Corbyn entered mainstream politics after decades on the periphery promising a new way to do things – a kinder, gentler politics. His position is that people do not want spin and triangulation, they want to be given a choice between parties who simply articulate their policies and then the electorate can choose whichever suits them most. Most people attack Corbyn because many of the policies he proposes are unpopular and won’t win the support he believes is out there. While there is certainly merit in such a position, I believe the bigger problem is that Corbyn’s initial premise is incorrect, and fundamentally good policies do not win elections. This is a very naive view, and unfortunately, ignoring what actually wins elections in favour of what ought to win elections in an ideal world leads to losing every time in this real world. The truth is that policies have to be crafted and sold in a particular way, through the media, if people are to accept them.
Let us first look at some of things that Corbyn believes affect how people vote: the big picture, the truth of a story, and how unfair/ mean a policy is. Again, in an ideal world, we would always focus on the larger story, only true stories, and the government being unfair and mean would be a huge negative; this is not the case in the real world.
If you believe the science, it seems almost inarguable that dealing with climate change is the most important challenge that we face. However, this is dealing with the bigger picture, which just doesn’t affect people like it should. It’s too easy for our monkey brains to be distracted by the here and now to care about things that happen over the course of centuries, and frequently affect people far away. Solutions to climate change can only become popular by either shifting the focus onto issues here and now, or changing the economic incentives so that it is cheaper to choose the greener option – preaching on the importance of focusing on the bigger picture is something that everyone will agree on in principle, but it unlikely to actually change voting habits.
Next is the truth. The idealists believe that all that is needed to counter a lie is to point out that it is a lie. This was a disastrous tactic in the EU referendum. Many prominent remainers seemed outraged at the audacity of leavers to use the £350m/ week figure, and in every debate brought up that they were lying, as if this would sway the minds of the undecided. It played well to those who already agreed with them, but ultimately it was just a poor way of convincing anyone. I am unable to decide whether this was good fortune on the part of the brexiteers, or a genius planned strategy to trap the remainers in an endless argument where ultimately both sides kept talking about how much money was sent to the EU, instead of focusing on EU positives. If your strategy for dealing with a lie is to point out it’s a lie and leave it at that, do not believe that you have achieved anything.
The final point on Corbyn’s list is the ‘kinder, gentler’ part: too many Tory policies are nasty. Again, we shouldn’t be nasty, but highlighting a policy as nasty will get the “oh, what a shame” reaction, but it won’t change undecided people’s minds. As you are reading this, you’re probably already a bit of a politics nerd, but I’d be willing to bet that most of you are unaware of one of the Conservatives ‘meanest’ policies, regarding social housing. Any family earning more that £40,0000 in London or £30,000 elsewhere will have to pay “a fair rent” of the private sector equivalent. Bear in mind that this is more or less the rate of two adults working full time on minimum wage. In my area of Lambeth, the average family on the £40,000 income will be expected to pay an additional £12,000 to £18,000 pounds a year to stay in their home, or be evicted. Moreover, due to high levels of adult illiteracy among foreign born people in my area, many will not understand the letter that the council has sent them demanding that they prove they earn less than this, and so will automatically be considered to earn over it. Seeing as pretty much none of the families on £40,000 will have an extra £12,000 spare, many people face being forced to move. This is undoubtedly an incredibly ‘mean’ policy, but that just doesn’t work as a valid attack. As with the above two points, people will agree with you, they’ll say, “oh that’s awful”, and then it won’t affect their vote. This is why this story never gained any traction in the news, and things like the bedroom tax failed to cause people to turn against the Conservatives in 2015.
So if the truth, meanness and the bigger picture don’t really affect how people react to certain policies, what does? I propose four key factors: relevance, understability, believability and competence.
