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Political tradeoffs

Traditional political parties depend on compromise. That is bad news for them in uncompromising times

Imagine an election in which a party that did not even exist less than two months before gains one-third of the vote, pushing not only the governing party into fifth place but also the main opposition party into third. Actually, don’t — there is no need, because this is exactly what happened in the elections for the European Parliament in the UK. These elections were not even supposed to take place, since the country should have left the EU on 29th March. Yet they did happen, and they may well have changed the British political landscape for years to come.

The European elections in the UK have traditionally been a very low-key affair. Neither the voters nor the media used to pay all that much attention to it. Turnout has always been much lower ( never more than about 38%) than that of general parliamentary elections ( typically 60% -70% in recent times). Even the main political parties were at best lukewarm about it. For the British, politics was a matter for Westminster, not Brussels or Strasbourg.

Not so this time. Weeks before election day, the polls spelled disaster for the governing Conservatives and, remarkably, also for the Labour opposition, and predicted victory for Nigel Farage’s Brexit party. And the forecasts were right this time. The Brexit party picked up nearly all the votes UKIP, Mr Farage’s former home, got in 2014 and took a good chunk out of the score of the two main parties. Labour and the Conservative Tories, which collectively received nearly half of the votes in 2014 now did not even get close to 25%. All because of Brexit.

But why has Brexit hacked so relentlessly into the support of the two traditional parties?

Voters (not) trading off

One possible explanation can be found by looking at the trade-offs that politicians and voters face. For politics, and particularly party politics, is inherently a mechanism for facilitating and enforcing trade-offs between conflicting policy options. Few voters concur fully with every single point in a party manifesto. They may agree strongly with some of them, and more weakly with others. They are probably indifferent about others still, and quite likely there is yet another subset of the manifesto components with which they disagree. Voters would weigh them all up, and give their support to the party where the overall net balance of agreement and disagreement with its various policy choices is the highest.

Or at least, that is what voters who properly reason about how to vote would do. In reality, our behaviour does not necessarily mean we have thoroughly considered all the trade-offs, and that applies to voting too. Many voters are barely aware of a small fraction of a party’s manifesto, let alone the whole shooting match.

Perhaps more even than a party’s policies, it is its general philosophy that appeals to (or repels) voters. Traditional parties tend to be shaped around a more or less coherent set of values, from which their policies follow. Voters whose own values resonate with those of a party will be inclined towards it — even if there are some policy points with which they disagree. There are inherent and inevitable compromises across a party’s policies, but its values act as a softener, a reassurance, and indeed as a glue to keep the community of supporters together, and behind the party.

Developing workable compromises is not an easy task for large parties, of course. Pledging more money for child care may please parents with young families. But that could dismay older voters with a more traditional view of the family, who believe young mothers should stay at home and more money should go to pensioners. The larger a party, the more such trade-offs must be navigated, but as long as the overarching values it projects chime with its grassroots, the circle can be squared.

Just one issue: easy-peasy!

Smaller parties, in contrast, do not face this challenge to the same degree. Their base is more homogenous, and the policy options based on their professed value set are less likely to conflict with each other. That applies even more strongly to single-issue parties like the Brexit party. Their simple and uncompromising message (some might even say it is simplistic) appeals to voters who, for whatever reason, are not interested in making tough, complex trade-offs.

Such single-issue parties often play to voters’ discontent with the traditional parties, emphasizing how their policies misalign with the people’s wishes. Ordinarily, this may not gain much traction, but when there is a big, hairy, polarizing issue that does easily sit with the other political parties’ values, things change. Brexit is just such an issue.

Sure, the rhetoric of Prime Minister Theresa May (“Brexit means Brexit”, and “No deal is better than a bad deal”) suggests an unequivocal approach to Brexit. But for all that, quite a few Tory MPs do not support an uncompromising no-deal approach. Even now, some Brexit-supporting candidates to succeed Mrs May are talking about the “ political suicideno deal would mean. Labour has a different, but altogether similar problem of internal tension: the strongly Leave voting, but traditionally Labour supporting, constituencies in the old industrial North of the country make it hard for them to support a soft Brexit or a second referendum.

Both traditional parties have, for the last few years, been trying to triangulate where the electorate is going — effectively, they have been following, rather than leading. But trying to follow a deeply divided electorate ends, as we see now, in tears. Moreover, the lack of clear, persuasive leadership leaves the stage wide open for demagogues who are not concerned with seeking the compromises that governing a country requires. Because these now set the agenda, the large parties find themselves ever more internally conflicted — tragically so.

Trade-offs and compromise, no more

The demagoguery also fuels the changing attitude among the voters. Most people used to align with a broad political family based on values, as long as its policies were broadly in line with their wishes. They inherently bought into the trade-offs and compromises that a large party embodies. Now, a growing section of the electorate is no longer content to accept these trade-offs and compromises. Instead of thinking “I don’t particularly like it, but I can live with it”, they now see policy points in a binary fashion: they are either unacceptable or unacceptable. They seek a purity that is unrealistic, but that appears to be on offer from single-issue parties. Shades of grey do not have a place in this discourse: dissenters are traitors and saboteurs.

The leaders of the traditional parties are reduced to trying to stop the haemorrhaging of voters to the upstarts. David Cameron’s main motivation for calling the Brexit referendum was the poor performance of the Conservatives in the 2014 European elections (they dropped from first to third position, with UKIP gaining 10 points giving them 27% of the vote, which made it the largest party). Now Labour too is trying to hang on to their pro-Brexit supporters in North England.

Unfortunately, the time for compromising was after the referendum, not three years later. There is no majority in parliament for any of the three available options: the deal Theresa May agreed with the EU, a no deal Brexit, and the revocation of Article 50 (which would mean remain in the EU). Most opinion polls show the same applies to the country as a whole. And it is hard to see how a compromise can be found between these options.

Weak or uncompromising leadership is not the way out of this. Theresa May started out uncompromising (talking tough about the three red lines) and ended weak (with three successive, spectacular defeats), and we know where that got us. The ongoing equivocation of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is just as problematic. In a few weeks we will know who will succeed Mrs May, and we will see whether this new leader is both strong and willing to compromise. And perhaps changes are afoot in the Labour party too.

That will be needed to repair British politics, and save it from those who pretend that compromising and trade-offs are no longer required. Politics is the art of the possible, Otto von Bismarck said. That requires politicians and citizens alike to be able to recognize, confront and make the trade-offs that are inevitable.

Originally published at http://koenfucius.wordpress.com on May 31, 2019.

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Accidental behavioural economist in search of wisdom. Uses insights from (behavioural) economics in organization development. On Twitter as @koenfucius

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