Brexit, party ‘sophistication’ and the ignored electors

Dafydd Trystan Davies explores how party campaigning has contributed to a disengaged electorate.

Brexit – and more specifically the Leave majorities across much of Wales – has led to considerable discussion about how areas who objectively benefit significantly from the EU decided to stick two fingers up at the political establishment on June 23rd.  Professor Richard Wyn Jones highlights a number of factors in his Guardian article here but I’d like to consider a little further the role of the political parties and longer term trends on party campaigning. Specifically, my suggestion is that the New Labour revolution in campaigning techniques created the conditions for the Brexit vote.

New Labour developed a formidable campaigning machine and honed sophisticated data-driven mechanisms for targeting electors. This was part of the ‘success’ of 1997 – and even more clearly when the shine began to wear off the New Labour project – the elections of 2001 and 2005, where despite losing millions of voters, Labour emerged with majorities the like of which Cameron could only dream of. Their micro-targetting of voters with specific messages was so successful that their political opponents all adopted these campaigning techniques. Nowhere was this more clearly seen than with the assertion by Lynton Crosby, as the head of the Conservatives election campaign in 2015, that the general election would be decided by some 4,000 electors in some 40 seats. The precise numbers aren’t important (and will vary by party) – but the campaign focus is clear – there are very important electors who need to be listened to, and communicated with. To a greater or lesser degree the rest of the electorate can be largely ignored. It is, if you like, a key elector’s strategy within a key seats strategy.

I am familiar with one party’s targeting strategy, and even in that case, with very few resources, voters are differentiated by likelihood to vote and likelihood to support the party (along with other basic socio-demographic data). As a candidate (particularly if you have a relatively small band of helpers) this is a godsend. You can reasonably hope to knock on the door of the majority of regular voters who would consider voting for you in a constituency (as long as you’ve got a few sturdy pairs of shoes to carry you on your way!). Parties may not even seek to contact face to face a majority of electors in a given seat. It is a really efficient use of resources and allows you to get a real feel for the issues of concern in your constituency – or does it?

Post-brexit it has become glaringly obvious to me (and in hindsight it should always have been thus) that regular voters do not necessarily share the same concerns as their non-voting neighbours. They may do so, but the act of regular voting may well be a sign of greater engagement with politics, the community, local issues – and as we have seen, our non-voters may have strong views but don’t necessarily have an outlet for those views in ‘routine’ elections. Parties don’t regularly contact non-voters, they certainly don’t target them and there aren’t hundreds of activists who are experienced in talking to non-voters.

As political parties we have become far more ‘sophisticated’ and ‘efficient’, but in so doing I’d suggest we’ve lost touch with a large section of the electorate. I have little doubt that when the survey evidence emerges from Wales we’ll see a pattern of differential turnout i.e. that those who voted for the first time in several years were predominantly leave voters. We may all be tempted to guess their motivations for doing so – in Aberdare, Ebbw Vale and Merthyr Tydfil – but it would be for the most part, guesswork.

The challenge for all political parties during this next period is to acknowledge that all electors have a voice and that voice should be heard. It means listening anew to the concerns of non-voters and having those long term conversations about the challenges facing the communities in which they live, which tend to be poorer, with lower life expectancy and higher unemployment. And for the avoidance of doubt, it certainly doesn’t mean conducting a few focus groups, concluding that immigration is the most discussed topic and producing a mug with the slogan ‘We will control immigration on it.’

We have it seems four years before the next scheduled UK election, as parties – particularly as progressive parties of the left – we have an opportunity to re-engage, to listen and to develop answers to some of the major problems facing our communities. And if we do so, we may not be quite so blindsided next time a major issue arises and the legions of non-voters, who have apparently given up on politics, demand that their voice is heard.

Dr Dafydd Trystan Davies is the National Treasurer of Plaid Cymru and a former parliamentary and assembly candidate for Plaid.

