I thought I was following you…

For George Osborne read Bernie Madoff: he’ll take your money and take your job, but don’t worry – if you wait long enough, he promises you’ll get it all back from someone else.

(Ed Balls, here.)

Note he didn’t say “Of course, we accept the necessity of cuts, but George Osborne is really like Bernie Madoff”. This was rather the point of this post. In the end, the people who thought themselves masters of rhetoric, campaigning, and media management were stuck with a hopelessly confused message that they would have rightly mocked had it come from anyone else. On the other hand, funny old Gordon (is he going mad?) had a clear and immediately comprehensible message.

Of course, neither I, Ed Balls, or probably anyone else in Britain actually thinks we’ll never need to do anything about the budget deficit. The question is what, how much, from whom, and when. The official answer from Labour on the campaign trail and since was “about half as much, or as much over twice as long”.

Even keeping the plan target from the Pre-Budget report, to reduce the deficit by half over the next parliament, there’s still significant room to do a better job. You could look at the distributional impact and call attention to the fact that poor families with children lose out the most. You could look at the breakdown between growth, inflation, taxation, and cuts, and perhaps dust off the file from the late 90s. During the 90s fiscal stabilisation, Ken Clarke and Gordon Brown pursued a policy of splitting the adjustment burden equally between spending restraint and higher taxes. You could even use “the Clarke-Brown plan” as a talking point, seeing as Ken Clarke is back in the government. Beyond that, we could look at aiming for stabilisation first, and reduction only once the risk of a second recession is past.

But none of this is likely to help if it comes with an initial disclaimer that it should not be believed too hard. Rhetorical commitments are not much, as Nick Clegg would point out, but they do have more self-binding power than saying nothing. If you preface everything with a statement that you don’t really believe it very hard, you risk convincing everyone that the other half of the statement is the bit they shouldn’t take seriously.

How did we get here? I think it’s worth looking at the idea of “the centre” carefully. In my opinion, the idea that the centre ground plays a special role in politics is a sort of wrapper round a package of interesting assumptions. One of these is something like the median voter theorem – the idea that if voter preferences are roughly normally distributed along a scale between two camps, then the preferences of the voter halfway along the scale determine the outcome. Another is related, but different – that the political scale translates into practical priorities for government. Even if the spectrum is primarily made up of statements about identity, ethics, and emotion, it can be transcribed perfectly from political DNA into practical proteins. (Perhaps institutions are the RNA in this metaphor.)

This set-up is quite robust. There’s the classic version of centre ground politics, where preferences along the classic left-right scale are normally distributed and therefore most people are somewhere in the centre. As a result, democracy equals moderation, and campaigning is basically all about assembling a policy package that pushes the party line over the median. There are a couple of others. One is a version in which preferences have a binomial distribution, one peak for Labour, one for Tories, and there are a few swing voters in the middle. As the two peaks are roughly equal in size, though, this doesn’t change much – the decisive factor is still which way the centre goes. This is probably closer to the standard operating procedures of big political parties, although the theoretical legitimacy still comes from the first, moderate majority model. This still works in a world like 1970s Germany, where the swing voters are represented by a third party, and the primary form of political competition is trying to be the bigger of the two big parties and therefore the swing party’s preferred coalition partner. Here’s a fine example of living in either world, as is this.

Another one is a pathological variant – the 51% model beloved of Karl Rove. This accepts the two camps, but denies that there is a significant zone of potential agreement in the middle. Instead, it argues, the biggest source of potential voters for either side is the reserve army of the nonvoters; in a low-turnout polity, on the assumption that nonvoters break the same way as the general population, there are so many nonvoters with some prior party affiliation that they outweigh the swingers. The policy recommendation from this is that a party must do all it can to achieve asymmetric mobilisation, to rile up its own base while trying to damp down the others. Rather than trying to adapt to whatever the real preferences of the people are, as in the first model, or micro-targeting the relatively small group of swing voters, as in the second, the point is to wind up a bigger gang for whatever makes up a minimal consensus in your party.

Interestingly, this should have as a consequence the incremental radicalisation of the party that starts it. As anyone who wanted higher wages would be replaced by a member of the original reserve army of the unemployed, so anyone who deserts i is likely to be replaced by someone more extreme.

There’s a limiting case for this. If the political rhetoric that marks the scale is really meant to be transcribed into action, at some point the initiating party will get so extreme that its position is intolerable to a large majority of the public. But here’s a serious problem. In the well-behaved, school politics lesson world of scenario one, politicians are thought to set their positions on the political scale by reference to the practical policies they will command. They are flying by reference to the horizon, or at least to the artificial horizon of the polls. But I think it’s fair to say, at least going by the fact that they frequently say this is precisely what they’re doing, that politicians also set their positions by reference to other politicians. Rather than watching the horizon, they are watching the other guy’s wingtip and flying in formation.

Now in some cases this might actually work. If they are all working from a common view of reality, it’s entirely valid to reckon that the central axis of the Labour Party is however many degrees to the left of the leftmost Tory. There will be drift over time, but nothing too drastic. They can adjust their relative positions without colliding. What matters is that the constraints in their calculations are mutually consistent. They are linked because they have the same republic in their heads. This is, I think, what underlies the whole concept. It assumes a common public sphere and no bad behaviour. This is why operationalising postmodernism was important.

Of course, basic cognitive biases suggest that people who work together and share an institutional culture will think this even if they are competitors in practice.

The problem here is that the whole thing relies for stability on nobody adopting the counter-game strategy and either trying to change the rules, or just to drag the opposition so far off their home ground that they lose all credibility and fail first. I’m pretty confident that, to borrow a phrase from Nick Clegg, 1931 plus a pound does not equal “progressive”, and neither does it equal a winning strategy for the opposition. I’m much less confident that there is any way to correct the course except for adopting the 51% strategy or something very like it and trying to drag the lot bodily leftwards. I don’t particularly like the look of 102% World (two hypermobilised and completely mutually intolerable camps) either, but there you go.

Update: I have just read this post of Steve Randy Waldman’s which is more than relevant.

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