Winning elections is a lot harder than you think

Peace in our time

Sometimes short-term popularity isn’t a good thing.

… and the benefits of doing so are much bigger than a lot of commentators seem to realise.

When I say (in the previous post here) that a politician, or a political party can get away with backing a particular cause – my convictions on Trout Dipping, for example – as long as it enjoys ‘a reasonable level of support’, I mean that Trout Dipping needs to have enough of an attraction to allow a political party to include it their manifesto in a way that wouldn’t damage their chances of winning an election.

Sure, they can adopt one or two points of conviction. The public understand that, sometimes, politicians have to make ‘tough choices’ and that Neville Chamberlain’s popularity in 1938 provides us all with an object lesson.

Sometimes they have to spoon a bit of nasty medicine into the voters, but have you noticed how that medicine is always the kind of tincture that doesn’t upset the wealthier voters? The sort of thing that can only be sustained with constant support from the news media?

The point here is, political parties have to appeal to a much more diverse electorate than most commentators on politics generally realise. I’d suggest that – if this misunderstanding were cleared up, the demand for politicians to behave in an idealistic way would dry up a bit.

For those of us who hope, one day, to find Trout Dipping enshrined in the law, we have to hope that people start to be a bit more realistic soon, because until they do, we’re screwed.

Here’s the problem.

If they adopt one or two unpopular policies, they have to be politically sustainable (and Trout Dipping isn’t, for all of the reasons that I explained).

They may even get away with one or two policies that aren’t instantly acceptable to the voters, but in a world where everyone knows what they are against, being in favour of anything that isn’t a slam-dunk is an electoral risk.

On Election Day, the winners will, in very large part, be the candidates and the party that scare the electors the least. The ones that adopt policies that are either unpopular, or that attract a lot of vocal criticism will lose.

If I wasn’t going to offer a better alternative (and I will – I promise), you could see what I’m about to say as being a very bleak and impoverished picture of democracy.

Here goes;

If we want a political party to achieve the things that we want (as opposed to giving us the warm glow of losing righteously), then we have to limit our expectations to getting only getting the things that we aspire to that are electorally acceptable.

This is not quite as bad as it sounds. A political party can do a lot more to make the political weather that it lives in when it is in government. It can quietly shift the political centre-ground in the right direction.

Winning elections has all kinds of hidden benefits that never get mentioned in manifestos.

This still must be somewhat frustrating for voters, and extremely annoying for people who take a more active and partisan view of politics, over the short term.

Yet another corollary of the everyone-agrees-with-me delusion is that those active citizens generally seem to be particularly convinced that they’re part of some silent majority or other.

All in all, it’s a very frustrating situation for people who see themselves as voting with their convictions. Why would they want to join a political party if, in doing so, they have to chose to either keep their convictions quiet, or hobble their own party?

Let’s look at them next because the way that they behave, and their expectations, can make all of the difference in deciding how effective a principled political movement can be.