagement with the gut instinct of voters, the vast majority of whom are not interested in the minutiae of ideas.  Most voters, indeed, are not particularly exercised by the idea of democracy itself (the number of non-voters certainly indicates this, while even those who do vote contain a large number of agnostics who wouldn't miss the process if it were abolished).  What exercises them is the need for food, shelter, jobs and the chance of leisure - all exercised without obvious government presence.  If they do want to acknowledge a leader, they want that leader to look as if he or she knows what they're doing, makes occasional obeisance to the people's condition, and harasses their enemies with the minimum of actual conflict.  Currently, May understands that better than Corbyn.  Much better.

How voters think….or don’t

There was a fascinating piece on the "Today" programme this morning (scroll to 1:20:35).  Listen to these voters try and identify party policies (they mostly fail), and then explain why it doesn't matter anyway.  They may or may not be a representative sample, but these ordinary voters are classic examples of the principle of voting with the gut rather than the mind.  They are happy that they don't really understand any policies, it doesn't matter what detail parties promise as "they all promise the same and never deliver".  The personality of the leader is the most important thing.

Parties spend a lot of time developing their manifestos.  Voters spend a lot of time ignoring them and then claiming the promises don't amount to a hill of beans anyway.  Win the battle of perception and you've pretty well clinched the election.  That's Lynton Crosby's key understanding, and Theresa May - neither particularly strong or particularly stable as it happens - is his most obedient pupil.  Of course she's winning.  Policies have nothing to do with it.

One friend who has been canvassing for the Lib Dems reported a voter telling him that it was important to vote for Theresa May as she needed all our support to negotiate for Brexit.  That's nonsense and it doesn't actually mean anything.  But it is the simple mantra put out regularly by May and co, and a voter who doesn't spend much time thinking about politics has swallowed it whole.

Want to be depressed about human nature?  Want to understand Thomas Hobbes a bit more?  Follow an election!



The bleak outlook for liberalism – in all parties


Labour and the Conservatives have never been particularly hospitable homes for their moderate, centrist members.  Corralled within an insulated party bubble consisting mainly of true believers, the moderate members have often been regarded as potential betrayers, consensual minded types who occasionally find common ground with their opponents; worse, as people who seem too willing to question the orthodoxies of their chosen tribe and challenge some of their heart-held beliefs.  What kept them going was the belief that their party leaderships, whatever they said in public, often shared their own centrist, outward-reaching attitudes.  In a sense they had to, for how else could they expect to govern except with the support of some of that part of the electorate which didn’t traditionally identify with their party?  So for decades in the past century or so, the two parties were, for the most part, led by mainstream centrists. 

Since 1945, the Labour party has had only one exception to this general rule until Jeremy Corbyn’s unexpected victory; Michael Foot, who presided over the disastrous defeat of 1983.  For the Conservatives, the story has been more mixed, as the era of One Nation leadership came to an abrupt halt with Margaret Thatcher’s election as leader in 1975.  Her electoral success was enabled by weak and divided opposition, but her leadership eventually became too divided for the party’s parliamentary leadership and was brutally shunted aside in favour of the more centrist John Major in 1990.  Major’s appeal brought his party an extra term in government, but his three successors ditched the appeal to moderation and presided over two election defeats until the more One Nation oriented David Cameron took over. 

Even in their darkest times – the early 80s for moderate Labourites, the noughties for moderate Tories – moderate members of each party could take solace from both the possibility of a return to favour at the top, and the knowledge that at least their opponents weren’t out and out lunatics.  A centrist Labour leadership benefited from the Tory retreat into its right-wing laager in the noughties just as David Cameron was able to see off the leftwards tilt of Ed Miliband.  Alas, no more.

If the liberal progressives in either party were tempted to be despairing about the outcome of the Brexit referendum, that is as nothing compared to the political landscape that looms before us in the 2017 general election and its aftermath.  Never has it been such a bad time to be a moderate in politics.  While Jeremy Corbyn exercises a complete control over the Labour party on behalf of his left-wing supporting movement, Momentum, Theresa May abandoned some time ago any attempt to face down her right-wing in turn.  Indeed, for all the eloquence of her chief of staff’s speech writing in the early months, it is difficult to discern a clear political vision from May, other than the need to stay in power and bludgeon a hard Brexit through parliament whatever the consequences.  There is a small remnant of moderate, independent minded MPs on the Tory benches, but they are unlikely to be much enlarged by the influx of new Tory MPs on the back of this election.

