Reading the media coverage of the 2014 elections, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that there were two sets of votes – local and European. The United Kingdom Independence party won the European elections hands down, but the locals presented a slightly more hopeful picture. Labour gained 338 seats and now has more councillors than the Tories; Ukip gained 161 town hall seats – both clearly won. The Tories lost 236 and the Liberal Democrats lost 310, nearly halving their seats in the areas up for election – both clearly lost.
Those were the headlines, but there were other stories as well, particularly in London. In inner London, the Greens are now Labour’s nearest rival as residents continue to shun the Tories and have turned away from the Liberal Democrats in droves. In outer London, Ukip ran the Tories a close second in the areas in which they did not win outright. Yet, what became clear over the course of the 2014 campaign is that many in Labour remain baffled by the challenge represented by the Greens and Ukip.
Opposing the Greens can be difficult. Even when we rightly oppose their many wrong-headed ideas, we can look like the nasty party, playing the same old political games while the Greens represent new politics. And attacking a political force as seemingly vibrant as the Farage bandwagon can be a daunting prospect. The temptation for many will be to ignore our new opponents or to be stunned into complacent outrage at them stealing ‘our’ voters. We adopted both approaches to the Liberal Democrats 20 years ago and then watched as they moved from winning ‘our’ council seats, to ‘our’ councils, to ‘our’ parliamentary seats. Let’s not make the same mistake again.
In Waltham Forest, we beat the Greens in Walthamstow, Leyton and Leytonstone and took two seats off the Tories in Chingford, while holding off the Ukip threat to our own vote. Adopting just one approach to the Greens and another to Ukip ignores the fact that, while people vote for those parties for very different reasons, Greens and Ukip-ers divide into quite similar groups – and each group needs a different approach. That means adopting our own version of snog, marry, avoid (albeit in a different order).
Avoid the true believers
Some Greens and Ukip-ers are true believers. Some (not I) would call them obsessives. They want to ban cars (Green) or immigration (Ukip) and return to an imagined past of Merrie England and Morris dancers (bizarrely, both of them). We can safely ignore the true believers – they are very clear about what they think; they are very clear that only Ukip/the Greens can deliver it; they are very clear that we are wrong; and, frankly, we can be equally clear in our minds that they are wrong. Avoid.
Snog the policy swayers
Now things become interesting. We need to snog the policy swayers – nothing too involved, but certainly a bit of flirting. These are not the true believers. They are the eggheads and the roundheads and are open to voting for us if what we say we will do reflects what they want to be done. The bad news is that there are not many of them, but the good news is that we can do something for them.
For the Greens, we need a convincing story on environmentalism which does not involve the poor paying a disproportionate price (as currently happens with deeply regressive energy bill levies). In the Greens’ only council – Brighton – recycling has, incredibly, dropped during their time in charge. The swayers care about these things and the message has to be – you do not have to vote Green to go green.
For Ukip-ers, it becomes more complicated, but this is where an European Union referendum comes in. For the vast majority of current Ukip voters, backing a referendum is at least a necessary condition of attracting their vote. Without a referendum, these policy swayers will remain unsnogged.
Marry the protest voters (but only the Ukip-ers)
Many of the Greens’ and Ukip’s 2014 voters were classic protest voters – the cavaliers to the swayers’ roundheads. They are voting from the heart, not the head, so appealing on the basis of higher recycling rates or points-based immigration systems will not work. These are the people coming straight from the Liberal Democrats. Analysing a switch from Liberal Democrat to Ukip on the basis of policy makes no sense, but seen from the standpoint of ‘a plague on all your houses’ looks much more understandable.
The protest voters are the only group for which the Greens and the Ukip-ers need to be split up. For the Greens, very nice people as they are, it is another avoid – we cannot do the hair-shirt and sandals. A protest vote for the Greens is an entrenched mindset which rejects the mainstream parties. It is difficult to budge and it would damage us to try. Avoid.
But, for many Ukip protest voters (although clearly not all), we have to attempt to re-build a fully rounded relationship – not just a snog. They are deeply disillusioned with the world (not only politics – they just do not think that politics can do anything about their problems). But much of this is much shallower than for Green protest voters – it is a challenge to the often-bloodless way we do politics and speak about what we believe in. We need the pint and a fag socialists who can communicate both normally and naturally and who do not patronise. This group will take some wooing – but it is marriage they are looking for, not a one-night stand.
And an extra: attack (policies and promises, not people)
‘Snog, marry, avoid, attack’ is (perhaps disappointingly) unlikely ever to be commissioned for television, but attack has to be one of our approaches. Our problem is that, when we decide to attack, we tend to go for the carpet bomb rather than the precision strike and we attack people, which nearly always backfires. When we attack Farage, we push more of our former supporters into his arms. When we attack the Greens, especially someone as clearly passionate and values-driven as Caroline Lucas, we look devoid of both passion and values.
When we attack, we should stick to the bonkers policies and the broken promises. Greens in Waltham Forest stood on a platform in which four of their five top priorities were food, mobile phone masts, TETRA and animal rights. Their policies do not reflect our residents’ priorities – so attack them. Ukip have made a fetish of not having policies, which makes this a little trickier, but their performance in Europe is miserable – so attack it. They promised to oppose the EU, and all they did was milk it. Attack the policies and the promises, but leave off the people.
Of course these approaches will not work for every Green policy swayer or Ukip protest voter, but an approach which treats all Greens the same, and all Ukip-ers the same will fail. They are very different movements, but their voters are often motivated by the same mindsets, if not the same policies and personalities. We have to understand them first, before we can decide which ones to snog, marry and avoid – and when to attack.
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