11 thoughts on “Brexit, party ‘sophistication’ and the ignored electors

  1. The first comment is pretty unfair in my opinion. For the first time on this site we have someone who is at least beginning to ask questions about if not provide answers to what happened on June 23rd. Far too many Remain supporters in my opinion have adopted the attitude of the Bridgend Labour councilor who last week in a council meeting described the electorate as ‘ stupid’. The simple, fact is that as Marx famously stated in the 19th century you have to see the world as it is if you want to change it.

    In many ways despite the new ways of commuciation through social media ,political parties too often seem to be more divorced from the views and attitudes of ordinary people than ever. In 1914 as he returned from a game of golf by train Churchill looked out of the window at the houses in Battersea and said to the newspaper proprieter with him ‘ I wonder what they are thinking?’. The surprise at the June 23rd result suggests that too many modern politicians and political activists like Churchill are still wondering ‘what they are thinking?’

    Most people don’t attend the social events that modern poltiicans if you look at their twitter accounts seem for some reason obliged to attend. Most people never attend a politician’s surgery. What effect the knocking on doors by the dwindling band of political activists has on influencing voters I leave to others more qualified than myself. What I do know from experience is that many of those doors don’t open. Looking at the recycling bins it’s also clear that many of the leaflets pushed through the letterbox are probably not even read. As for Social media it too often seems an echo chamber for some very sad individuals.

    On June 23rd voters who often had never used their vote before saw a chance to make a difference for the first time . Between 1997 and 2015 the Labour Party in Ogmore lost 12000 votes despite having a far better candidate in 2015 than in 1997. Those lost voters didn’t go to other parties. They just stopped voting. Often because no one seemed to be listening to their concerns. On June 23rd they decided to use their vote again and many probably voted Leave. They voted Leave for many reasons but they didn’t vote that way because they were some how ‘ lied to’ , ‘ stupid’ or ‘bigoted racists’. Rabbiting on about the amount of money received from the EU made no diiference to people who could see that it hadn’t made any difference to their lives. Many older voters in the Valleys would argue that the world of 2016 was far worse than 1973 when we had first joined what was then known as the Common Market.

    If you wonder why someone like myself who voted Remain was in the minority in the Valleys don’t look at Ebbw Vale come to the Llynfi Valley. In 1973 we had 3 coalmines, a colliery washery and two multi national companies in Revlon and Cooper Standard. The coalmines have gone and the Revlon site is now a derelict wasteland. Cooper Standard upped sticks and went to Poland once Poland had joined the EU. Thousands of well paid jobs lost and not one replaced in a valley with a population of just over 20000. To add insult to injury the Assembly in its wisdom even decided to put up a brand new sign outside the Revlon site just as the factories were being knocked down. Yes it is true that the Valleys have received money from numerous sources including the EU. Caerau at the top end of the Valley has been a Community First area for years. In that time it has incredibly moved from the 8th most deprived ward in Wales to the 5th! When Angela Eagle arrived before May 5th to canvas in Caerau she asked me had any money ever been spent in the area.

    Rather than sneering at and condemning those who voted ‘Leave’ anyone interested in the future should try to use Nye Bevan’s famous quote try to understand’ their hopes and aspirations’. Like most of us they want a decent education for their kids, a decent home to live in,. a real job not a mickey mouse one paying peanuts and they want to be looked after when they are ill or old. We live in what is still the sixth largest economy in the world. Moaning about June 23rd and asking for a rematch doesn’t achieve anything and isn’t the answer. We need poltiicians and political parties who are prepared to tackle the long standing problems of the UK which led to so many voting the way they did on June 23rd. Sadly at the moment as in the 1930s we seem to have too many ‘ political pygmies ‘ putting themselves forward as polticians. In the 1930s the poor quality of the so called political elite led to the tragedy of mass unemployment and eventually war. Now it seems more like a Whitehall farce with the UK looking more like a Banana Republic every day but without the climate to grow bananas.

