I remember sitting in an economics class at the end of the school year. We finished going through the course specification and our teacher, a rather cynical man, decided to teach us some extra stuff. That’s when I learnt about public choice; to the unfamiliar, it is the theory that politicians act like every other economic agent. It means they try to maximise their own utility, rather than the utility of the governed, as more standard economics would teach us.
One of the theories of public choice is that, as elections approach, political parties, especially in two-party systems (hello UK, US) move to the centre. In doing that, they try to gain more political ground. If we imagine electors as sitting on a political scale from left to right, and two parties situated at some two points on that scale, a good rule of thumb would be to say that electors vote for the party that’s allocated, on that scale, closer to them.
A communist in a system with a social democratic party and a neoliberal party would rather vote for the social democrats, whilst a Pinochetean fascist would rather vote for the neoliberals. As such, a good tactic to get more votes would seemingly be to move to the centre; in such a way, more of electors on the scale become closer to your party than to the rival party. That’s how we saw Blair win his election, with a huge shift of Labour to the right, especially in terms of economics. It is also how we saw Cameron win his majority, with a shift of the Conservatives, away from conservatism and towards much more left-wing social policy – notably, it was the Conservative government that legalised gay ‘marriage’.
To demonstrate it on a graph, everybody left of the red-line would vote for the red party, and everybody right of it, for the blue.
But now that the red party has moved more to the right, it gets a larger share of the line – more votes – and wins the election.
Simple, right? And it makes sense, which is why May did it with the new Conservative manifesto.
So why did the Conservatives do so badly in comparison to Labour, who moved more to the left?
One of the main reasons why I enjoy politics is that it is not reducible to numbers and economic theories of utility. The Conservative Party has become so desperately moderate that it lost all its flavour, any charisma and flair that it had about it, any philosophy of it that inspired people. Labour did the very opposite; it once again started doing proper politics. Labour once again became what Labour should be, proper red socialists.
Although it might have alienated the centre, the centre that would have perhaps voted for it otherwise, the centre was never going to be inspired about either of the parties anyway! The people who change their mind on who to vote for tend to be pretty emotionless about either of the party and certainly unlikely to show up at party conferences. The people who do show up at the conferences are those who care – the people whose beliefs lie where the dot is on the axis, not to the right or the left of it.
What Labour did is it correctly recognised that politics is no longer won by expanding one’s potential electorate so much as by motivating it. By moving to the left, all the disenfranchised aspiring socialists, misguided Marxists, young people looking for change became excited by the prospect of something different, proper, something they could bite into – something that would bring about proper change, and were determined to make it happened. It gained real momentum (forgive the pun), and with such a determined support base could campaign much more energetically, much more convincingly, much more from the heart. For most people, politics is rather bland, so for many, what matters more than policy is to make it exciting, and this is precisely what happened. The rallies, the enthusiasm, even the memes spread and brought about a flair for the left, a hint of romanticism that appealed to the British heart.
Yearning for tradition
So what did the Conservatives do wrong? Ask your friends what do they think about the Conservatives, and I can guarantee you that very rarely would you get an answer “I love them!”. Nobody ever gets excited about the Conservative Party, nobody sings songs in their name, nobody ever says about Theresa May, “she’s really awesome!”. They are boring, sensible, and moderate. What the Conservatives used to stand for in the days of Mrs Thatcher was something so much more; liberty, opportunity, ambition, tradition, nation, strength. Today they don’t really seem to stand for any of those values, at least not convincingly. They are not even conservative, and they are not going to convince anybody to support them more vigorously by remaining moderate.
It is only by once again appealing to typical right-wing values that the Conservatives can once again surge ahead in British politics. It is the way that Trump won the nation, by telling the American people that they “will not surrender to the false song of globalism” and that “the nation-state remains the true foundation of harmony and happiness”. When was the last time that May spoke with such heart about the British nation? When did she appeal to family or God? Seemingly scared of the spectre of criticism from the British Guardian left, she fears, but it is only by standing up boldly for those values that she can ever excite the right to stand behind her with all its strength and vigour. We need a true traditionalist, nationalist, or libertarian figure to excite the British right into victory.
It goes to show how much more a young, motivated, politicised leafleteer is worth compared to a largely disinterested centrist.