The right is getting better at winning elections and the left is getting worse – here's why and how we can turn it around

Left-wing brands are toxic, and this is how we can sort them out

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The Independent Online

Brexit, Trump, the impending UK general election, the House, the Senate, the local elections. It’s not been a great run for progressives in politics on either side of the Atlantic. If you don’t win, you can’t change much in politics. You need to want to win.

There’s an assumption, deeply embedded in how we talk, that facts win arguments.

This isn’t really true in science most of the time. But in public life it’s absurd.

When the public make a choice in elections they do something slightly different. They make a judgement about who, on balance, is right. Most of the time this works quite well – the public is generally pretty good at sniffing out fraud. They know when experiences they have run counter to what politicians are telling them, and it is that experience which will tip the balance in a decision

Why have we become so rubbish at winning?

The right is getting better at winning

The right has got better at winning. Here’s how they win. And what we can do to fight back.

Technology matters. But it’s not the main thing. The main thing is taking the time to understand the public, and meet them halfway.

How do people vote? Well, all of us are good at making mental shortcuts. If a biscuit tasted good last week, we buy it again. If we like the smell of coffee at Starbucks then it’s probably good coffee. If we voted Labour at the last election, we’ll probably vote Labour again.

People don’t make decisions with a calculator. They don’t add up policies and see which they like most. They make a gut instinct decision about who is best.

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That’s you and me too. Our brains are really good at making us think we have clever reasons for doing things. Normally, though, our brain makes the decision first, and we make up the reasons for it later.

Because we don’t calculate, things work differently. The right has got this worked out.

Brands matter and ours are toxic

In the long term, brands matter. If you liked Donald Trump as the fun businessman who you saw on The Apprentice, then you probably won’t believe, or even listen to, attacks on him. To see how powerful this is, look at how Republicans felt about the economy in November 2016. Before the election, they thought it was awful. Afterwards? Good.

Despite his terrible flaws, 90 per cent of Republicans voted for Donald Trump. Their belief in the party, and its brand, trumped Trump.

The Republicans did a great job of trashing Clinton over 25 years. Her brand was broken before the election started. It’s unfair. But it’s life. Candidates matter. And if you want to win, you get better candidates.

We allowed ourselves to be painted as unpatriotic

The right in Britain has done a great job of saying that the left is unpatriotic. And a bit weird.

Jeremy Corbyn has also done a great job of helping them. And plenty of people think that saying Brexit will work out badly for the UK is talking the country down.

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Social psychology says that warmth and competence are the main way we all assess other people.

The left loses on warmth. People consistently say that they’d like to share a pint with Boris Johnson. Almost nobody wants to share a pint with anyone on the left. Possibly at risk of a discussion on the inner workings of a political party.

And this isn’t because the left is seen as competent. Right-wingers, like Theresa May, are consistently seen as tough, and therefore competent.

Progressives are seen as nice, but weak and incompetent.

Every time a politician uses the media to talk about something, they are shaping how their party is seen.

Consider Theresa May. Earlier this year she called for a “red, white and blue” Brexit: literally a meaningless phrase. But smart politics. “Red, white and blue” means she’s patriotic.

The left then fell into the trap of attacking her, reinforcing the idea that the left is embarrassed by patriotism, or unpatriotic.

The public sided with Theresa May, and look set to again in the coming general election.

We don't own the issues people care about

Look at polling from Lord Ashcroft where the Conservatives lead on:

Values: Being clear, united, doing what they have promised, competency, sharing values and taking tough decisions for the long term.

Policy: The best approach to the economy, public finances, environment, crime, welfare, immigration, the cost of living and Brexit. The Conservatives also tie (in England) with Labour on schools.

Labour and the Lib Dems are, broadly, left with the values of caring about people and the NHS. It’s not surprising that the Labour keep reverting to the NHS; it’s virtually the only issue left over which they can claim of ownership at all (though recent polling is starting to throw even that into doubt.)

Fundamentally, the right has built up a stronger brand. Relevant to more people, in a wider range of situations than the left. It gives a favourable tailwind to anything they say and do.

This means that if Corbyn is attacked for being unpatriotic, most people will believe it’s true. If Clinton is attacked for overseeing a foundation making dodgy grants, then people would assume it’s true.

We think technology will solve the problem

We’ve heard scores of plans for technology to win elections. Yet hardly any actually involve persuading people to change their minds.

Instead, registering young people to vote is our go-to technology solution.

But consider this: in a typical British swing constituency less than 10 per cent of voters are under 25 years old, and around 5 per cent of them aren’t registered to vote.

If your new technology is incredibly good you might get half of this group to register to vote. Say 2.5 per cent of the population. Maybe net 60 per cent of these will vote progressively, so 1.5 per cent of the population.

In a typical British constituency that’s around 750 votes. Enough to swing roughly 10 constituencies out of 650 in 2015.

Alternatively, if you persuaded roughly one in 70 people who voted for right-wing parties to vote progressive, you’d have had the same effect.

Persuading people who are voting for our main opponents is simply the most powerful thing we can do.

Technology can be a powerful tool for us to understand which messages work. But only in the service of the broader messages and cause.

We think it’s all about the money

Inside scoop here: that’s not how most people think day to day – or not the prism they see it through.

Most of the time most people don’t think about politics (and if you’re reading this piece, you probably aren’t that typical.) People think about the school run. Personal admin. Whether our football team is winning.

When they do consider politics, family comes first.

Identity matters too. What are football allegiances about if not that?

And jobs are crucial. Countless studies show that meaningful jobs are the single biggest driver of happiness. And it’s not about money. People in badly paid jobs are almost as happy as the well paid. If your boss allows you to control how you work then, largely, you’re happy.

Health matters – because you fear (and often have to cope with, especially in middle age) an older relative or partner having a serious illness.

Schools and education you care about, but for your own kids rather than in the abstract.

Even when you consider immigration, often listed as a top concern, think about the way people phrase their concerns. Can the schools and hospitals cope (will they still be able to care for my family and I), or will they take all the good jobs (leaving me with the type that make me unhappy)? Everything matters through this paradigm.

Here’s a problem with how the left approaches these issues. They’re all about money. The left is obsessed by money. But people don’t care about the money. They care about what it buys. A big difference.

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Consider tuition fees.

The financially-obsessed left would look at the policy and say that it’s great. The poor paid less. The rich paid more. More kids went to university. And universities got more money.

But it felt wrong to people.


Well, people can only focus on one thing at a time.

So they focused on the £9,000 tuition fees.

Not on the people who will never pay them.

Not on the bursaries.

Not on the repayment thresholds.

Not on the money for really good education.

None of us can remember more than one thing at a time.

So we remembered the £9,000. And that sounds like a lot. It is a lot. Just like when you presume you will like a biscuit next week because you liked it this, our brains take a mental shortcut. They focus on the easy to remember part, not the whole deal.

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Wallowing in a pit of despair as you marvel at the mess progressive politics has got itself into? Technology is not the panacea – and there isn’t one single remedy. But we do have some ideas on how to turn things around. We just need to start listening.

Ali Goldsworthy is a Sloan Fellow at Stanford University. Prior to this she worked for Which? as their Head of Supporter Strategy and Engagement and was a senior political advisor. She is also a Director of the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust

Rob Blackie is a digital strategy consultant. He was previously Director of Social at Ogilvy One and Chief Executive of Blue State Digital (UK). He has worked as a senior advisor in parliament and stood for election