Sunday, 4 April 2010

The underdog paradox of election 2010

Peter Mandelson has sent an eve of the campaign 'state of the race memo' to Labour members and supporters.

This extract captures the gist:


As the ‘Shallow’ Chancellor, George Osborne, was bragging in his Guardian interview on Saturday, the Tories think they have it in the bag and the election is won before a single vote is cast.

So, what happened last week? Yes, the Tories got favourable coverage and that is a reminder to everyone that we remain the underdogs in this election. But they did so by putting politics before economics, putting their short-term political interests before the longer-term economic interests of the country. They would rather score points than stick to policies that would secure Britain’s economic recovery. When things get choppy for Mr. Cameron his first thought is to abandon fiscal discipline and his commitment to tackling the deficit, and instead reach out for crowd pleasing about-turns.

What is striking about him is that his response to any pressure is to take the soft option and the easy road. This is a far cry from the bold heir-to-Blair he first advertised ... Just remember that, two weeks ago, in a Saturday morning speech, Cameron was hailing himself as the new Thatcher, the man to stand up to vested interests and take the difficult decisions however unpopular. Well, if a week is a long time in politics a fortnight is an eternity in Cameronland.


Mandelson returns, very legitimately given the recent polls, to Labour's "underdog strategy". (Our fellow anoraks may recall that Next Left claims paternity of this based on Fabian Review's advocacy of it back at Christmas 2007, with Labour adopting it in earnest last summer and Autumn).

It seems to me that this captures an interesting paradox about how the election horse race could yet affect the outcome.

The funniest thing said when the polls tightened considerably was that a Tory staffer said "there goes Labour's underdog strategy'. And the Tories believed that the tightening polls would, paradoxically, help them return to a simple 'change' message. The message can be: we know you don't like us, but we are the alternative you have got. I expect more soft progressive 'lend us your vote' language aimed at squeezing LibDems and others.

Conversely, by the same token, the Tories being ahead presents dangers.

Labour needs the election to be contested as a choice between governments, not a referendum on the incumbents. Yet, in the final weeks it could become a referendum on the opposition, as was largely the case in 1992, if they appear favourites.

The fear of a large majority for a semi-unconstruced Tory party comes into play.

And anybody whose preference is a hung Parliament would need to vote anti-Tory in key marginals to have a chance of achieving that.

So is this the underdog paradox? Might the Conservatives possibly win fewer votes and seats if, on Sunday May 2nd, they had a 6+ point lead than if they were to enter the final week 3 or fewer points ahead?

Of course, Mandelson is right. Labour genuinely are the underdogs. Malcolm Gladwell has set out how underdogs can win with surprising frequency - as long as they adopt game-changing strategies which deny Goliath the advantage which he would have in a conventional contest.

1 comment:

james said...

A big problem is that the "cuts worse than Thatcher" thing is based on a faulty assessment about how to proceed in the economic recovery.

In the G20, only the UK and Argentina are pursuing fiscal tightening at this stage in what should be the global recovery. There doesn't seem to be much focus on stimulating the domestic economy through infrastructure spending - which would have a multiplier effect, thus boosting GDP.

What this means in electoral terms is that Labour is on the backfoot of being the kinder cutter, rather than providing hope of economic revival. Mandelson has won the argument against "investment versus cuts" - but that might lose the election, and if there's a Tory govt, lose the recovery.