Adrian Sanders writes: Social Animals and Elephants in the Room

Just about everyone in the Westminster Village will shortly be talking about the latest book that tries to explain why people vote the way they do.

Book Cover for The Social AnimalThe Social Animal, by US journalist David Brooks, has just been released in the UK and it suggests that people are driven more by gut instincts than rational thought when it comes to voting choices.

That rather obvious point has been haunting the Liberal Democrats from the moment they produced a joint programme for Government with the Conservatives on the weekend after the last General Election.

On the rational side of the challenge facing my colleagues and I a year ago were the electoral maths, the opposition from Labour politicians to contemplate compromise, the absolute imperative to produce a plan to reduce the deficit, and the need to act quickly to calm the markets.

My irrational instinct was that such a coalition arrangement was nothing short of a pact with the devil and it will end in tears, while my democratic rational side went along with a majority of the Parliamentary Party, the Federal Executive and Special Conference vote.

The theory promoted in The Social Animal could explain why gut instinct rather than rational argument lost the referendum on AV. The No campaign made out that AV was unfair and fairness is one of those gut instincts we all respond to positively. Had the AV campaigners solely concentrated on the fundamental unfairness of elections that allow people to win despite a majority of voters being against them it might have been different.

One silver lining from the referendum result is that I won’t now have to work harder!

My rational self would argue that being able to implement long advocated policies in Government – and 75 per cent of our manifesto has or is being implemented – will help overcome one of the main reasons people give for not voting Lib Dem. This is that we can’t ever put our ideas into practice.

However, Lib Dems win when they can convince the electorate they can win, not whether they can implement their manifesto. If it were otherwise wouldn’t the fact over three quarters of our election pledges have or are making it onto the statute book be reflected positively in opinion poll and electoral support?

The Party needs to take stock and try to predict what the electorate’s gut instincts are going to be at the time of the next election.

Will they rationally want to thank the Liberal Democrats for stepping in to provide a stable Government? Rationally, shouldn’t Conservative voters reward the Lib Dems with votes for putting Mr Cameron in number 10 and keeping Gordon Brown out of it? What are the gut instincts of those voters when they consider the Liberal Democrats – a Party most have never voted for before?

What are tactical voters who vote Lib Dem because they think they stand a better chance of beating the Tories going to do next time? Rationally they will know a vote for any other Party will hand their seat to the Conservatives. But what will be in their guts after five years of a Tory-Lib Dem coalition? And will it be any different should the economy be in better shape than how Labour left it in 2010 – an economic scenario that’s far from certain?

The Party needs to plan now for how to win back people whose previous gut response was to trust and vote for us.

Can we find a narrative to describe ourselves in the context of the challenges facing the world in 2015? One that will appeal to the social animal and prove there is demand for a devolutionist, anti-authoritarian, internationalist, pro-environment, fair-tax, socially progressive Liberal Party offering a non-socialist alternative to the Tories.

We have to re-engage with individuals and communities to re-build trust and demonstrate our integrity but there is an elephant in the room we must also address. Can coalition Government ever work under a first past the post electoral system? It’s not a question I’ve heard debated before, but where national coalitions are successful they are without exception where members are elected under more proportionate systems than FPTP.

Had there been a proportional electoral system at the last General Election the Liberal Democrats would have had over a hundred MPs and could have formed a Government with either the Tories or Labour. In Government they would have had around a dozen cabinet members with at least two Ministers in every department.

What we have under FPTP is an over-represented Tory Party and an under-represented Liberal Democrat Party in Government. I doubt it can ever be made to work in the interests of the under-represented half of the coalition.

In hindsight we should have demanded ministerial positions proportional to the votes cast for each party in the election as the price for our participation in coalition. That would have been representing the rights of those who had invested their vote in us.

Perhaps we should adopt the principle that if we can’t have electoral reform any coalition should reflect how people voted. That’s fairness, one of the strongest gut reactions of all, and it’s time we put the gut instincts we share with the electorate before worrying about their rational responses.

Adrian Sanders MP also blogs on his own website.

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15 Comments

  • Kirsten de Keyser 10th May '11 - 3:15pm

    “The Party needs to plan now for how to win back people whose previous gut response was to trust and vote for us.”

    How about “we deliver what we promise to deliver?”

    Voters backed us because they believed that was what we did.
    Simple as that.

  • “My rational self would argue that being able to implement long advocated policies in Government – and 75 per cent of our manifesto has or is being implemented – will help overcome one of the main reasons people give for not voting Lib Dem.”

    How much of that 75% was identical to the tories’ manifesto? Voters voted for the Lib Dems on the policies that were different – tuition fees, speed of deficit reduction, VAT. Those were the critical issues of immediate importance in the election and were reflected in the Lib Dem campaign by pledges on tuition fees, large tory VAT bombshell posters and plenty of rhetoric about the Lib Dems having everything fully costed with warnings about the consequences of cutting the deficit at the rate advocated by the other two parties.