  2. The urge to campaign by the most efficient means is natural and logical, but given that political engagement in Wales is low (and democracy is not just a matter elections) with a low media profile, the onus is on us to put more emphasis on communicating directly face to face so that we (politically active) hear what the electorate has to say, but also that they hear what we have to say, without intermediary, so that there is proper dialogue. We avoid the political diktat – ‘you WILL vote like this’ – and we also avoid the focus group hothouse – ‘please tell me what I should believe’ – and the reduction of political action to facile advertising and brand promotion.

    The other aspect of this ‘sophistication’ is the promotion and entrenchment of a binary political dynamic – those who are not with us are against us. We have been ruled from Westminster by the Tweedledum / Tweedledee party since 1979. But if an issue falls across that stark divide it fails to register, and maybe thats what happened in this referendum.

    @genuinewelshperson: Labour is suffering most, I would have thought

  3. The article posits an interesting apology for why Plaid’s campaigning is so often locally invisible. But as one who has regularly knocked doors for Labour, I can assure Dr Davies that that sort of selectivity he describes has never applied to any on-the-ground campaigning I’ve ever been involved with – it’s always been literally door to door.

  4. Non voters have the same opportunity to register to vote and most can get to a polling station as the rest of us. The question is the dismally poor choice on offer, Tory (right wing nationalism, seen as a de facto English Nationalist party), Labour (socialists) and Liberals (failed university lecturers) and our outdated, and no longer fit for purpose, first past the post voting system. We have the choice of being ruled by two different bunch of Muppets, and it won’t change because turkeys won’t vote for Christmas. So why should the ordinary person in the street get off their butts to vote

  5. Dafydd has a point about targeted campaigning ignoring the views of substantial parts of the electorate. Since he also acknowledges that this targeting is efficient and works I doubt that its likely to be abandoned. Compulsory voting would ensure that parties had different incentives.
    Congratulations to Dafydd for mentioning immigration as an issue although he does so in a curious sentence which rightly mocks a ridiculous response. Its therefore unclear whether he thinks the issue as well as the response are both ridiculous. I suspect the ambiguity is deliberate.There is nothing wrong with focus groups but when listening you have to be able to hear.

  6. I like this article.
    I live in an area where it was clearly ‘presumed’ by the campaigners that I would be voting to remain in the EU. Well, they presumed correctly. However, it would have been nice and my wavering allegiance might have been firmer if somebody had bothered to knock on my door to argue the toss. This didn’t happen and having lived in the same terraced house on an accessible street for the past 20 odd years not once has anybody solicited my vote. I must be one of the ‘ignored’ – or is it the ‘unwashed’? Although this doesn’t really piss me off, I think the author is right when he says that the ‘ignored’ factor may have contributed to Brexit.
    I am reminded of the truly extraordinary and amazing lengths to which Lyndon Johnston went to win his Senate seat in Texas (read about it in Robert Caro’s books). No palm was left unpressed, no isolated farm unvisited, no baby left unkissed. The modern politician is truly lazy compared to the old guys like Gwynfor Evans and his like.
    Not everyone is constantly on Twitter!

  7. Dafydd – Haleliwia! Bydd cyfeillion ym Mhlsid Cymru – yn arbennig yn Arfon – yn gwybod fy mod, ers etholiad 2015, wedi bod yn tynnu fy ngwallt oherwydd peryglon y dulliau hyn o ymgyrchu onid ydynt yn cael eu gweld fel rhan yn unig o ymhyrchu llawer ehangach. Gwelais y peryglon o r cyfatfod cyntaf o Fwrdd Stronger In……ond erbyn hynny toedd yn rhy hwyr. Deffrrodd y mwyafrif anweledig o’u cyrion i frathu llaw y peirianwaith sinicaidd oedd yn gwbl systemataidd wedi eu hanwybyddu. DW

