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Vanilla liberalism is past its sell-by date

The ice-cream seller's problem no longer applies to British politics. (Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

The ice-cream seller's problem no longer applies to British politics. (Credit: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

May 11, 2018   3 mins

So, what’s the plan?

That’s a question that every election strategist has to answer.

In 2016, Donald Trump had a plan – i.e. ignore the coastal elites and go for the rust belt – and he pulled it off. In 2015, Ed Miliband had a plan – i.e. play it safe, win 35% of the vote and get the minor parties to put him into government – and he didn’t pull it off.

In 2017, Jeremy Corbyn had a plan – don’t play it safe, unite the Left and inspire large numbers of habitual non-voters to turn out. His enemies, particularly those on the centre-left, snorted in derision, but he very nearly pulled it off. Contrary to all expectations, he deprived Theresa May of her majority and achieved the highest Labour vote share since 2001.

As much as it might pain those who deplore the hard left takeover of the Labour Party, on electoral strategy Corbyn was right and his critics were wrong.

But has that strategy now hit a wall? The result of this year’s English local elections would suggest that it has. Labour did make significant, though not spectacular, advances in London; but outside the capital – in the kind of seats the party needs to win to get a majority – it stalled, and in some places went backwards.

In the Independent, Tom Peck suggests that some Corbynites realise that a course correction is necessary:

“That Labour lost control of Nuneaton council in Thursday’s local elections was a gentle political earthquake. Hours later, the journalist turned Corbyn campaigner Paul Mason made a startling admission: ’Progressives can win if they make an alliance,’ he said. ‘To win swing seats in the Midlands and Southern England, Labour needs to get even more outside its comfort zone and fight for centrist votes.’”

“… it would seem even Paul Mason is aware that Corbynism might have reached its psephological limits – and that the old rule, about winning from the centre, might just still apply.”

Peck is right about Corbyn needing to win, or win back, England’s flyover country, but is this really the same thing as ‘winning from the centre’?

The idea that elections are won from the centre is known to political strategists as the Median Voter Theorem, which is based on something called Hotelling’s Law or the ‘ice cream seller’s problem’. This how Tom Peck describes it:

“That old rule, by the way, is often best explained via an old lesson taught at business schools about two ice cream sellers on a beach. If a beach is four hundred yards long, it would make sense for the two sellers to position themselves a hundred yards from the middle and a hundred yards from either end. No one would be more than a hundred yards from an ice cream.

“However, in the end each seller inches towards the middle. Those to the outside of him can be taken for granted. Those in the middle are there to be fought for. And so the two ice cream sellers end up side by side in the middle of the beach.”

Applied to British politics, the two ice cream sellers are Labour and the Conservatives, the customers are the voters and the beach is the Left-Right political spectrum.

So, given the return to a two-party system, does this logic determine the plan for the next general election – i.e. a scramble for the middle ground? Are the liberal centrists, who currently find themselves on the margins of UK politics, set to be vindicated?

Actually, no – because the assumptions that underpin the median voter theorem no longer hold.

Firstly, two-party politics cannot be guaranteed. In this new era of populism, taking heartland voters for granted is a high risk strategy.

Secondly, politics no longer limited to a single left-right dimension. It is, at a bare minimum, two dimensional – with a social or a cultural spectrum intersecting with the economic spectrum. Metropolitan liberals may see themselves as occupying the middle ground, but culturally they’re out on a limb.

Thirdly, the median voter theorem assumes an even distribution of voters across the political spectrum. However, there’s good evidence to show this isn’t true – and that what the liberal elites imagine to be the centre ground is pretty much deserted.

Last, but not least, the analogy to ice cream sellers on a beach breaks down, because in politics your location changes your product – indeed, to a large extent, it is your product. The once-popular centrism of the Tony Blair and Bill Clinton years is now seen as damaged goods. After the financial crisis, and everything that’s happened since, vanilla liberalism is past its sell-by date and the punters want a change.

Whether Corbynism is the particular change that enough voters are looking for remains to be seen. But in today’s world, the key to electoral success is difference not similarity.

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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