Peter Kellner discusses the importance of political party branding in winning 'the valence war'
This commentary is also featured in the current New Statesman
Here are three questions and three predictions.
Question 1: Should Britain move towards a low-tax, small government society?
2. Should the private sector play a much bigger role in the NHS?
3. There should be far more redistribution from rich to poor?
Prediction 1: Most New Statesman readers will respond no, no, yes.
2. The minority of Conservative readers who read the NS to keep an eye on their enemy will respond yes, yes, no.
3. What both groups of readers will share is the passion of their answers.
My point here is not to debate these policies, but to observe one of the differences between normal voters and political junkies such as myself and (probably) you. Understanding this difference can hold the key to winning elections; and special YouGov research for the New Statesman shows how.
The difference can be illustrated by one of the above questions. Suppose you feel strongly about the role of the private sector in the NHS, either for or against. That is a positional view. But suppose you don’t mind that much either way, and all you want is prompt, high quality care when you need it. In that case, yours is a valence view.
Most politicians, activists and commentators are full of positional views. But millions of swing voters don’t: they take a valence view of politics. They judge parties and politicians not on their manifestos but on their character. Are they competent? Honest? Strong in a crisis? Likely to keep their promises?
To explore this, YouGov took a series of political controversies and asked people which of four options they favoured. In each case we offered three positional options (“Left”, “Right” and status quo), and one valence option.
'Floating voters' decide elections
At first sight, the news for progressives is bleak. The “left” view tends to lag way behind the most popular option. That is not all. When we look separately at the social and “nationalist” issues, we find that the valence option is by far the most popular with all three social issues, while the right-wing view is the most popular with all three “nationalist” issues.
Now, many NS readers will find this hard to accept. These findings simply don’t square with the way they – we – and most of our friends discuss politics. The trouble is, we’re simply not typical. Take the issue of redistribution. Among those who identify “very strongly” with Labour, 46% want the Government to do more to help the poor, while 14% think the poor should take more responsibility for their own plight. But among those with either no party allegiance, just 9% back redistribution, while 29% want lower benefits. With this group, the valence option is by far the most popular. Meanwhile, 48% think that what matters most is not the size of the benefits bill but how fairly benefits are distributed.
And here’s the killer fact: very strong Labour identifiers comprise just 5% of the electorate. Those with no allegiance comprise 24%. These are the floating voters who decide elections.
Branding wins the valence war
In short, Labour can’t win the votes that matter simply by promoting progressive policies. It must win the valence war. This does not mean ignoring the task of policy-formation. Far from it. The task is to burnish the Labour “brand”, which is fundamentally similar to building a commercial brand.
For example, BMW has a strong brand. Motorists regard it as reliable. This is not because many BMW owners know or care about, say, the electronic software or the composition of the engine casing. It’s because owners trust BMW to get these things right. And because BMW’s engineers and production processes have proved reliable down the years, the brand has grown strong.
Likewise with political parties, the “engineering” – policy formation – is vital; but it will be electorally effective only as far as a party’s policies, collectively, enhance its overall brand image.
This analysis can help Labour even on the “nationalist” agenda. Forget trying to persuade floating voters to like Europe, immigration or shorter prison sentences. Those arguments are unwinnable, at least in the short term. What can win votes, or at least avoid terrible losses, is a demonstration that the party will handle these matters honestly and competently
Rewards for respect
The most dramatic example of valence politics trumping a populist positional stance occurred in the Romsey by-election 12 years ago. The news was dominated by reports of asylum seekers escaping from the Sangatte camp near Calais and crossing the Channel. The Tories sought to defend one of their safest seats by mobilising public anger on the issue. The Lib Dems seemed to be on a hiding to nothing – yet won the seat on a huge swing. In the event, the Tories lost votes because they appeared to exploiting the issue cynically, while the Lib Dems, which avoided crude populism this time, were seen as more principled. The Tories’ positional view chimed with the majority of Romsey voters, but they lost the valence war.
By the same token, David Cameron could end up losing votes by promising a referendum on the EU, even though most voters want one, if he appears to be buffeted by events and mesmerised by the threat from UKIP, rather than taking a lead.
In the end, the voters who decide elections judge the parties and their leaders by their character. Parties win valence wars not when they abandon unpopular policies simply to appease the public mood, but when they show by their behaviour and the quality of their leadership that they deserve respect. Thatcherism in the early Eighties and New Labour at its most popular were powerful examples of strong valence brands.
The valence winner in 2015 has yet to emerge.