Thursday, 1 November 2012

Labour: juggling with Occam's razor

As any economist will tell you, we live in a world of incomplete information. A change in information can serve as a shock, and change the economic landscape all by itself.

But this is also true of politics. Changes in information can also change the political landscape, and Labour has just experienced one of what ought to be seismic proportions: it now knows which voters it has lost.

However, surprisingly, this fact went almost unreported in the press: in fact, in the broadsheet press it was initially only reported by the Telegraph; on the left, barely a whisper.

So there are two stories here: the event itself; and the lack of attention it has received.

Why is this event so important? Well, during the last half-parliament, conventional wisdoms as to why Labour lost the last election have built up, fallen and built up again. On the left and on the right of the party, we have all had our theories but, as so often in politics, based more on intuition than hard facts. A rigorous post-mortem has been noticeable by its absence.

Until now.

On Monday last week, YouGov pollster Peter Kellner released a detailed polling study of the now-celebrated five million votes lost between 1997 and 2010. And the results might be really rather surprising to Labour’s high command.

The piece bears reading in full for its lucidity and its clear basis in numerical fact, where the temptation for anyone not thinking about the subject too hard, or not used to crunching numbers, is to oversimplify.

For example, the set of people who did vote Labour was not the same, either; 3.5m of the original 13.5m did not vote Labour in 2010 for the simple reason that they had died in the intervening thirteen years.

But the main conclusion is inescapable: the votes need to be looked for in the centre, not to the left. The shock, emperor-has-no-clothes finding is that it’s not the “new politics”; it’s politics as usual.

Of the voters Labour needs to convince, four read a right-wing paper for every one who reads a left-wing paper. And the left-wing defectors from Labour are outnumbered by right-wing defectors by a margin of six-to-one.

Six. To one. As Kellner says, “these are big differences which cannot be wished away”.

All this does not mean that the pan-Labour five million votes organisation, launched in July, now lacks a purpose; we still need to re-engage with and mobilise those lost voters. But the question of where to look for them is now answered, unless there is about to be another detailed poll which draws out entirely different facts about the same voters.

The second story is odd, but eerily familiar: why has the left-leaning commentariat seemingly ignored the only hard, factual evidence it has been provided with to date?

Among the bigger blogs, there was a response piece by the decent Don Paskini over at Liberal Conspiracy, but it started from the dubious premise that, since Labour was already high in the polls, we didn’t need to worry about these lost voters.

But mostly silence, where the results scream to be heard: which leads one to think that the unpalatable truths unveiled are simply easier to ignore than to answer. How else can it not be news that Labour finally has figures on where it went wrong, after a two-year wait? Information that is critical to winning the next election?

The review of possible policy strategies for Labour is not perfect, as Hopi Sen points out: some of the policy positions which Kellner indicates might be popular with the lost voters may be undesirable, or even disastrous. But that does not mean we need to go out and adopt them all and, most importantly, as Sen also notes, this absolutely does not detract from the clear message of the numbers: stop looking left for votes, it’s the centre you need to win.

There will also surely be those who will somehow find that the figures or the methodology of Kellner is flawed. But Kellner is a respected pollster, whoseYouGov regularly provides polling data for all parts of the political spectrum. So, being rational, sensible people, we are left with two possible explanations for the hard facts we are suddenly, awkwardly, confronted with.

The first explanation is as follows: the YouGov analysis is flawed because (delete as applicable: polling methodology flawed/you can never trust polling/random ad hominem about Peter Kellner). The real votes Labour needs are to the left, not in the centre, because a once-in-a-lifetime paradigm shift has happened and the global financial crisis has changed everything. As long as the polls hold up, we don’t need any more votes, anyway. We don’t yet have any numerical evidence of the whereabouts of the missing votes but, listen, we really have a good feeling about this.

The second explanation is this: the voters we need to win are in the centre, where they have always been. We now have solid, empirical proof of this. Even if this wasn’t our strategy before, it should be from now on.

Which of these is the most convincing, the first or the second?

In short, when someone offers us hard, scientific evidence for the first time in two years on a subject on which our electoral life depends, rejecting it is a high-risk strategy. It’s like someone offering you penicillin to treat your infected leg, and you answering “no, look, don’t worry, I’ve a few herbal remedies in the cupboard which I’m sure’ll do the trick”.

And – here’s the rub – the Tories are dying for us to go after the first answer. There you go, Michael Ashcroft, we’ve decided to go for your dream electoral scenario. No, no charge.

The principle of Occam’s razor states that, among competing solutions, the one which makes the fewest assumptions should be selected. Once we start making increasing, and more tenuous, numbers of “if”s, it’s usually because we’re reaching for a solution which fits our preconceptions, rather than the facts.

It may conceivably be that the leadership team had already accepted Kellner’s conclusions by the time of Miliband’s conference speech, and hence the One Nation tagline, which happily fits with it. But the reception, or lack of it, the study has had so far does not bode well for this conclusion and, even if it were so, political strategies and slogans are very different animals. As Kellner says of abandoning that centre ground that, nowadays, most voters inhabit:

“Every Labour policy between now and 2015 must pass the ‘one nation’ test. Any whiff of the politics of social contest-pitching ‘our’ people against ‘their’ people-would do immense harm.”

In other words, Miliband must take the One Nation slogan he has adopted and forge from it a true strategy of the centre, or face electoral defeat. The figures are as stark as that.

Sometimes the simplest answers are overlooked precisely because they seem too simple. But now we no longer have an excuse. We can accept the principle of Occam’s razor; or we can continue to grapple with it, casting around for explanations which we find more comfortable.

Until, that is, we find that it is rather sharp.

This post first published at Labour Uncut, and selected for Progress' What We're Reading list. A response piece was posted at Though Cowards Flinch

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