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31 January 2022

How Labour can win back Tory voters without insulting them

If your campaign message says it’s time for the grown-ups to take charge, how do you avoid blaming those who voted for the adolescents?

By Julian Baggini

How did Labour lose touch with its traditional voter base? One reason among many is that it broke two related critical thinking rules that philosophers know very well. First, when trying to understand people you disagree with, apply a principle of charity. In other words, assume people have good reasons for what they believe, even if what they believe is wrong. Second, have a good “error theory” for why they have gone wrong. If intelligent people believe false things, you need to explain how that happened.

The danger for Labour is that it still hasn’t understood this. It’s pinning its hopes on the fact that Keir Starmer is not Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn or the inevitably tainted next leader of the Conservative Party. But if your campaign message is that it’s time for the grown-ups to take charge, how do you avoid implicitly blaming those who voted for the adolescents, the very people you’re trying to persuade to switch sides? If, in effect, you’re telling people that they backed a joker, you’re insulting them. And if you admit they were right not to vote for Corbyn, you’re undermining your own party.

To get people to change their minds, you have to be able to tell them a story of why it is understandable they had the views that they did, and equally understandable that they should now change. This is difficult, but Labour can do it.

First, it has to admit its past failings. This has been difficult because Starmer doesn’t want to alienate the Corbynistas. The confession actually needs to come from all wings of the party: we talked too much about Europe and the concerns of our urban supporters. We never forgot our core voters but we understand why you thought we’d deserted you. We will never make that mistake again.

Second, it has to show it understands why people voted for Johnson. He made the electorate an attractive offer. He seemed to rise above old divisions and be a practical man of action, with the interests of ordinary people at heart. He was a good salesman and we understand why you bought his pitch, but he let you down. 

Only when these acknowledgments have been made can Labour convincingly argue that things have changed, and that it’s time to vote for change: Conservatives’ promises have shown themselves to be hollow, and Labour has shown itself to be serious.

This is a good error theory because it tells people that they made a mistake but that they were wrong for rational reasons, not stupid ones. It’s also a persuasive narrative because it makes emotional sense, like someone winning back an unfaithful partner by understanding why they had the affair rather than resenting them. It also allows for a thematic unity to a campaign: the Conservatives have been betraying your trust, and we’ve been earning it back.

To make it work, Labour needs to demonstrate genuine humility and an understanding of the voters who deserted them. This takes time. It must start now.

[See also: Labour used to be the party of the people – how did it become so disconnected?]

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