It is a bleak picture, but is there some light to be had from the direction of the Liberal Democrats?  Tim Farron has bounded fresh faced and energetic into the election and his party has trumpeted over 5,000 new members since the election was called.  They may even pick up seats – probably at the expense of Tory MPs in Remain-leaning southern metropolitan seats, or traditionally liberal south-western ones.  As nice as such a boost will be, they are unlikely to reach their glory days of 60 plus MPs without further work in the Labour strongholds of the north, and here it is more likely to be Tories – as in Copeland – who take the prize.

Why has liberalism, the progressive attitude once prevalent in all parties, reached such a dire state?

In essence liberalism has never been a far-reaching ideology in populist terms. Labour’s brand of social liberalism was smuggled onto the statute books by Roy Jenkins and his successors on the back of its more populist electoral appeal to manual Britain for better wages and working conditions, and better public services.  Margaret Thatcher’s economic liberalism came cloaked in populist attacks upon the failures of social democracy, and then appeals to national identity (via the Falklands and latterly Europe). 

Progressive liberals always sought validation from the establishment in power, and not from the people.  The belief in a reasoned, consensual, progressive building of a civilised state served by governments committed to at least some aspects of the liberal cause wasn’t one easily sold in gut electoral terms.  But populism was always tearing away at the fabric.  Most people, uninterested in politics and prepared to vote instinctively and emotively, and once upon a time tribally, had no time for the finer aspects of political debate and theorising.  While the liberal state delivered, this seemed fine, especially when each party had a core of leaders committed to variations on the same project.  Nevertheless, as turbulence swept the global community, and mass migration became a feature, the fragile belief in a liberal state that could both serve its people and extend magnanimity towards others started to explode. 

The incendiary devices for such resentment had long been readily to hand in the form of the popular press.  Once the liberal state stumbled in its attempt to explain the impact of global trends that put indigenous workers out of their jobs, and seemed to fail to arrest influxes of foreign workers to occupy the lower reaches of the salary earning spectrum, the way was open for the ever louder beat of nationalism. 

It came from the right-wing press, and was quickly adopted by politicians with an eye to the main chance.  It seems odd, in the age of social media and the generally accepted ability of anyone and everyone to forge their own news sources via facebook, blogs and twitter, to talk of the power of the press, but power it is.  Few twitter accounts or facebook pages can match the reach – even today – of traditional newspapers.  Where social media is bifurcated and diverse, newspapers still provide a common currency in news and opinion.  In some respects, social media merely amplifies this.  A single front page in the most powerful of the papers – the Mail or the Sun – can drive social media comment for days.  A largely mediocre political class remains in thrall to the apparent and high profile power of newspapers.  The Telegraph had MPs on the run for months over expenses a few years ago; Theresa May crafts her agenda almost entirely to suit the Mail and the Sun today.  And what makes these papers even more powerful is their ability to dance to the otherwise inchoate beat of the nationalist drum up and down the country.

Liberalism – the belief in reasoned, rational politics – is upended today by the resurgent triumph of nationalism.  In a shrewd column recently, the Economist’s new Bagehot (Adrian Wooldridge) identified the posthumous triumph of Enoch Powell’s vision for Britain (“Thethird man”).  The party that succeeds, he argued, would be the party that successfully articulated this ideal of a national identity, and he further noted that Theresa May’s provincially rooted Englishness seemed to have a far better chance of success than Labour’s messy, divided party. 

For the liberal, this is a most unappetising vision.  Having successfully emerged from the last wreckage of nationalist triumph in the first half of the twentieth century, securing what seemed to be a permanent supra-national and liberal dominance, the collapsing of that same hegemony, and the accompanying lack of confidence in its future, is once again unleashing the darkest of political forces.


It is a bleak time indeed to be a moderate.  

