American politics, ‘Red’ Ed and the paradox of populism

Peter KellnerPresident
November 11, 2013, 9:20 AM GMT+0

YouGov President Peter Kellner on the lessons that can – and can't – be learned from the recent American elections

Last week a radical candidate won the contest to be mayor of New York by a landslide. Bill de Blasio campaigned to attack income inequality and demand greater respect by the police for human rights. His opponents made much of his spending his honeymoon in Cuba and, more recently, his support for the Occupy Wall Street protests. Never did a duck’s back shrug off so much water: he trounced his Republican opponent by 73-24% to become New York’s first Democrat mayor for 20 years.

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Could the current struggles of millions of Britons to make ends meet be driving our voters in the same leftwards direction as those of the Big Apple? A recent YouGov survey for a new think tank, the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (CLASS) suggests that Ed Miliband should play up his ‘Red Ed’ tag rather than seek to deny it.

Here is how a left-wing Labour activist could make this case, based on our figures:

‘Britain’s economy may be growing, but most people feel no better off. Only 15% reckon they are benefitting at all from the country’s recovery; fully 77% think it is passing them by. And they want ministers to do far more to protect their standard of living. Big majorities say the Government should control gas and electricity process (74%) and fares on public transport (72%). Almost half the country want government control of private sector rents – and one-third even want food prices to be controlled.

‘What’s more, most people want Britain to undo the privatisation of the past three decades. There is a big appetite to renationalise the energy companies (wanted by 68%), the railway companies (66%) and the Royal Mail (67%). If Ed Miliband committed Labour to a programme of price controls and public ownership, he’d be Britain’s Bill de Blasio and win by a landslide.’


Well, maybe. But then again, maybe not. The evidence from last week’s exit polls in the US should warn us against an over-simple interpretation of the public mood. Many of the New Yorkers who voted for de Blasio also praised the record of his predecessor, the very rich and far-from-left-wing Michael Bloomberg. Likewise, next door in New Jersey, Chris Christie was re-elected as Governor, also by a landslide, even though he is a Republican in a mainly Democrat state. A mainstream Conservative, he won the votes of 31% of those who describe their own ideology as Liberal; an opponent of Obamacare, he was backed by 33% of those who back the President’s health plans; and half of Christie’s votes came from supporters of same-sex marriage – a reform he deplores.

As ever, one should be wary of translating what happens in America to what happens here. Our political culture is unlike theirs in so many ways – the campaigning style, influence of money, divisions over social values, nature of party loyalties and so on. But in one big sense, the results from New York and New Jersey do contain an important lesson for British politician.

It is that elections, increasingly, are verdicts on people rather than policy-programmes. New Yorkers think de Blasio will do a good job fighting for them and their city; the voters of New Jersey have re-elected Christie because of his personality and his record. 85% of them give him high marks for the way he handled Hurricane Sandy last year. That mattered far more than his ideology, views on same-sex marriage or even, for many Democrats, his party label. His competence and character swept all else aside.

Now, ‘character’ can be an elusive phenomenon. Few people on either side of the Atlantic can win an election if they are tagged as ‘extremist’. Hence the way de Blasio’s opponents attacked him – the New York Post called him a pro-Cuban communist who was soft on crime. He won by persuading New Yorkers that this was nonsense and that he was a capable guy in tune with the concerns of people in a city that resented the ever-widening gulf between rich and poor.

Much the same story can be told about Labour’s triumph in 1945 and the Conservative victory in 1979. True, voters supported radical change in both elections; but only because they were satisfied that Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher were competent leaders who would convert their pledges into effective action.

By the same token, Ed Miliband’s central task is to persuade voters not just the he is on their side, but also that he is up to the job of Prime Minister. Currently too few people think he is. And I’m not sure that he would win over the doubters by translating our poll numbers into a series of manifesto commitments to reintroduce price controls and renationalise the Royal Mail and British Gas. Were voters to regard him as a strong, decisive leader with workable solutions to Britain’s problems, then such radical measures might carry him to victory. The trouble is that this is not how most people see him; so the risk is that the very policies that most people say they want, could turn out to do him more harm than good.

Michael Howard learned this lesson the hard way as Conservative leader in 2005. He stroked public opinion with tough policies on Europe, crime and immigration – only to be dragged down by a reputation for being too right-wing.

It’s the paradox of populism: ideas we say we like, can jar when proclaimed by politicians we don’t respect. We want leaders to agree with us but not to pander to us. In that sense, politicians are like doctors. We would rather they never stuck needles into us or told us to lose weight, but how many of us would really trust a GP who did only what we asked and never seemed to use her knowledge and experience to say what had to be done?

Images: Getty

See the full YouGov / CLASS results

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