Greens need to get out of the Comfort Zone to win
In the 2009 Rectorial election at Edinburgh University New Labour grandee George Foulkes was on his way to defeat by Iain Macwhirter. Foulkes couldn’t escape the consequences of voting for tuition and top up fees, ID cards and the war in Iraq while an MP. He was unable to make his local campaign issues (like refurbishing theatres) play.
As Foulkes headed for a defeat as inevitable as it was massive he turned to his trump card – crime on campus. The move by the Labour party to capturing law and order as an issue for the party was seen by Blairites like Foulkes as fundamental to their electoral success. It was so effective that it became the issue to which the Labour party returned time after time. Labour repeatedly legislated on Criminal Justice.
Foulkes’ campaign resulted in a remarkable failure (4822 votes to 2182). This was because students thought the notion of crime on campus was daft. There are three key lessons for Greens in this. I’ll be dealing with these in a series of blog posts this week.
Foulkes: Defeated by Iain Macwhirter and his campaign team:
This post, the first in the series deals with campaigning in the comfort zone. Campaigning in your comfort zone (in the case of Foulkes, this was crime) almost inevitably results in failure. The second is that some issues just don’t resonate with the electorate – students didn’t see crime as an issue. The final lesson is that even if the issue resonates with the electorate you might well not win votes because voters suspect your motives.
In Scotland Labour repeatedly legislated on anti-social behaviour and argued for tougher sentences. The defining issues for Labour in Scotland after its 2007 defeat have been justice issues. Early release, mandatory sentences for knife crime and the Megrahi issue have all been bread and butter for the party. It looks like the key issue for Labour in the 2011 election will be crime and justice. This has become New Labour’s comfort zone. It’s somewhere that they feel comfortable. They have the moral high ground, they can attack other parties, and they know from focus groups and polling that it is popular.
We all remember the Conservatives running the 2001 election campaign on Europe . William Hague had a countdown to the election in which he would proclaim that the electorate had “last chance to save the Pound.” This was popular, whether or not it was right. Most people agreed that Britain shouldn’t enter the Euro. But it was in the comfort zone.
The reason that staying in the comfort zone is so problematic for political parties is that any one issue is not enough to win a vote. People agreed with the Conservatives on Europe . But they wanted a competent government. So they voted for Labour. The Euro simply wasn’t important enough as an issue.
Almost any voter makes the decision to vote based on a complex set of information. Some of it is about historical voting behaviour. Some is about policy, other voters choose candidates that they trust in parties that they don’t. Every political party has its comfort zone. It is sometimes about particular issues. Sometimes it’s about appealing to a particular type of person. Often it’s both.
We all know what the comfort zones are for parties. For Conservatives it’s Europe . For New Labour it is crime and for the Liberal Democrats it is proportional representation. These are issues where parties are almost always in agreement with the majority – or at least a section of the electorate substantially larger than their vote. They are issues that play well in focus groups and in polls. Many people will list them as their real concerns.
But a party campaigning in its comfort zone appears self-indulgent to the electorate. It seems like the party is interested in talking only to itself about its obsessions. Campaigning in the comfort zone makes a political party like someone showing off their holiday photos – however interested you might be in where he or she has been it’s often very dulldull. And it’s dull because the point of the photos isn’t to form a link with you. It’s to show-off, to talk about things you haven’t been part of, or to prove some point or other. Too often political parties campaign in this way. You can see whole cadres of Tories agitating for exactly this approach at Conservative Home.
Often it’s presented as ‘keeping to principles’, or ‘appealing to the core vote’. But it’s most often because those in charge of the campaign lack the skill or understanding of the electorate needed to be successful.
This is a difficult area for Greens. As a radical party the number of voters needed to make a significant breakthrough is relatively small. With just 10 per cent of the vote Greens could be very significant players in Scottish politics. But Greens need to be very careful about the politics of their comfort zone.
Opposing the additional Forth Road Bridge is absolutely the right thing to do. The cost of at least £2bn will be crippling to the public finances at a time of financial constraint. The Bridge is not needed, as the existing Bridge can be repaired at a fraction of the cost, and with only moderate disruption.
