In order to win elections political parties need to market their message in a way that is palatable to different sections of the electorate. The grand folly of political strategists is that they presume that voters think in accordance with a deeply-held political ideology. Naturally there are some who have sculpted their ideological views based on reading philosophy, but I contend that the majority of voters cast their ballots based on their gut instinct about broad abstract concepts such as what is ‘right’ or ‘fair’, alongside what is in their material best interest. People evaluate issues individually and on their merits.
The problem for the Left is not necessarily what they want to do, but how people perceive what they want to do. This articles shall look at how the Left can use an understanding of how people make decisions and look at the world to sell policies that have been demonised since the days of Thatcher. The example I shall use in how the Left can target the votes of the elderly.
People naturally like to think that the societies in which they live are constantly moving forward and improving as time goes on. The reason for this is understandable: if society is moving in the wrong direction then they, as a member of that society, will be somewhat to blame for that. This is an approach to the world that has existed for a long time and has shaped many intellectual ideas about how history is written.
For example in the Victorian period there was a sense of optimism that because of the revolutionary changes of commerce and technology, society could only be improved, and as a result many approaches to history spoke about how things were ‘inevitable’ or how things in that period were ‘natural’. Whiggish historians venerated things they deemed unique to Britain such as constitutional monarchism, parliamentary democracy, and rule of law. Indeed this wasn’t confined to one ideological position. Historical materialism, the Marxist view of history being comprised of class conflict, infers how the inevitable end point of history will be a system of full communism. History as an academic discipline has moved on since the 19th century, but this idea of constant improvement has remained part of wider society. The Left needs to debunk this idea, and the group of people that are most susceptible to this intellectual challenge is the elderly.
The elderly have lived long lives and have made peace with the idea of life’s transience, but despite this feeling all elderly people long to be youthful once again. Who wouldn’t want to be young? You can stay up all night chatting with friends, you are most sexually active, and there is a whole world of opportunities out there just waiting for you. In order to recapture this feeling of youth we hold on to things that have remained constant throughout our lives. This can manifest itself benignly as buying brands that we grew up with or more politically such as supporting traditional customs.
People are drawn to the Right because of this feeling of nostalgia. Conservatism as an ideology venerates and cherishes tradition, and therefore people who believe these things are very important vote for right-wing groups. By co-opting this feeling of nostalgia, the Left can rekindle a large support base among the over 65s, and the electoral results of such a move would be substantial.
Because of the successful work of Conservative MPs and right-wing political commentators certain words have become politically toxic, and an example of this is ‘renationalisation’. If a left-wing politician wants to renationalise something the argument against it is that this person is a dinosaur living in the past and because this policy is no longer active it, by definition, must be wrong. This is how the social attitude I mentioned earlier manifests itself as public policy. If a politician suggests enacting a policy from the past, they are tacitly acknowledging that in the intervening years the government has been acting incorrectly. However by omitting these toxic words, and appealing to people’s sense of nostalgia, genuinely left-wing policies can be proposed without the baggage that the Right has masterfully affixed in recent years.
The example I give is that of the Royal Mail. In 2011 the Coalition government under David Cameron partially privatised the service by floating shares in the company on the London Stock Exchange. By 2015 the government has sold all its shares in the Royal Mail, ending public ownership in the service for the first time in it’s 499 year history. The 2011 Postal Services Act also stipulated that the Post Office would remain in public ownership.
It is not a controversial policy to bring the Royal Mail back into public ownership, but by arguing for its renationalisation left-wingers risk being attacked for living in the past, an insult which also infers intellectual backwardness. The solution is to coat the policy in a nostalgic veneer to appeal to a cross-section of British society. If the same policy was marketed as ‘a left-wing government would seek to restore the golden era of the postal service, and to do this we will bring Royal Mail back into public ownership, restore the GPO, and appoint a Postmaster General accountable to Parliament’ the policy would win support from a number of people, including the elderly.
This will be more popular with voters because the language used is so different that the image created in people’s minds is also different. When people heat the word ‘renationalisation’ they think of the 1970s and how the British state used to own large amounts of the economy. By appealing to a nostalgic view of what the postal service used to be, the industrial disharmony of the 1970s doesn’t come to the front of people’s minds. Further, placing emphasis on how important Post Offices used to be as centres of the community creates a romanticised view of the past and makes the policy less threatening.
The crucial thing here is that the policy is just as radical. The dichotomy posed by people who oppose radically left-wing policies is that a policy can either be left-wing or it can be palatable to the electorate. This is clearly false. The nostalgic phrasing used above is simply window dressing, but what is the policy actually calling for? It’s saying that a left-wing government would renationalise the Royal Mail, combine it with the Post Office, and have the whole operation overseen by a Cabinet minister.
Communicating policies to the electorate doesn’t mean moderating the message, but understanding how people think and using that to promote your agenda. Most people evaluate issues based on their own beliefs about right and wrong and often times this is not part of a coherent political ideology. The job of the Left is suggest radical solutions that people support without using language that has become politically toxic. Harnessing this feeling of nostalgia is a prime example of how these policies can become relevant once again.
People are drawn to the Right because of this feeling of nostalgia. Conservatism as an ideology venerates and cherishes tradition, and therefore people who believe these things are very important vote for right-wing groups. By co-opting this feeling of nostalgia, the Left can rekindle a large support base among the over 65s, and the electoral results of such a move would be substantial. If a politician suggests enacting a policy from the past, they are tacitly acknowledging that in the intervening years the government has been acting incorrectly. However by omitting these toxic words, and appealing to people’s sense of nostalgia, genuinely left-wing policies can be proposed without the baggage that the Right has masterfully affixed in recent years.