6 quick election announcement takeaways

       1.  Theresa May hasn’t actually called a general election yet.  She can’t.  The Fixed Term Parliament Act leaves that decision with the House of Commons, so in reality the fate of this putative election lies with the other parties (see Lord Norton's short sharp analysis).  If Labour – as Corbyn has asserted – supports the call, along with the SNP and the Lib Dems, then the one thing they cannot do is accuse May of putting party interest before country.  The Act no longer allows her to do that.  Instead, it makes a 2/3rds majority of MPs responsible instead.  Murmurings of turkeys and early Christmases spring to mind, and I do wonder if all Labour MPs are going to sign up to Corbyn’s suicide pact tomorrow.  If they do, then for more than a few it will be a means to hastening their unloved leader’s end.

2.       2.  Most forecasts – actually all forecasts – give the Tories a whopping likely majority.  This is pretty solid, and it will take a small political earthquake to dislodge the Tory advantage (although…Trump, anyone?).  Therefore much of the interest will be on how the opposition forces realign themselves.  If Labour really does head into an electoral meltdown, are the Liberal Democrats well placed to take advantage of it?  Tim Farron was far more sure-footed today than Jeremy Corbyn, and the Lib Dems are claiming a thousand new members in the few hours since Theresa May’s announcement.  They may also benefit from the “Remain” leaning seats currently held by Tories in south London and the south west – some estimates put their possible gains from the Tories at 27 seats.  Nevertheless, can the Lib Dems also budge Labour in its northern heartlands?  The now redundant Manchester Gorton by-election was showing some real LD strength thanks to a good local candidate, but can that be repeated across a swathe of Brexit believing Labour seats?

3.       3.  Will this election make UKIP formally redundant?  They are not defending any seats since the defection of sole MP Douglas Carswell (who was never a spiritual UKIP-er anyway)  and it will be interesting to see what happens to their 3 million 2015 votes.  If they see a sharp decline, we can probably rule them out as a political force from June 9th onwards.  If we haven’t already done so.

4.       4.  Theresa May has crafted this as an election on Brexit, but does that mean she is hoping no-one will look too closely at the rest of her domestic agenda?  She is struggling to define herself at the moment, making speeches that lean towards One Nation conservatism but carrying out actions that suggest old style Tory callousness.  Catastrophic morale in the NHS, short-funding of schools, budget incompetence recently over NI contributions, craven-ness on challenging the corporate interests she claimed to be ready to face up to….all this points to an uneasy domestic agenda that has hardly been crafted to win popular support. 

5.       5.  It’s about personalities.  With Brexit the dominant political item, and no-one really having a clue about how it will or should pan out, the election will – as so often – come down to personalities, and for May there is very little competition.  Jeremy Corbyn is as hopeless a leader as you could hope for in your opponent, while Tim Farron will struggle, even with an election megaphone, to make the impact he needs.  By slapping down the chance of a TV debate May has also deprived Farron of his possible “Cleggmania” moment.  It was a smart move on May’s part – she had nothing to gain from such a venture.

6.       6.  Finally, the result doesn’t mean a one-party state.  Should the Tories win big – the most likely outcome – they still face inordinate problems over the next five years, and such a result gives both Lib Dems and Labour the chance to properly regroup (under a new leader in Labour’s case, or with a spun off new party).  Five years may seem like a lifetime to upset liberals, but it offers May a mere two-year extension on her current lease.  In the end, that may not actually be enough if Brexit bombs.


The importance of a vanishing class: the party member

Political parties are the heart and soul of our democratic system.  They are the crucial interface between voters and professionals, providing the space for hard-pressed volunteers who may not wish to become professionally involved in politics to nonetheless become active agents in the body politic.  They have also been facing significant decline over many years.  While there has been a slight recovery in the UK since 2013 – especially for Labour and the SNP – the overall figures are depressing. 

The website Democratic Audit estimates that only 1% of the UK population is a member of a political party.  In the 1950s, parties famously calculated their members in the millions.  The Conservatives were dominant with their 3 million or so members, but Labour garnered some 1 million too. 

