Wednesday 13 January 2016

The Trident trap

In his book The Conservative Heart, Arthur Brooks writes that those politicians win who 'scramble the categories'. What he meant is that political parties are perceived to be strong or weak in certain policy areas. To set out to reiterate their strengths is unlikely to add any new converts to their cause.

Conservatives are thought to be competent in running the economy and reducing a budget deficit. Labour politicians may be seen to be compassionate and concerned with social justice. The trick to win elections is not to focus on your strengths, Brooks argues, but to stray onto your opponent's field and steal their arguments.

The Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn is moving further from this advice by the day. Whilst under Blair the party consciously placed their tanks on the lawn of the Conservative Party, under the present leader the party is withdrawing rapidly into its comfort zone. Part of this started under Miliband already. But Corbyn and his comrades are going even further. They are not just deliberately negating any policy aspirations in traditional Conservative areas such as the economy, but Corbyn also pushes issues that are of little importance to the wider public.

Political scientists call this the low salience trap. Members of all political parties are animated by certain issues that have symbolic significance for them and sustain their mobilisation strategies as the elections get close. The Conservatives have Europe, the left wing of Labour has Trident and NATO membership. The problem is that none of these issues have much currency amongst the wider public. Whilst they agitate a small minority of party members, the issues have so-called low salience amongst the electorate as a whole. Winning elections is predicated on reaching out from their own narrow party membership base to non-typical supporters and rehearsing topics that fail to captivate the wider electorate's imagination is unlikely to achieve that.

In essence, effective party leaders do not cultivate issues that have totemic meaning within the narrow membership base but actively seek out to neutralise these topics. Corbyn may currently enjoy the support of most of this members. But staying within the comfort zone of left wing activism is unlikely to produce electoral success.

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