The easiest to tackle is whether an argument is understandable. This was the biggest failure of Labour in 2010. The conservatives said, “the economy crashed because they spent too much”, and Labour replied, “actually, the banks in America had problems with subprime mortgages and certain financial derivates, and when the housing bubble burst, the institutions were too interconnected, exacerbated by high leverage ratios, and the system crumbled.” No points for guessing which argument worked better with the undecideds. In one of my favourite quotes, Alasdair Campbell says that, your message has to be so clear that even a child with a paintbrush could get it and pass it on. I do not believe anyone could accuse the current Labour party of doing such a thing. As much as people like to mock Theresa May, “brexit means brexit” is perfect here – there is nothing to misunderstand as it doesn’t really even mean anything. In fact, her statement could have just been “brexit”, if it didn’t sound so silly as a full sentence.
Next is relevance. This is the cure to the two problems of the bigger picture and mean polices. The bigger picture must also be the smaller picture, and a mean policy only matters if it affects you or someone close to you. The best example for how relevancy can turn an issue round incredibly quickly is LGBT rights. In ’60s, it was a fringe issue, and no one cared because it was just a bunch of weirdos you’d never met. The tactic that forced people to reconsider was a mass campaign of getting people to come out to their families, not just their friends, because people suddenly cared a lot more when a brother or aunt was being hurt by these policies. In fact, this policy was so successful that it led to some nasty consequences, such as Harvey Milk outing Oliver Sipple, the man who stopped an assassination on Gerald Ford, in an attempt to make gay people look good in the centre of politics, rather than an irrelevancy. The brexit campaign did this a lot better than the remainers, by suggesting that the £350m/ week could be used on the NHS, which was far more relevant to people’s lives that whatever it was being used for over in Brussels, which was entirely irrelevant. (Out of interest, did you care that I said £350m just there, even though it’s a lie? Probably not.)
The next one is not one that can be solved as quickly as correctly spinning a message. A key failure in the remainers’ argument was that they simply were not believed when they gave economic warnings. Again, people like to mock Michael Gove’s expert statement, but it was, in fact, entirely correct. The full quote is “I think that the people of this country have had enough of experts from organisations with acronyms saying that they know what is best and getting it consistently wrong.” Although this is painted as an anti-intellectualism issue, I believe it is a credibility issue. The research back this up: two thirds of people did not believe that brexit would make them any poorer. Perhaps once merely saying that the OECD, the IMF, etc say something is true once held water, but they no longer seem to have any clout. This is somewhat tied in to the understandable ideas area: ideally you want your policy to be understood, and if it’s complicated, then you have to have the authority to declare it to be the truth and be believed. The remainers did not have this credibility among the undecideds.
As a quick test of credibility, if Jeremy Corbyn came out tomorrow and said he had found out that the UK government had a secret Guantanamo-style prison in an island off the coast of Africa, what probability would you put on that being an accurate statement? Myself, maybe 5%. Conversely, if Ed Miliband said the same thing tomorrow, it would bounce up to around 50%. Despite his awkwardness and lack of leadership skills, he was credible as a person, and I’d take his accusations seriously. For me, I just don’t believe half of what Corbyn says.
Finally, is the area of competence. The perfect example is of the Green party vs the SNP. In the popular online quiz vote for policies, the Greens always did very well. Yet people simply did not see them as a party that was competent enough to carry out those policies. Conversely, the SNP don’t have many radical policies, yet enjoy massive support from those who want radical change, as well as many who do not support independence for Scotland, because they are seen as a competent party. Without this, the most popular of policies simply do not carry forward into electoral success.
Jeremy Corbyn could maybe win an election in the right circumstances, but I firmly believe that that could only happen if he completely changes his strategy away from his folksy ‘kinder, gentler’ strategy of just trying to put forward nice policies. Even if the Tories have huge amounts of infighting, the economy suffers and brexit negotiations go badly, as long as Corbyn refuses to sell his alternative properly, he still will not win. He currently enjoys the majority opinion on nationalising the railways and energy companies, but if he cannot make that policy relevant to people’s lives, and provide a competent, credible and understandable way of doing it, it will count for nothing.