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For an election victory, Labour must win the “valence” war

How to find the floating voters who decide elections.

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 National Health Service? 3 Should there 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 what the other side thinks, 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. 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 questions. Suppose you feel that 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 aren’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?

Branded for life

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”, status quo) and one valence option. You will find the full wording and survey results summarised online; a table covers the positional choices we offered to respondents and spells out the valence option (log on to or visit

At first sight, the news for progressives is bleak. The “left” view lags way behind the most popular option on all six questions (see below). That is not all. Look separately at the social and “nationalist” issues and you find that the valence option is by far the most popular on all three social issues, while the right-wing view is the most popular on all three “nationalist” issues.

Now, many NS readers will find this hard to accept. These findings just don’t square with the way they – we – and most of our friends discuss politics. The trouble is, we’re not typical. Take the issue of  redistribution. Among those who identify “very strongly” with Labour, 46 per cent want the government to do more to help the poor, while 14 per cent think the poor should take more responsibility for their own plight. But among those with no allegiance to either party, just 9 per cent back redistribution, while 29 per cent want lower benefits. In this group, the valence option is by far the most popular. Forty-eight per cent 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 per cent of the electorate. Those with no allegiance comprise 24 per cent. These are the floating voters who decide elections.

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. BMW has a strong brand. This is not because many BMW owners know (or care) about, say, their car’s electronic software or the composition of its 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, so the brand has grown strong. Likewise with political parties. The “engineering” – policy formation – is vital; but it will be electorally effective only in so far as a party’s policies, collectively, enhance its overall brand image.

Rewards for respect

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 evidence that the party will handle these matters honestly and competently.

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 over 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 be exploiting the issue cynically; the Lib Dems, who avoided crude populism on this occasion, were seen as more principled. The Tories’ positional view chimed with most Romsey voters, but they lost the valence war.

By the same token, David Cameron could lose 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 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 1980s and New Labour at its most popular were powerful examples of strong valence brands. The valence winner of 2015 has yet to emerge.

Peter Kellner is the president of YouGov


This article first appeared in the 16 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Age of Crisis

Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.