    “Will they rationally want to thank the Liberal Democrats for stepping in to provide a stable Government?”

    A stable tory government wasn’t desired by a significant proportion of Lib Dem voters.

    “Rationally, shouldn’t Conservative voters reward the Lib Dems with votes for putting Mr Cameron in number 10 and keeping Gordon Brown out of it?”

    They did in Leicester South (and Oldham East and Saddleworth) – the Lib Dem candidate managed to scrape second place on the back of tory voters rewarding their poodle.

  • If the book can be summarised as “people vote via instinct”, then certainly the university course on Elections I’m currently doing is already largely correct. With low political identification and political awareness, it’ll always be the party that shouts loudest and shrillest about the base instincts of the voters that does well. Swing voters, when rational, care about leadership, issues and trust in economic ability. When they’re irrational, as typically is the case, when they bother to vote at all it’ll be on an ill-informed gut instinct. Populism works for a reason.

    What does this mean for the Lib Dems? We’ve seen the power of speaking in line with the instincts of the people before, when we were the Anti-Iraq party, so we know it’s relevant. I think that it depends on the economy. If the voter thinks the economy is in good shape, and they’re optimistic about the future, we should reflect that optimism with making sure our most pushed policies are those that talk about gut topics like education – especially grasping the nettle with Higher Education and getting behind free tution again. If the economy is still in a bad way, we’re going to be in a bad way. But our strategy there must be to press our economic line, and not repeat the mistake of making grand moralistic commitments to spending large amounts of money prior to the election (fees).

    Would it be fair to say that one of the more important gut instincts that determine vote is immigration?

  • It’s a conundrum, I think it’s an ideological and numbers problem. The ideology has to match who is voting and why.The reality is that Lib Dem voters are mostly centre left, many with a deep antipathy to The Conservatives. Equally many of the Conservative Party’s members have an strong antipathy towards social liberalism. My gut instinct tells me that come election time The Conservative party will not care whether the coalition was a good thing or not. They have a very different ideological core and they want to win becauses they believe they should win. They’ll go for the jigglier. It’s just a bad marriage that will end in a messy divorce either way.
    Ultimately, rational thought is based on the truth of a situation. Look at the existing evidence. I like the idea that the Lib Dems can win support in this coalition, I also like the idea of being immortal. Well, the fact that I’m not dead gives me hope, but I fear the odds are against both.

    r

  • Jedibeeftrix,
    I don’t think the Labour Government were that socially liberal. I think they were way too autocratic. But I grew up in the 80s and lived in a climate of film banning, book blocking and attacks on “permissiveness”. such as Clause 28. So I’m really not that convinced the Conservatives are liberal either. I also think they are prone to invoking the Nanny State as a bogyman for illiberal political reasons. Look at the Conservative press, there’s precious little liberalism of any sort on offer there. .

  • Jedibeeftrix.
    I respect your views. But I think it comes down to who has the majority and who is the junior partner, the background hum of ideological differences, history and voters. I think the coalition is a mistake for all sorts of reasons, others do too and still others don’t.. I admit it the main reason ibeing that I am a centre left person and that is where the majority of votes are coming from. I still think that in a general election the Conservative Party will go for the kill. If the policies prove right they will claim credit and have a Conservative dominated press behind them and if wrong they’ll still have a Conservative dominated press behind them.saying the Lib Dems watered down the recovery strategy. The Lib Dems do not have the voter base or apparatus to take on the Conservative Party. I could be proved wrong, but…………… .

  • Serena Tierney 11th May '11 - 8:09am

    Me would have enjoyed reading this article a lot more if it had not started with “the challenge facing my colleagues and I a year ago”. If you find it difficult to work out whether a pronoun is the subject or object of the verb, then just try covering up the part of the phrase “X and” and you will then be able to see whether you should use ‘me’ or ‘I’.
    Rant (temporarily) over.

  • Matthew Huntbach 11th May '11 - 9:05am

    Glenn

    But I think it comes down to who has the majority and who is the junior partner, the background hum of ideological differences, history and voters. I think the coalition is a mistake for all sorts of reasons, others do too and still others don’t.

    So please answer the question which I have been asking everyone here I get chance to who has made this point since May 2010 – what is your WORKABLE alternative?

    It was quite clear to me then as it is now, that sitting back and allowing a minority Conservative government to be formed would have meant another general election being called within a year on the theme “We can’t govern without a majorty, get rid of the Liberal Democrats MPs and give us one”. The “supply and confidence” option, which seems to be the most common alternative suggested, actually means us voting for all Tory policies, because “supply” means voting for their budget i.e. the cuts, and “confidence” means voting with them on any vote of confidence, which means any policy issue they or Labour to embarrass us choose to label as such.

