Working class people are less likely to vote and making it easier to vote wont change that

People on lower incomes are less likely to vote than people on higher incomes.

image (4) And it’s not just voting. A recent American study found that “Lower-income people are more likely than others to withhold political opinions by saying “don’t know“”

Some, for example this recent report by Policy Network have argued that we need new institutions to engage people in politics. They called for:

“local deliberative bodies or citizen assemblies, support local authorities conduct effective participatory budgeting exercises, and experiment with new means for the public to engage in political decision-making processes in more direct and sustained ways”

There may well be a place for these things but the chances are that they are just as likely to replicate existing inequalities as they are to overcome them. For example, if working class people do not feel engaged in politics but middle class people do, there is a risk that the middle class people would dominate any new local assemblies.

Historically, one of the ways that working class people got involved in politics was through membership of formal associations such as trade unions. People learned that their opinions were valid and deserved to be heard through being members of these clubs or associations.

However, membership of trade unions has been in decline for many years.

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Indeed, few people are members of any type of association (although significant numbers are still members of sports clubs).

The situation is starker still if we break the numbers down by age. Most people under 35 are not members of any type of political, voluntary or recreational association.

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It’s probably no coincidence that as well as not being members of clubs, most people under 35 also do not think that most people can be trusted.

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There is plenty out there to give working class people the impression that their views don’t count. For examples, schools and workplaces can often reinforce the view that it’s best to keep your head down rather than speak out, particularly on controversial topics. Changing this requires far more than making it easier to vote.

How to build popular support for social housing

What would a popular, left wing housing policy look like?

Three of the most pressing and controversial areas of government policy in the UK at present are; childcare, housing and adult social care (see for example Nick Pearce’s blog on the subject).

It was no surprise when in his recent budget, George Osborne included announcements of extra money in these three areas.

Briefly, he announced tax cuts to help families with childcare costs, government guarantees for people trying to get a mortgage and a cap on the maximum people can spend on care in later life (the cap will be £72,000).

The left in British politics has been developing strong counter arguments on these topics in recent years. However, I do not believe that the left has yet developed a strong idea that the public will back on how to reform the housing system on the UK.

The left has stronger arguments on adult social care and child care.

On adult social care, the government is doing far less than the Dilnot commission recommended (they recommended a cap of more like £35,000). More impressively, Andy Burnham has been floating the idea of a national care service that would be free at the point of use.

On childcare the government’s announcements seems to disproportionately benefit richer households. In contrast, the Resolution Foundation and others have been making the argument for more universal, high quality childcare services.

In both cases, the left has developed a case that a sizeable percentage of the public would support.

Despite a lot of work I do not think that the same could be said for housing.

For example, Jack Dromey’s response to the new housing policies announced in the budget rightly pointed out the government’s failure to stimulate the construction industry. However, it was weaker on what Labour’s alternative approach would look like.

For many on the left the default housing policy is to build more council houses. One of the major problems with this policy is that it is not popular with the public.

In general the public do not support the idea of building new homes of any type.

Do you support new house building?

By a massive majority the public far prefer the idea of owning than renting.

Would you prefer to rent or buy?

And, when asked to say which housing policies they most support they chose giving assistance to first time buyers and increasing access to mortgages more than they chose building more council housing.

The challenge for the left then is, can they develop housing policies that both address the major problems of housing need facing the country and are popular with the public.

Any thoughts from readers would be most appreciated.

What can Labour learn from the Obama campaign

Obama has achieved something that has proved impossible for politicians across the world since the credit crunch: he has been re-elected. Can the Labour party learn anything from his success? In particular, what can Labour learn from the Obama campaign’s so-called “ground game”?

Not only can Labour learn from the Democrats 2012 campaign, they can go further. Rather than solely focusing their efforts around “getting out the vote”, the Labour party can build solid and long lasting relationship with citizens.



But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, lets look at the Obama campaign. It was a very different beast to 2008. Technology played a far more prominent role than ever before and the operation was run along hyper-professional lines.

This piece in The Atlantic explains some of the ways in which technology ran through the campaign. Gone are the days when a website and a facebook account are seen as modern. The Obama campaign created new tech products such as “Dashboard”, “the Call Tool”, “the Facebook Blaster”, “the PeopleMatcher”, and most importantly “Narwhal”.

And what did they do with these products? They used them to raise money, attract volunteers and target voters.

