Wedge issues are part and parcel of politics. You can’t use them too often, but it is difficult not to use them at all. They are more often controversial than they are effective but, when successful, they create new coalitions of interest, split opponents and supporters and tell people whose side we’re on. Unfortunately for us, the Tories under Lynton Crosby will deploy wedge after wedge in the coming months and we have to get better at dealing with them.
Any student of The Political Brain or of Jonathan Haidt’s excellent The Righteous Mind will know that the right does this type of politics better than the left. Sometimes it is the politics of the gutter; sometimes it appeals to our baser instincts; but, by using the full gamut of human emotion, it is often highly effective. By contrast, we too often appeal to the head, not the heart. We struggle for our own wedges, often with good reason seeing them as demeaning or beneath us, but equally often suffering the electoral consequences of our squeamishness.
The best example of wedge-wielding in British politics today is undoubtedly Nigel Farage. Alex Salmond is no slouch, but when it comes to the wedge, Farage is king. As he freely admits, his policies (or, now, ex-policies) are ‘drivel’, but that doesn’t matter to his increasing numbers of supporters. Under Farage, Ukip has developed into something very simple and very effective – a wedge-grab-bag; a party which is really just a collection of wedge issues. It started as a wedge on the European Union and has morphed into a wedge on immigration and a general cultural hurrumph-wedge of the ‘political correctness gone mad-you couldn’t make it up-Britain’s going to the dogs/hell in a handcart-that Jeremy Clarkson’s got the right idea’ variety. A party with few members, councillors who think that gay marriage causes floods, and a commitment to going into the European elections with no policies whatsoever are going to win those elections. The wedge is a powerful thing.
The Tories have their own wedges on immigration and welfare. The bedroom tax really was the thin end of the wedge and David Cameron’s musings about Romanians and Bulgarians performed the same task. The British Social Attitudes survey shows that 81 per cent of Brits believe that large numbers of people falsely claim benefits and 51 per cent think that unemployment benefits are too high. The Tories have mobilised these views through wedge policies – and it has been successful, as our lead in the polls has started to look less secure than it did a year ago.
I am not for one moment saying that I agree with the specific policies that they have chosen, but I am saying that we have to decide how we are going to defend our policies and values, and what wedges of our own we are going to deploy. Our record is mixed. Ed Miliband’s announcement on capping energy prices in Brighton last year may have attracted some sneers but it has been extremely successful politically. Eighty per cent agree with it and the most telling response has been silence from Tory MPs and ministers. Rightwing commentators have criticised the policy, but the politicians have not. They know a good wedge when they see one. Energy prices worked, but Ed’s attempts to man the barricades and storm the City have been less successful. His criticisms of bankers sound tired and hackneyed – they haven’t split the electorate in our favour. Time will tell whether the 50p tax rate will do a better job.
So what makes a good wedge? It has to go with the grain of pre-existing opinions which have previously been latent rather than overt, and you have to put yourself on the bigger side of the divide. Energy prices did that. It has to have hard-edged partisans on both sides: you can drive a wedge through wood, but not blancmange. That’s why immigration always works. And, crucially, it has to carry a simple policy which could be explained in half a tweet. Farage can do that with the EU. His policy is one word – out. Cameron’s is ‘we don’t like it, but we’ll stay in, we’ll renegotiate some things, and when we’ve done that we’ll ask you what you think’. Farage’s works as a wedge but not as a policy; Cameron’s policy is too convoluted to work as a wedge. We could deploy our own wedge by calling for an EU referendum and saying ‘yes to a referendum and yes in the referendum’. Our added bonus would be that the faultline runs straight through the Tories, making the wedge even more effective.
Wedges might not be pretty, but they’re important if you want to win. The final word on that goes to Bruno Gianelli, the West Wing’s campaign guru, who bemoans the Republican wedge: ‘somebody came along and said, “Liberal means soft on crime, soft on drugs, soft on Communism, soft on defence, and we’re gonna tax you back to the Stone Age because people shouldn’t have to go to work if they don’t want to!”.’ Indeed they did, and Lynton Crosby is going to do the same in this country right up until 7 May 2015. We have to both defend what we believe in and fight back. When you’re in the bunker, you can only play with one club. It’s time to ask the caddy for the wedge.
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