    To say one course of action is a “mistake” implies there are better courses of action that were refused. So tell us what one of them might be. Otherwise your point is illogical, it cannot be a “mistake” to do someting when every alternative is worse.

    The mistake was the way the coalition was presented by those at the top of the party. They gave the unprincipled opposition the ammunition to throw at us, which they have done ever since, by not making it absolutely clear that the coalition was NOT a coalition of equals, it was NOT some sort of ideological coming together, and it was something forced on us by the way people voted and the First Past the Post electoral system.

    It is crazy, crazy, crazy that so many people threw abuse at us in the referendum on the lines “You jumped into bed with the Tories, so I’m voting No”. Voting “No” was voting for the distortions which so weakened our hand in the coalition, which left not enough Labour and LibDem MPs for a Labour-LibDem coalition to be a viable alternative, and most of all it was a vote for the principle that whoever gets the most votes should be decared the winner even if that is well less than half. So anyone voting “No” was voting for the principle that Cameron should be Prime Minister and voting against the biggest argument against that – that his party received well under half the votes and should not have the power our distortional representation system gave it. Anyone who hopes to see the Liberal Democrats destroyed – nearly all of Labour, that is why they attack us with this illogical and undemocratic line – should see that if we had not existed, the Tories would have won a big majority in May 2010 anyway. That is why a “No” vote in the referendum was profoundly and deeply a vote for the Conservatives, it was even more “jumping into bed with the Tories” than the formation of the coalition, because the coaltion is a temporary necessity, whereas the “No” win in the referendum puts the Tories in power now and for the forseseeable future, it is a vote for the distortions which so benefit them in the next general election, the one after that and so on, probably for my lifetime.

    So I blame the useless people at the top of our party for their failure to get this message across, for the way all the publicity they have put out since May 2010 seems designed to enhance rather than attack the predictable lines our opponents would throw at us.

  • Mathew
    I voted yes to AV. and I am in favour of electoral reform. I have no desire to punish the Lib Dem Party. I think the honourable thing to do was stand by the policies in the manifesto, policies that the voters voted for, and work with Political Parties like The Greens and, yes. Labour because they share more common ground. I think that is what last Fridays election results were about. I don’t think the results were a condemnation of the Coalition in principle , I think they were specifically a rejection of the Lib Dems by voters who felt mislead. The Party is strong in areas with large numbers of people employed by the state and the Conservatives are ideologically committed to small-government. People do not vote to be made unemployed and have their pensions reduced. That’s rational self interest at play. The same is true of students. They did not want to be lumbered with larger debts. The pay back scheme, no matter how much better than Labours, still lumbers people with 3x the debt. Self interest isn’t a fixed property.
    As for a coalition in The National Interests. It works during a war because people don’t want to die, it doesn’t work in peacetime because they don’t want to be made broke while they’re are rich people not being effected to the same degree. An entirely rational concept. This is why taking the bankers on and progressive tax are necessities, which is what Vince Cable argued for in opposition. Taking a lot of low earners out of Tax was a good idea and a great achievement..
    The other thing is, I’m not convinced the Conservatives would have won a snap election. They were asking voters to accept lower living standards.. The VAT increase and Inheritance Tax fiasco would have made the war on the nations spending power look one-sided. I’m also pretty convinced that you can’t cut your way out of recession.
    Turkey’s might vote for Christmas once as long as Christmas looks some way into the future, but not twice.

  • Matthew Huntbach 12th May '11 - 1:35pm

    Glenn

    I voted yes to AV. and I am in favour of electoral reform. I have no desire to punish the Lib Dem Party. I think the honourable thing to do was stand by the policies in the manifesto, policies that the voters voted for, and work with Political Parties like The Greens and, yes. Labour because they share more common ground.

    You have missed my point. The British people and the electoral system they endorsed last week gave us a Parliament where a coalition of the sort you want was not possible. I don’t like the coalition we have one bit, but it’s what people voted for last year, and in the referendum by endorsing the system that gave it to us, they voted for it again last week. That’s democracy – sometimes the people don’t give you want you want, but you just have to accept it. The big argument against a Conservative-dominated government – that the Conservatives did not actually get over half the vote – was destroyed by the British people voting in favour of “First Past the Post” last week. A “No” vote was a vote for a system whose supporters say the best thing about it is the way it distorts representation in favour of the largest party – in 2010 the Tories – and weakens third parties – in 2010 the Liberal Democrats. Right, so if that’s what people want, why moan about the coalition as that’s just what it is – what people voted for by a massive majority in favour, on May 5th 2011.

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