  8. Good article Dafydd.
    It might be difficult for any political parties to target the people who voted in the referendum but seldom or never in elections even if they wished to as it’s unclear whether they are entitled to a copy of the “marked” electoral registers. The “marked” register shows who has already voted at each polling station and is made available to political parties in order that they can highlight potential discrepancies which might point toward election fraud. It also however helps parties to identify people who only vote irregularly and for whom personal contact from a candidate or their team might make all the difference.
    Since one sincerely hopes the recent referendum was a one-off there isn’t really any likelihood of the parties being all that interested in all the post game analysis save to the extent that the Labour Party in particular will need to take heed of it as they struggle to define a post-Brexit message that will gain a hearing in the Valleys.

  9. The problem is that no-one in power knows what to do about the problems of Llynfi and other places, so well outlined by Jeff Jones. And nor do the people who live there. Unfortunately our political system does not provide or support intelligent discussion of how to tackle such deep-seated problems. Electioneering is all sloganising and demonisinng while policy formation, such as it is, goes on behind closed doors. The people don’t know what’s going on and most of them don’t try very hard to find out. If I had any answers to this situation I would be sure to tell you – but I don’t. It is sad though when an understandable cry of protest has the effect of making things worse. Be in no doubt that is what just happened.

  10. I’ve been fortunate enough to receive Dafydd’s counsel on a number of occasions. My views on how political parties adapt to the referendum when campaigning are something I’d rather confine to Plaid Cymru. It’s for other parties to look for and hit upon their own winning formulas (if such things exist, as electorates can and do change).

    Anyone who has worked in the Valleys for any time would find it impossible to disagree with Jeff Jones’ comments, and those of R Tredwyn’s. I quickly reached the view after the outcome was known that it really isn’t that surprising that previously-considered left wing strongholds voted with UKIP’s position when politics has done very little for them in the past half a century. As Jeff points out, we’ve (and that means all of us who work in politics) have never found a solution to the end of heavy industry in Wales, we now have as many as five workless generations in more than a handful of families, poor educational attainment levels (a quarter of all working age adults in Ogmore have no qualifications whatsoever), we are the sick man of Europe, we have some of the poorest wards in Britain (I thought Caerau was classified as poorest in Wales), drugs, crime and other anti-social problems, and the last time any kind of grand scale economic strategy was attempted in the Valleys took place under the Wilson government. The first Wilson government.

    In fact, take the NHS and the Welfare State out of the equation, and we’re looking at politics improving nothing for people in those areas since the end of the Second World War.

    Governments are far too easily defeated by the scale of these issues. When confronted by them, they do one or both of two things: they either say it is no longer in their economic gift as we live in a globalised world/don’t have the requisite powers devolved, or they come up with a bunch of headline friendly sticking plasters like Communities First, policies that are bolted on to the whole poverty infrastructure, rather than attacking it foundations.

    Other people have suggested politics doesn’t have the wit to sort these issues out. That may be true. It certainly doesn’t have the guts. And what you find, on the occasions that people open doors, are responses like: “What’s the point? Nothing ever changes.” I must have knocked thousands of doors and I have to admit they have a point.

    No one should enter politics unless they are prepared to tackle these issues head on. I simply do not buy this argument that there is nothing that can be done. I was fortunate enough to be involved in a piece of legislation that would – had it made it through – have made financial education compulsory and evenly taught across schools in Wales. Why? Because we cannot compete on wage levels with Mexico, Turkey or Vietnam (some of the other places where factories in South West Wales have moved to). A race to the bottom will only make Wales poorer. We have to find other ways to attract companies or encourage entrepreneurs to stay. Creating a reputation for financial competency means our workforce can add value to a business’ bottom line in other ways. Dirt cheap labour isn’t the only way to profit.

    The truth is that Wales has powers over education and over health. That means it can create a fit, educated and skilled workforce, which means better paid jobs, more money in local economies and so on. Sort the economy and most of the rest of it will take care of itself. The problem is that the people who least seem to understand this are based in Cardiff Bay.

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