I like Frank Dobson. I hope he’s recovered from the experience of being Labour’s sacrificial lamb when Ken Livingstone first stood for Mayor; it can’t have been much fun. I knew he was doomed when Newsnight convened three representative local lefties in a pub back room. There was one gung-ho Livingstone enthusiast; one guy who wanted to vote for Ken, but was agonising about deserting the faith of his fathers by voting against the Labour candidate; and one guy who was intending to vote for Frank. Or, as he put it:
“I’m Labour through and through – I’d vote for a dog with a red rosette. So I’ll be voting for Frank.”
Back in the 1970s – and, yes, in Italy; it’s time for another trip down Academic Specialism Lane – there was a famous study which concluded that people support parties for three distinct reasons. There’s the vote of opinion, the more-or-less floating vote which is cast according to the different parties’ positions on the issues of the day. There’s the vote of belonging, which expresses loyalty to a community represented by the party. And, this being Italy, there’s the vote of exchange, which is more or less openly bought and sold. (Good job we haven’t got anything like that here, eh readers?)
There are two obvious problems with this model, and one that’s not so obvious. Firstly, the vote of opinion is quietly privileged in the model: who wouldn’t want to be the detached, well-informed but uncommitted person who chooses how to vote following a leisurely perusal of party literature, rather than the unthinking oaf who always votes the same way? But voting on the basis of opinion isn’t necessarily a good thing. ‘Opinion’ covers a lot of ground: someone who took absolutely no interest in politics and chose how to vote on the basis of the last thing they read in the Daily Star would also be casting a vote of opinion. Secondly, the vote of belonging also covers a broad range, according to precisely what it is you feel you belong to: a political project that’s actually continuing? a project that’s dead or moribund now, but that you were once proud to be associated with? or a bundle of values, icons and symbols which you associate with voting for a certain party, whatever that party actually does here and now? Put it this way, a committed Blairite and a fan of Dennis Skinner both vote Labour on the basis of a vote of belonging – but it’s not at all clear to me that they’re voting Labour for the same reason.
The less obvious problem follows from the other two. In this model, there is no way of representing the behaviour of someone who consistently votes according to a set of principles, without thereby being tied to a single party. Either you’re a party loyalist or you’re a floater – like the woman I heard once on the radio breezily announcing, “I’ll just read all the party leaflets and make my mind up on the day”. But this isn’t really good enough. There are reasons why I voted Labour at most opportunities between 1979 and 1997, and most of them are the same reasons why I’m voting against Labour this time. I haven’t moved – they have.
A party can change its principles even if it hasn’t changed its name. That doesn’t mean that you have to follow suit. Voting for a party name – as Mr Kotz and Ms Toynbee would have us do – really is dog-whistle voting (“Labour voter! Here, Labour voter! Come by! Yeesss… good dog…”)
Don’t vote for the name, vote for the principles – meaning the principles by which the party works in practice, not the principles they invoke at elections in an attempt to catch stray voters (“Come by!“) If you don’t like the principles, don’t vote for the party.
Update: Francis Beckett has been thinking along the same lines.
Most of us joined Labour not out of some ideological fervour about socialism but because it was the party of the underdog. It still was in 1992, and it isn’t any more. If you voted Labour in 1992 – the last time the party was led into an election by anyone other than Tony Blair – then you voted for a party that was fundamentally different from New Labour. Unless your views have changed along with those of Labour’s top brass, you can hardly vote for them now with any self-respect.
(Read the whole article – it’s excellent.)