A moment’s thought would have shown him.
But a moment is a long time, and thought is a painful process.
A E Housman
The UK’s two main opposition parties are in disarray.
Not only have they badly lost an election, they have lost their way. They are faced with choosing new leaders and a new direction. At a time of high emotions, both the Lib Dems and the Labour Party have to take decisions which will influence their future success, and the future success of the United Kingdom.
There are two ways they can take these decisions: quickly, through internal discussions to reach a consensus; or slowly, after a period of external research to make sure that they understand the problems before they choose the solutions.
Instinct says, “we need to act quickly, we can get the facts later.” But this would be counter-productive. Indeed, part of the reason they lost so badly in 2019 was a reluctance to face facts before acting.
Both parties face two challenges:
- getting to the facts; and
- acting on them.
Getting to the Facts
A planning process based largely on internal dialogue can certainly be fast, but it risks reaching conclusions based on the loudest voices, the most appealing stories, and the most persuasive rhetoric, rather than on reality. Groupthink can then cement these conclusions in place, and the strategy is set for the next few years. Short-term morale can be high, but long-term success becomes impossible.
There are three sets of facts that both parties need to be aware of:
- facts about the election;
- facts about people’s lives; and
- facts about the economy.
Facts about the Election
The Labour Party has to choose a new leader and revise its policy programme. But it is not clear that it yet understands the reasons for its failure in this election. I have heard confidently-expressed explanations including:
- “this is all down to Corbyn – he was never electable: with his background, people just couldn’t trust him”
- “our messages were confusing: Boris had three words; we had 107 pages”
- “it was our failure to deal with anti-Semitism that really hurt us”
- “this is entirely down to our Brexit position – it was too complex: neither Remainers nor Leavers liked it”
- “the British electorate simply isn’t ready for such left-wing policies; we need to tack sharply to the right and compete in the centre ground”
- “we were too nice: they lied, and we didn’t really call it out”
- “we are not working-class enough – we’ve left behind our traditional voters”
- “this is the result of media bias: most newspapers and the BBC were far from impartial in their reporting, and it was impossible for us to get our messages through”
- “we would have won if we had made an electoral pact with the LibDems.”
- “we were massively outspent on social media, both by the official Tory campaign and by unofficial backers”
Getting to the bottom of this really matters for future success.
Suppose, purely for the sake of argument, that the first point was by far the dominant factor. In that case, the Labour Party has little to worry about – all it needs to do is to choose a different leader and it will be well placed in the next election. If, hypothetically, it was the even-numbered points which largely sank Labour’s campaign, their key challenge is communication. And if by contrast, it was the odd-numbered points, then they need a root and branch review of leadership, policies, membership, governance, etc. And of course other combinations would have other implications.
The Lib Dems’ challenge
The LibDems face similar questions. Do they really know why they lost 10 of their 21 seats? Was it that:
- “we had the wrong leader – she really thought she could be prime minister, but she couldn’t even hold her own seat”
- “we forgot that we are in a first past the post system – it’s no good getting more votes if fewer of them count”
- “our position on Brexit was to ignore 52% of those who voted in the referendum. That’s just suicide”
- “we spent far more time attacking Labour than attacking the Tories, which made any kind of electoral pact impossible”
- “we were the only party not prepared to call for an end to austerity”
- “nobody knew what our policies were”
- “our policy of running a permanent government surplus was economic illiteracy – we should have known that”
- “the media didn’t give us any air-time”
The people in both parties saying these things are all passionate, and probably all of these factors weighed with at least some voters, so they are all partly right. But it is unlikely that any one of these factors tells the whole story for either party.
The only way for either party to win back enough voters is to take the time to understand in detail:
- which factors persuaded which voters,
- what were their reasons for believing these things, and
- what strategies will be most effective in changing their minds.
And that will take time, effort, and determination to face the facts they uncover.
