Thursday 14 January 2016

Election Stories 1: Winners & Losers

Very few people vote for a detailed manifesto; we vote for stories.

Any major party's election manifesto makes for deadly dull reading. It's an earnest, detailed description of actions they would take if they get into power. It's important to have one, so the government can be held to account for what it promised.

However, no normal person would read the whole thing. Anyone who studies it closely is being paid to do so, or is an obsessive political anorak, or quite possibly both. I take a closer interest in politics than most people, but I've never read a manifesto in full and seldom read them at all.

Instead, we vote for a story. Pundits like to call it a narrative because that sounds fancier, but really it's a story. It needs to be short and simple, because we're easily distracted, and the stories on Game of Thrones are more entertaining. Successful political parties understand this.

The Winners

The two big winners in the 2015 general election are a case in point. The Conservative story could be summed up as follows:

If you're comfortably off, we'll protect you from scary foreigners and scroungers. We'll protect your pension, if you're old enough to get one. Stick with us, and tomorrow will be pretty much like today.

It's a mean story, in both senses of the word: Cruel and petty. But it resonated with just enough voters to give the Conservatives their first election majority in 23 years.

The Scottish National Party's story is even simpler:

A strong voice for Scottish values.

That's it. The story from the SNP can be adequately summed up in six words. I have lampooned the more grandiose attempts to push this message, but I must admit, it's brilliantly effective.

Part of its genius is that the SNP has no need to spell out what it means. Scottish values are generally understood to mean a bit more kindness and solidarity, compared to the values of evil "Westminster" (implictly Tory, English, or both). The details are conveniently vague. A Morningside stockbroker and Govan shipbuilder may have very different notions of what Scottish values are, but this matters little to the SNP, as long as it has their votes.

The Losers

If you don't define a strong narrative, the media will define one for you. This is what befell the Liberal Democrats. Their defining actions were going into coalition with the Tories, and breaking an explicit pledge on tuition fees. Nick Clegg's apology for the latter amounted to, "Yes, I know I broke my solemn promise, but I really, really wanted to, so please forgive me."

Against their will, the LibDems found themselves with the following story:

We are happy to prop up the Tories, and to break our promises in exchange for a little bit of power.

Personally, I think this was unjust. The LibDems stood for some important things; I endorsed our excellent local MP and was sad when he lost his seat by a couple of hundred votes. But politics isn't a fair business. The LibDems were stuck with a dismal narrative, and brutally punished for it.

UKIP's story was even simpler than the SNP's:

It's all the foreigners' fault.

Like the SNP, they tried creative vagueness; "it" is whatever happens to annoy you, and UKIP would make "it" go away by doing unspecified nasty things to foreigners. They secured 12.7% of the UK vote, but only one MP. Thankfully, the British people are not as xenophobic as UKIP wished.

The Greens had a simple story too, but it mutated beyond their control:

We care for the environment, but we're hippies so we're vague and fuzzy on details.

I have a lot of time for Green policies. In the long term, climate change is far and away the worst threat we face. Massive investment in renewable energy, improved transport, and sustainable agriculture would be a great thing for the UK. Unfortunately for the Greens, their biggest election headline was their leader's complete mental blank, while attempting to explain her own party's housing policy in a radio interview.

It's cruel, but also revealing: The Greens face an uphill struggle to be taken seriously at all, let alone on matters other than the environment. While the environment is important, it feels disconnected from mundane things like taxes, hospitals and schools, and the Greens suffer for it.

Part Two looks at the changing story told by the Labour party, from Blair through Miliband, and now Corbyn.

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