The case against the additional Bridge, though, runs contrary to a narrative built up by the media and bought into by politicians that a second crossing is needed just in case the existing bridge can’t be repaired. To explain that this is not the case takes considerable time and effort. That’s time and effort that no campaigner has. A good campaign has to either resonate immediately with its audience or be part of a longer plan to reposition the party.
The campaign against the additional Forth Road Bridge is just too complex to be communicated easily. And it doesn’t do anything to reposition the Green Party. That’s not to say that Green Councillors and MSPs shouldn’t highlight the massive opportunities to spend the money that would have been used on the additional crossing. And here’s the crux of good campaigning. The issue is, really, what we should spend the money on, not why the bridge is a waste of money.
It is important to find ways to reposition the Green Party over the longer term. These should focus on the ways Greens represent the direct interests of voters. This is a medium term project that Caroline Lucas has already effectively started. Her campaigning against cuts, academies and for a new economy shows a commitment to the electorate that can help to build a broader and more electorally successful party.
A version of this article appeared in the Scottish Left Review.
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Why is it so ridiculous for the Green Party to unite with left wing groups and form one big super party? Their are far more people in Scotland who would identify themselves as socialist before they would green. I also don’t think winning an election is a matter of comfort zones. I think it’s a matter of simply offering the best program combined with resoirces to get out the central messages, which are based on the program. Obviously, the Green Party cannot match the resources of Labour or the Tories, but that doesn’t mean that they have to resort to the kinds of cheap gimmickery of the parties with money.
You know it’s always baffled me why political parties don’t work together more, especially in strongholds of one party or another. Are electoral pacts so bad? Will they somehow make the world a worse place? Of course not, it’s only the ego and the lack of imagination of party leaders that stop real upsets from happening.
Any place, any constituency where the incumbent does not command a significant overall majority, is surely up for grabs. Would it be so awful for parties to work together and topple the likes of Wendy Alexander. How great would that be?
Thanks for your comments.
I think you may be right about Hague, but the ‘save the pound’ line wasn’t working even before Blair neutered it. That’s probably because people thought it was ‘the tories going on about Europe again.’
Actually, I think the point you make about Caroline Lucas on QT illustrates the point quite well. If Caroline had been talking about allotments in Brighton (as they were on Gardeners QT on Sunday!) she wouldn’t have had that platform to highlight Greens’ position on Afghanistan.
And Afghanistan is one of those issues where only Greens are advocating a withdrawal. A position supported by proportion of the electorate well beyond Green support. I blogged about it here:
As Mark says moving this narrative on may be difficult, but it will be ultimately worthwhile. Especially if the aim is to make the Greens a 15% party.
It’s true that people will only hear our comments on issues other than the environment if the media bother to print/broadcast our opinion. But why make it easy for the media to pigeon-hole us by conforming to stereotype and only talking about the environment? if our stories are good enough they will eventually get coverage.
Yes , will need to fight hard to get out of the corner we are painted into. but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try! the recent electoral successes of the French and German Greens have come because they have expended their vote base, persuading former social democrats that the greens are a safe left-of-centre vote. That can’t be done by appealing only to the already converted.
A couple of points:
As I recall, the Hague “Save The Pound” campaign became a non-issue even before the election because Blair said there would be a referendum, therefore the electorate knew that this was not the “last chance” to save the pound. It left the Tories without a campaign to speak of, but they blundered on anyway.
Secondly, I think you’re right about comfort zones, but we can only comment on other issues if the media ask our opinion. Or rather, people will only hear our comments on other issues if the media bother to print/broadcast our opinion. Remember Dimbleby asking Caroline Lucas on QT why her first parliamentary question had been about Afghanistan, as if she had no right to be talking about the issue?
Both the electorate AND the media need to learn that we have policies on things other than the environment, but I’m afraid that even the name of the party paints us into that corner and it will take a lot of fighting to get out.