Changing voters’ minds is a severely underrated skill in contemporary politics. Politicians instead prefer to talk in terms of positioning themselves; hence the rush to the right on immigration post EU referendum. The Remain campaign is the most obvious instance of positioning over conviction. The strategy of the Remain campaign was not to change anyone's mind about the EU; it was only to align a Remain vote with voters’ primary concerns, jobs and the economy. This approach seemed smart, but it failed.
Being aligned with economic stability allowed the Conservative Party to win a surprise majority in the 2015 election. Most rational voters support the party with the most economic credibility, or the party that is seen to have the most economic credibility. Why did the majority not vote Remain when the Stronger in Campaign had worked so hard to align a Remain vote with economic stability?
A narrative is forming in our public discourse (at least on the left) as to why Remain lost. That narrative states that it was the poor, Northerners, the left behind, the losers of globalisation that caused Brexit. It assumes that these voters could never have convinced of the merits of immigration and EU membership. The Stronger In campaign aligned Remain with economic stability but these people simply would not listen. Their minds were made up and there was nothing to be done.
This narrative falls down because there is evidence that Brexit was not caused only by voters in the former industrial North. They do not make up 52% of the population. So if angry, poor Northerners did not cause Brexit, what did?
The Stronger In campaign failed to win over many people with good jobs, or a degree, or who own a house, or live in the South voted for Brexit. These people care about economic stability (many voted Tory in 2015) but did not care that it was aligned with a Remain vote. These people do not like immigration or how the country has changed over the last 30 years and they want to stop it. Could they have been convinced to vote Remain with the right argument?
This argument would involve the fact that pressure on public services has been caused by government cuts and not by immigration. It would involve the fact that cuts to ESOL services has made it harder for recent immigrants to integrate. It could involve arguing for the establishment of a fund that invests in areas with high levels of immigration to alleviate the pressure - as Jo Cox argued. It could involve convince people that we have a humanitarian duty to help refugees. Or that unemployment and high costs of living are not caused by immigration but by our deregulated labour and housing markets. It would involve arguing that there is a different way of doing politics.
Who will make these arguments? Which politician or party will pick up the mantel of convincing people that we can collectively tackle our problems? Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party are not doing this. Corbyn has shown more interest in fighting other party members than convincing voters to support Labour. He has had a hostile media and unsupportive PLP to deal with, but he could have done more. He could make Labour a broader church instead of a divided one.
If Corbyn will not try to convince the electorate to vote Labour, then who will? Certainly not the most vocally Corbyn-sceptic wing. They only understand the tactic of repositioning the party and have no desire to convince anyone. Given control, they will shift the platform to anti-immigration and anti-benefits in an attempt to chase the centre ground. Even Owen Smith and Yvette Cooper (who are certainly to the left of the party) seem to be against making a pro-immigration argument and convincing voters.
The problem with re-positioning Labour towards the centre of British politics is the Tories have shifted the centre ground on benefits, public services and immigration substantially to the right. To chase this would fundamentally change what Labour stands for.
This what I most dislike in the Corbyn-sceptics: they do not want to change people's minds and convince them to vote Labour. This is evident in how they present the case for Owen Smith to become party leader. They do not argue for why the Labour Party should embrace centre left politics, they simply say the voters will never embrace socialism so we will water it down until it is something they will accept.
This approach has sustained the drift to the right on economic issues since 1979. Thatcher moved the economic centre ground to the right, then Blair repositioned Labour to match. Now we are seeing an increase in right wing rhetoric on immigration. Labour can either convince people this new racially charged streak to our politics is wrong, or re-position itself to match the new centre ground. My biggest worry about Owen Smith is that if he becomes Labour leader he will do the latter.
The folly of re-positioning your politics is shown in the EU referendum result. Attempts to align Remain with voters’ current beliefs failed to inspire enough people to vote Remain. Remain lost because they did not make the case for remain. Labour will lose if it tries to re-position itself in line with the new rightward centre ground. They need to convince people that they offer an alternative.
If you are against the racism of the Brexit campaign, the solution is to fight the narrative that Brexit was won by Northern idiots who will not change their mind. The solution is to convince people that an inclusive and accepting society is in all our best interests. If you want Labour to win an election again then we need to convince people that Labour offers a genuine alternative to the current government, not a slightly softer version. The left needs to argue from a certain position for change and not just re-position itself.
The main issue with this what alternative does the left offer? What exactly do we try and convince people to support? This will be the subject of the next article.