Labour is now the dominant party with half of their 1950s figure – 515,000 members according to a House of Commons Library briefing.  The Conservative figure is more difficult to get hold of – many of the constituency parties  don’t file complete returns, and the party still runs quite a federalist structure with significant opposition to centralising party membership.  Nevertheless, figures published in 2013 suggest the Conservatives have a mere 149,800 members.  The Lib Dems have some 79,000 members.

Party membership decline is evident across Europe, although it remains most marked in Britain.  The Democratic Party (PD) in Italy has some 500,000 members, while the two behemoths of German politics – the CDU and SPD – have around 477,000 members each.  To that figure the CDU could add those of its ally, the separate, Bavarian only CSU party which has over 146,000 members. 

Why does this matter?  Because the health of the parties is a major indicator of the health of a representative democracy.  Parties provide a key focus of engagement for citizens.  It allows them to meet with their elected representatives, have a role in choosing them, gives them a chance to offer themselves for election at local and national levels and offers a platform to change party policies. 

This is about much more than simply attaching oneself to a single cause, as offered by the pressure groups.  This is about a full and broad involvement in the democratic process.  This is about committing to action and nailing political colours to a mast – any mast. 

Parties are the foundation stones of any representative democratic system, and they depend utterly on members for both financial resources and the all important human resources.  It should come as little surprise that a growing national disengagement with politics has been accompanied by such a decline in party memberships.   Interestingly, as the memberships get smaller, the relative importance of the remaining members gets bigger.

Labour saw a spike in numbers as a result of their leadership troubles, with the Momentum movement organising effectively to get sympathisers to join and confirm Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the party.  Party memberships have always tended to be more radical than their outward-facing elected representatives, but as those memberships decline so the impact of a hard-core radical few makes even greater waves across the national party.  For Labour it has been the election of its most left-wing – and polling suggests unelectable – leader ever.  For the Conservatives, it gave euro-scepticism a crucial place in the party’s bloodstream and led to the Brexit referendum. 

Party memberships can absolutely define politics on the wider stage.  They can also make life difficult for specific representatives.  MPs may represent up to 100,000 people in their constituencies, but their attention can often be dragged towards the few who are members and office holders in their own party.   Labour’s MP for Brighton and Hove, Peter Kyle, faced serious de-stabilisation in September when one of his local members, briefly elected as Vice-Chairman, started agitating against him for not supporting Jeremy Corbyn.  Today, the deputy chairman of Loughborough Conservative Party went on the BBC’s “Sunday politics” to denounce his own MP, Nicky Morgan, for criticising Theresa May.  The two party office holders speak only for themselves, where Morgan and Kyle represent thousands of voters of differing hues, but that hasn’t stopped a brief but strong media focus on those party critics.

There are signs of a resurgence in the importance of party membership.  Labour’s spike – increasing its membership from 270,000 to 515,000 in less than a year thanks to the leadership election – is seen in other parties too.  The Liberal Democrats saw their membership rise significantly after their crushing General Election defeat, as liberal-minded voters sought to engage once again in a liberal fight-back, seen most recently in the success of Sarah Olney – a member of just one year’s standing – being elected as MP to the former Conservative held seat of Richmond Park.  The SNP saw a spike in membership after losing the independence referendum.  It is interestingly Conservative party membership which appears to have been least affected, even though its political bias has probably had the single most important impact on British politics in over 40 years.

As the importance of party members re-asserts itself, so elected representatives become more responsive.  The Observer’s Andrew Rawnsley notes that Labour MPs, since the re-election of their bete noir Jeremy Corbyn as leader, have been quietly re-working their constituency parties to ensure the election of supportive office-holders.   The internet supporters of Momentum have been less inclined to go the extra mile in attending local party meetings, and as Rawnsley notes, it is at these unglamorous occasions where real power can be wielded. 

The larger the membership of a party becomes, the more it can reflect the different shades of opinion in the society from which it grows, and the more effective an interface it is between ordinary voters and the professional politicians.  A larger party base, too, increases the range of talents available to parties in selecting their elected representatives, and ultimately their leaders. 


The health of a democracy, after all, plays out in the health of its parties.