It takes real courage to admit, “We lost. And we don’t even know why we lost.” But that is the reality both opposition parties must face if they wish to have any prospect of returning to Government.
Facts about People’s Lives
The process above will give the opposition parties a deep understanding of voters’ motivations. And this will be necessary, but not sufficient, for them to move forward.
Not only do they need to understand how voters feel – prosperous or struggling; secure or insecure, heard or ignored; respected or looked down upon – they also need to understand the root causes of those feelings.
For example, if someone is struggling it could be because their income has fallen – for most people, since 2010, this is the case. But it could be because their costs are rising: housing costs, travel costs and costs of utilities have all been rising faster than inflation. Or it could be because services that used to be provided free are no longer available, and they are now having to find the money themselves.
Having a sound basis for policy formulation means acquiring a solid understanding of how many people have been hit how hard by each of these causes.
Facts about the Economy
To make it even harder, there may be a conflict between what is true and what voters – and even MPs – believe to be true as Chris Dillow has pointed out.
For example, many voters believe that austerity was a regrettable necessity given the state of public finances; the facts are that it was a political choice and an economic disaster.
Many voters believe that immigration is a net drain on public services, while most economists do not. On the other hand, while many policy-makers believe that immigration does not harm the wages of indigenous workers; research by the Bank of England suggests that for low-skilled workers, this is not true.
In cases like these, the opposition parties have to choose between:
- basing their policies on economic reality and facing the uphill communications battle that this implies; and
- basing their policies on widely accepted myths and accepting the damage these policies will do if enacted.
Acting on the Facts
And acquiring the facts is only the beginning. Making effective use of them means that the parties need to:
- know the facts themselves;
- make sure the country knows the facts;
- base their policies on the facts.
Making sure that the Party knows the Facts
The single most important policy decision in the UK over the last 10 years has been the decision to implement austerity. This was justified on the basis of the “state of government finances.” How many MPs – in any party – are aware that the ratio of government debt to GDP is currently below the average of the last 300 years? How many are aware that the UK’s costs of borrowing actually fell when UK gilts lost their triple-A rating? How many understand how money is really created in a modern economy? And if they do not know these things, how can they coherently formulate policy in relation to austerity?
The opposition parties should set up an internal Fact Unit, linked to some of the major universities, and conduct regular training for all MPs and local candidates and as many other party members as possible. This unit should be briefed to stick to the unvarnished truth, leaving spin to other departments. The value of having an accurate understanding will outweigh any other factors.
Making sure the country knows the facts
Most people in the UK are worse off than they were in 2010. The economy as a whole is slightly richer. Clearly, many people have been voting against their own interests – but not, of course, by choice. They have simply not been aware of the facts.
And for the opposition parties, this is a real challenge because much of the media is owned by a small number of individuals who promote the market fundamentalist agenda.
Alongside policy formulation, creative new approaches to helping the mass of the population to understand what is really driving their prosperity – or lack of it – will be needed more than ever.
Basing policy on the facts
Finally, and perhaps most obviously, policy needs to be based on the facts.
Policy formulation is complex, but there are only fundamentally four types of policy. Each policy either grows the pie or it doesn’t; and it either shares the benefits of that growth fairly or it doesn’t. That gives us four types of policy:
Type I: captured growth policies,
Type II: shared growth policies,
Type III: vulture policies and
Type IV: balancing policies.
The principal reason so many people are poorer than they were 10 years ago is that we have had too many type I and type III policies during that time, and too few type II and type IV policies.
Assessing new policies in this way is certainly possible. Already the Office for Budget Responsibility analyses each budget in terms of its impact on the economy as a whole – the size of the pie – and the Institute for Fiscal Studies analyses their impact on different sectors of the population.
An ideal policy portfolio would contain many type II policies, no type III policies and where it did contain type I policies – as it probably should – it would balance them with type IV policies.
* * *
While in opposition, this wholehearted commitment to the facts is one of the most constructive things either party can do. Once they again form a government, there are five steps they need to take.