Understanding the political context

David Howarth, Director MPP

One of the qualities policy-makers are often said to need is an understanding of the political context in which they work. But there are many barriers in the way of that  understanding, from the institutional, for example where the concept of civil service neutrality filters out those with political experience from senior roles, to the imaginative, for example where politically partisan decision-makers find it very difficult to see politics from anyone else’s point of view.

One way of helping both official and political policy-makers better to understand the political context in which they work is to construct for them pictures of the political world from the perspective of different political actors.  A suitable starting point is the question of which kinds of voters politicians might have in mind when they make decisions. While electoral politics is far from the whole of politics, in democracies it understandably looms very large.  As an illustration of how this might be done, I have taken data from the first wave of the 2015 British Election Study to construct some simple maps of how politicians from different British parties might experience the electorate.

The method is very straightforward. For simplicity, we confine ourselves to the top two issues mentioned by voters in the study itself, namely the economy and immigration. We then take an attitudinal question on each of those issues (a more complex method would be to construct scales, but, it turns out that using different questions makes not much difference), cross-tabulate the results and present them using a 3-D surface diagram to show the number of voters in each cell. We then filter the data to show each party’s potential voters, as defined by a question that asked each respondent to declare, on a scale of zero to ten, the chance of their ever voting for each of the parties and for each party in turn confining ourselves to those who gave a score of six or more. The resulting diagrams show the shape of each party’s potential electorate on the two most important issues of the day.

Of course we cannot say whether individual politicians in each party will have fully grasped the shape of the electorate they face, but political activity itself – canvassing voters, talking to constituents who ask for help, reading opinion polls, looking at election results – tends over time to reveal to politicians what their own supporters and potential supporters think. Another limitation is that an individual politician’s view will often relate to a particular place and will build up slowly, so that it might not be accurate for other places and might, if the electorate has changed its view in a significant way, be out of date. Nevertheless the overall situation of a party should better predict the viewpoints of individual politicians than assuming that politicians have no information at all about their electorates or only know about the electorate as a whole. Another caveat is that politicians might vary in how much they care about what the electorate thinks, either because their personal circumstances might differ (those about to retire tend to be more forthright) or because some are more optimistic than others about their ability to influence public opinion. But in the medium term a democratic politician who ignores electoral opinion is likely to have limited influence on public policy.

So what are the results? The two questions used were: (on a scale of one to five) how much do you agree or disagree with the following statement: ‘Government should redistribute income from the better off to those who are less well off’; and (on a scale of one to seven) do you think that immigration undermines or enriches Britain’s cultural life? (The cultural question on immigration was chosen because questions about the economic benefits of immigration might confuse the two dimensions).

The electorate as a whole looks like this:

AllElectorate

There are two distinct peaks: a group that is strongly in favour of redistribution and very hostile to immigration and group that is moderately in favour of redistribution and neutral or moderately welcoming of immigration. Further analysis of those peaks seems to indicate that the first peak attracts older, lower income and less well educated voters, the second younger, higher income and better educated voters.

Probable Conservative voters, however, look like this:

Conservatives

The potential Conservative vote peaks where one might expect, on the anti-immigration economic centre right, but the Conservatives have a wide appeal to the centre ground on both dimensions, an appeal not shared by the United Kingdom Independence Party, whose electorate looks like this:

UKIP

UKIP voters are much more concentrated at the anti-immigration side of the map than Conservatives, but are also much broader than Conservatives in their views on redistribution, ranging from the centre right to the far left. In the struggle for votes between the two parties, UKIP has a big advantage that it has little to lose by expressing anti-immigration views, whereas the Conservatives risk alienating a sizeable group of moderate voters. The Conservatives have a far better defined target group of voters in terms of economic views – the centre and the centre right in conventional terms – whereas UKIP’s best strategy is probably to avoid all discussion of economic policy since any degree of specificity is likely to lose them more voters than it gains.

Perhaps the most interesting map is that faced by the Labour Party:

Labour

What is striking about Labour’s map is that it looks rather like the electorate as a whole. It has a peak on the anti-immigration strongly pro-redistribution far left and another at the moderately pro-immigration and redistribution centre-left. But what looks like a strength presents a very deep problem for Labour politicians. The immigration issue is deeply divisive not only for the country but also for Labour’s own potential voters. Pleasing both groups is a very difficult task and might lead Labour politicians into seemingly incoherent positions. The fact that the two peaks attract different social groups, with much of Labour’s traditional working class support being attracted to the first peak, makes the situation even more painful for Labour given its history and self-image as a party of and for the working class. Another possible strategy for Labour is the precise opposite of that of UKIP, namely to unify their voters by emphasising broadly leftist economic policies while saying as little as possible about immigration. That indeed appears to have been Labour’s approach until quite recently. Its flaw was that it left Labour very vulnerable to UKIP, a flaw that could be ignored while UKIP was a small fringe party obsessed with Europe and Thatcherite economics. That situation has now changed and Labour faces some very difficult decisions.

The map facing the Scottish National Party is an extreme version of that facing the Labour Party. It has high peaks at both the far pro- and anti-immigration corners of the strongly in favour of redistribution category:

SNP

The SNP can outflank Labour on the left on economic issues and keep its vote largely together but it is even more divided on immigration than Labour. Perhaps the election of a UKIP member of the European Parliament from Scotland in 2014 was not as surprising as it seemed.

Finally, here is the picture for the Liberal Democrats:

LibDems

The Liberal Democrats’ potential vote centres on the moderately pro-immigration economically centre-left peak. The Liberal Democrats are in direct competition with Labour for those voters, but do not face Labour’s problem of needing also to satisfy a very strongly anti-immigration group of voters. Despite this strategic advantage the Liberal Democrats have evidently lost very large numbers of liberal-minded centre-left voters to Labour (and to the Greens) since the formation of the coalition in 2010. They have also lost (to Labour and UKIP) the modest first peak vote they attracted in 2010. Perhaps for ideological reasons and perhaps as a result of being routed by Labour and the Greens on the party’s own ground, the Liberal Democrat leadership seems to have toyed with the idea of moving away from the liberal centre-left peak either towards the centre (where the Conservatives are surprisingly strong) or towards the so-called ‘authentic liberal’ corner at the bottom right of the map. The problem with both of those strategies, and especially the latter, is that the number of potential Liberal Democrat voters, already much diminished, declines rapidly as one moves in either of those directions.

Looking at all four maps together, the political world as British politicians face it should be clearer. The battle between Labour and the Conservatives looks like a conventional one between the economic centre-left and the economic centre-right, but both parties have strong reasons for not wanting the agenda to shift away from economic issues to immigration even though immigration is what many of the voters want politics to be about. Unfortunately for both parties, UKIP has every incentive to talk about immigration and to ignore economic issues, or to redefine economic issues in terms of immigration. Of the two main parties, the Conservatives seem to be in the stronger position to react to UKIP’s challenge, since although both they and Labour risk losing voters if the debate shifts on to immigration, Labour’s vote is more bifurcated and the losses look greater whichever way it turns. On the other hand, the Liberal Democrats’ great weakness means that Labour, at least currently, no longer faces a war on two fronts leaving it relatively free to move in the direction of its first peak voters.

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