Quentin Langley is a PR and social media strategist; author, academic, speaker & entrepreneur.
Hugo Rifkind asked recently why, in a world where people are happy to admit to texting intimate photographs, they shy to admit to pollsters that the plan to vote Conservative?
While, obviously, they may not be the same people, it is a good question that needs some thought. Because the pollsters were wrong for a reason. The mechanism is unknown. Did people change their minds between talking to pollsters and voting? Were Conservatives significantly less likely to talk to pollsters in the first place? Or did people claim to be voting Liberal Democrat or Labour while secretly planning to vote Conservative all along? There’s no evidence, at this point, that pollsters got their sample wrong and significantly mis-estimated who would be likely to vote – the main reason for the bad polling of the 2004 American presidential election – but such evidence could yet emerge.
I would like to volunteer one suggestion, and it is built on the Left’s biggest failing and its biggest success. The failing is that people on the left generally misunderstand conservatives. The success is that a great many people – and not just left-wing voters – have swallowed a key element of left-wing propaganda.
Let us start with the Left’s failing. This is not just anecdote or observation. It is built on extensive social science research. Admittedly, the detailed research was mostly in the US, but it is likely to hold as much or even more in the UK. Jonathan Haidt of the NYU Stern School has conducted massive research into the way liberals and conservatives (recall, this is US terminology, so ‘liberal’ refers to the left wing) approach moral questions. He has put thousands of hypothetical scenarios to people. But he has also asked people to assess how they think other people would approach the same questions.
One finding is that conservatives have a much broader moral “palate” than liberals, considering a much wider range of questions to be matters or morality, but that’s a topic for another day. The key finding that is relevant here is that while conservatives and moderates are generally pretty good at predicting how others would answer moral questions, liberals are very poor at this. Conservatives, it seems, have a good idea how liberals think, but have reached a different conclusion. Liberals are clueless about what conservatives believe.
We see this all the time. On the whole, conservatives believe that their opponents are well-meaning, but naive or just mistaken. To far too many on the left, conservatives are simply evil. The Left does not concede that conservatives have a different idea of what is fair or just. It maintains instead that conservatives do not care about fairness or justice. For all the claims of being well-educated, rational, and broad-minded, there are many on the left who simply cannot imagine the concept of good faith disagreement with their position.
There are left-wing bubbles – at the BBC and in universities – where conservative thought is so rare that people are never shaken from their moral certitudes. One of the most distinguished professors in my own field once told me over a friendly lunch that he had never met a libertarian before.
Ed Miliband, of course, was brought up in just such a Marxist academic bubble. Tony Blair, by contrast, was brought up in a Tory household and thus has a much deeper understanding of conservative instincts. As a son of the manse, Gordon was probably somewhere between the two in his understanding of different viewpoints, and it is no surprise that he was also between the two in his ability to win votes.
Where, then, is the Labour success? It stems from the ingrained view in academia and the media that voting Conservative is “selfish”. On the right, we understand why the Left thinks this. The left-wing notion of fairness was set out by Marx: “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need”. We get that. We just don’t agree. The Left, by contrast, generally doesn’t understand conservative fairness. Though widely associated with hippies, the word ‘karma’ sums up conservative fairness: “what you sow, you reap”. You don’t necessarily get what you need. You get what you deserve.
People on the left genuinely believe that conservatives are selfish. The problem – for them – is that this belief is not conducive to winning votes. It is not just that “Vote for us, you selfish bastards” would be a bad slogan, it is that any attempt to win votes which is predicated on the idea that not voting Labour is selfish is very likely to fail.
No-one would sell a product in the market place by arguing that it would be “selfish” to buy the cheaper product. The case is that your product is “reassuringly expensive” – expensive, but worth the expense. Even appeals to altruism are couched in positive terms. People make the case that organic food is higher quality. “Fair-trade” products and appeals for donations to Nepal make the case that you can achieve something by spending that money, and directly link you with the emotional benefits you can derive. They do not argue that it would be “selfish” of you not to donate.
There is a solid reason for this. If you make the case that voting for right-wing candidates is “selfish” you have implicitly conceded that the voter’s self-interest can be served by voting for those candidates. You are actively arguing that people who agree with your analysis can serve their own interests by voting against you.
And this is no small act of self-denial you are seeking. It is not just a few extra pence on coffee beans. You are proposing more expensive government, and government swallows almost half the economy. The closest analogy would be to argue that people should selflessly agree to pay more for their housing in order to benefit someone else. But I don’t see many adverts for “fair-trade” houses.
None of this is to say that there are not a great many people in the Labour Party who believe that the Party’s policies are good for the country as a whole, and who seek to persuade people to vote Labour on that basis. But there is also a considerable strain with the Labour Party that simply thinks voting Conservative is morally wrong, rather than merely misguided, and that group of people is always going to fail to communicate with swing voters.
Some in the US have tried to move beyond this, but in a laughably silly way. Thomas Frank’s book What’s the matter with Kansas? argues that poor people who vote Republican are not evil. They are stupid. The poor saps have had the wool pulled over their eyes by evil plutocrats. The cartoon image of the evil conservative is still there, just one step removed. But, somehow, “don’t be an idiot, vote for us” is no more persuasive than appealing to people not to be so evil.
Am I worried that I am somehow letting the secret out, and giving Labour clues on how to rebuild itself? Not really. Five year from now, Labour will still be banging on about which school people went to, and still convinced that such factors only apply to Conservatives. If someone privately educated (as Tony Blair was) chooses to join the Labour Party they see it as an act of moral virtue. They see people like John Major and William Hague as deluded at best and ‘class traitors’ at worst. And therein lies the problem that the Labour Party cannot see.