Pre-emptive polls, shortcut slogans

The other day, I met a Labour candidate in a constituency which is currently Tory. Labour have historically been the second party, but were pushed into third by the Lib Dems at the previous election. He complained to me about the Lib Dem campaigning tactic. Only the Lib Dems can win here” is their line. It’s working, so he claims, to his great exasperation. Polls predict a Lib Dem win, and the slogan looks like a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Meanwhile, I was with the team campaigning for another Labour candidate, in a different constituency. On doorsteps of voters, they opted for a similar line of attack: Want the Tories out? We’re the only ones who can beat them here”. The leaflet they brandished showed a nearly neck-and-neck bar chart of red and blue, though the red had inched ahead. Not quite as snappy, but a similar effect. While the Lib Dem message could be seen as complacent, this one is more negatively framed, more of a call to action, but still gives the reassurance that you, too, could be part of a winning movement.

Then, on the national level, a new Conservative message has emerged from Grant Shapps, the Daily Express and others. They warn of a Labour super-majority; socialism in power with no checks and balances. The message, I think, is directed at undecided voters in swing seats, to spook the always-voted-Tory-but-can’t-bring-myself-this-time-rs back home, away from Labour to the left of them, and Reform to the right. It invites voters to cause an upset by supporting the apparent underdog, or not bother voting towards an apparently foregone conclusion.

All three messages assume a result, and use it to their advantage. Their existence makes it so clear how the predictions of the polls don’t just reflect an election but actively influence it. This is structural, for an electoral system which needs tactical votes over genuine votes. These are the messages which parties need to give their voters, and it drowns out most of the conversation about their policy positions, beliefs and values. I wonder what an election without polling looks like, whether it would even work in our constituency-based, First Past The Post system. How much do we vote on the basis of our beliefs, versus what we believe others believe?

I wonder if there is often a point at which the expectations of an election result are set, and the game around those expectations becomes the predominant force in how we influence a voter’s choice on election day. You just need your handy mental shortcut of a slogan to land, and be on a majority of voters’ minds when they come to choose where to mark their X.

June 13, 2024