Goal Dilution and the Power of a Clear Political Voice
Having spoken with many politically savvy activists and interested parties over the past few days and weeks, and although we tend to be a group who like to believe we always know what will happen in any situation, truth is, few expected such a landslide victory for the Conservatives and such a battering for Labour, leaving even the most fervent Corbynista asking if they had backed the right horse.
Labour failed, not only in seats lost but decreasing vote share too. Why? Well it's complex but certainly one reason is because they simply had too much going on. They offered too much - broadband, nationalisation, pensions, equality, to end all historic injustices...As I heard from one disgruntled ex-labour voter, free unicorns too. This excess of promises maybe a symptom of being in opposition. 10 years of pent up energy unleashed in a wave of idealism and desperation. The issue is, as the surfers amongst us will know, volume does not always constitute a good day on the waves. In fact an excess of content almost always results in a dilution of clarity, reduced engagement and trust. This is called goal dilution in behaviour economics and communications and suggests that the more focused and singular a goal is, the more confidence will be place in the goal. Labours ideological banquet was simply this, excess, and people therefore thought they would be ineffective in all of them, and they may well have been right.
This goes some way to understand why Labour, with a manifesto twice as long as other parties crammed with pledges many might consider desirable still failed to capture the imagination and commitment of the electorate. Whilst they might have presented a vision of hopefulness and change many longed for it was lost amidst the significant improbability of achieving any of it and furthermore misunderstood the public appetite for a revolutionary styled remaking of the entire nation in a single Parliamentary term.
The overwhelming goal dilution of Labours message resulted in a history making political defeat, crippling loss of support and active transition of affiliation towards other parties. Labour offered everything for everyone and so have failed to achieve the opportunity to deliver anything.
Think however of the Conservatives and the phrase 'Get Brexit Done' isn't far away. The Truth is, other significant issues were addressed and pledges made around the environment, NHS, education, policing, youth services and others; but the core goal was unmistakable, to deliver upon the 2016 referendum to leave the European Union. That singularity of vision, goal and message offered security and clarity.
Whilst it can rightly be said that such single-mindedness has divided, and continues to divide support between those who agree and those who don't; with a clearly researched mandate from public opinion, for which there is around Brexit weather we like it or not, the maths are actually relatively simple, enough of the electorate are active brexiteers or democrats committed to our political system and therefore accept that Brexit must be delivered, coupled with traditional Tory voters and members, to have secured a positive election result with a clear fixed goal.
Now let's be sure, whatever Labours Brexit policy was, it lacked clarity, conviction and leadership. The level of insecurity that Labours position evoked during these fractious times would have only ever been workable in the hands of a leader who could make nuance sound like opportunity and not prolonged pain and confusion. Corbyn lacked such leadership and so the goal failed to be heard, has put the nail in the coffin of his leadership and unless they reflect seriously upon their direction a nail in the coffin of the party in the eyes of centralist voters too.
But what about the liberal democrats you say, didn't they present a singularity of vision about the most significant issue of the election. They pledged to simply retract article 50. And whilst this 'lets go back to how it was before and pretend it never happened' approach is certainly clear, the party lacked the self awareness to realise that such a do or die direct approach is problematic considering their fragility in light of recent years and the fading confidence in Jo Swainson, a confidence which showed to have waned drastically as she lost her seat and quit as party leader. Unlike the Conservatives, the liberal democrats could not in reality withstand the shift of support that comes with such a strong position. Furthermore the belief that the 'retract article 50' approach was a winner was misguided and in all probability concocted amidst the ideological echo chamber of the Lib Dem Westminster political elite. Whilst their vote share in many instances increased and for many did offer a legitimate counter to 'Get Brexit Done' they lacked the ability to convert sentiment into seats in the House.
So what's the answer? Am I saying that during these populist times, a nuanced political view will fail to breakthrough the noise. Not at all, nuanced communication is in fact is the only tonic to the over simplified hyperbole of the populists. Nuance enables politics to move beyond mere rhetoric and begin to legitimately express the often paradoxical nature of human experience and society. Nuance is essential but must be accessible, inspire and instil confidence in its ability to be delivered.
The thing is, nuance is not the same as convoluted. Both share in complexity but nuance is focused on meaning and purpose whilst the latter is lost amidst confusion. Our messaging must flows from identity and that from our purpose. Labour firmly fell into the realms of convolution and in so doing exposed their lack of purpose and identity crisis bubbling beneath the surface.
So where does the future lie for nuanced and accessible political narratives?
Firstly we must understand ourselves within the new societal landscape. We must understand who we are, not be afraid of critical friends and actively seek to make our message and mission relevant and framed within the current fabric of society.
Messages are only successful if they are heard and understood.
Secondly we must lead confidently and with humility. Pride amplified the insecurities of all leaders within December's election, their inability to directly address stories from relationships to Antisemitism and the almost belligerent refusal to apologise does nothing than illustrate an unhelpful notion that leadership doesn't concede. Humility from our leaders is essential. Johnson did well on his first day of the new government to announce that he must now listen, honour the trust people had placed in him and not let them down.
Treading the line between humility, strength, vision and relevance is no easy task but essential if we want our politics to inspire and impact our world.