“The team’s only real goal was to elect the President”

This leads on to the second point. The campaign was a professionally run, modern, effective “get out the vote” operation. There is some contrast here with the idealism and community organizing style of the 2008 campaign. As Anthony Painter says in his New Statesmen piece “the living, breathing organism that was Obama ’08 became a professionalised machine in 2012”

Instead, the campaign used a Starbucks-like approach that included “behavioral psychology, data-mining, and randomized experiments” as ways of targeting voters with an incredibly fine grained approach. Even Karl Rove is impressed.

We should not underestimate how hard it is to run a professional operation of this type. We can see this in the Romney campaign which has been described by insiders as  “nothing short of a fiasco“. For example, their much hyped Orca system did not work properly and volunteers did not know how to use it.



The principle lesson that the Labour party can learn from this is the importance of building a polished, professional campaigning staff and infrastructure. Part of this involves brining in people from outside of politics, such as people who have been working in technology developing computer programmes. Another part involves being open to experimental and data driven approaches to campaigning.

So far so obvious.

A further lesson is that the ground game is more effective if given more time to take root. As Adam Fetcher, an Obama campaign spokesman, said;

“Starting a conversation with a persuadable voter months before Election Day allows us to be more effective in responding to that voter’s priorities than if they first hear from us a few weeks out. Building and maintaining our grass-roots foundation takes time and resources, but we believe those early investments will make a difference.”

In the UK we have a tradition of short election campaigns. This can mean that in many areas the only time that voters hear from political parties (apart from on the TV) is in the 6 weeks before the election. To put it mildly, it can be quite hard to really strike up any kind of rapport with voters in 6 weeks. Especially when very few people are members of political parties.

The Labour party should put a high priority in going further than the Obama campaign and should be continually talking to voters, listening, responding and, most importantly, organizing.



The Obama campaign shows that it is possible for political parties to use sophisticated techniques and longer term campaigning to identify and mobilize potential voters. This is of great relevance to the Labour Party as it seeks to secure a majority at the next election.

Peter Kellner at the polling company YouGov has written a very thorough analysis looking at which voters the Labour party needs to attract. He essentially argues that there are three groups of voters who used to vote Labour but no longer do that Labour needs to convince; people who voted for the Lib Dems in 2010, people who stopped voting and people who vote for the Conservatives in 2010.

Kellner’s main argument is that the people who previously voted Labour but started to vote for the Lib Dems will now vote for Labour again at the next election. He argues that this means that Labour should concentrate on the other two groups who are, he tells us, more likely to describe themselves as “centre-right” in their political views and “less likely than [Labour] loyalists to live in social housing, work in the public sector or belong to a trade union”.

If Labour was to adopt wholesale the approach of the Obama campaign they would be identifying with precise detail who these people are, what their priorities are and would then be sending very personalised messages to them.

A more radical approach would be to actual enter into conversations with these people. For example, the Labour party does not have to accept that these people are not in Trade Unions. The party could actually ask people about their experience of work and see if they are interested in joining together with their co-workers so that they can have more influence at work.



Means and asset testing

The means test is getting a lot of attention on both sides of the Atlantic.

In the UK, the Liberal Democrats have been suggesting that benefits for pensioners, like the winter fuel allowance, should be means tested and there is  a storm brewing over the introduction of the new ‘Universal Credit’ which some people think is a disaster waiting to happen.

In the US there is a nasty and racially tinged debate about whether or not President Obama has ‘gutted’ the work requirements included in means tested welfare benefits as well as the outrage over Romney’s claim that people who claim the Earned Income Tax Credit are not taking responsibility for their lives.

Means testing is when you ask people how much money they have to help you decide whether or not they qualify for some particular benefit or support. There are many good reasons to be against it.

For example, means testing can be degrading and disempowering for the claimant  it can create perverse incentives like when people deliberately do not save so that they can qualify and it creates a stigma over benefits.

However, it looks like, in some guises or other, the means test is here to stay. Here is a simple proposal for improving it; instead of solely assessing people’s means, the state or charity that is doing the means test should also assess the claimant’s assets and help them make a plan.

In practice this would mean that as well as asking people, for example, what their income is, you would also ask them the following three questions;

  1. What are your goals?
  2. Who do you know that could be useful in achieving these goals?
  3. What skills and experience do you have that could be useful in achieving these goals?

On the basis of these three questions and the traditional means test questions the claimant and the worker could jointly agree a plan and a package of support for this plan.

This might not just be money. In fact, it might be less money that using the means test.

There are several radical implications of this approach.

Firstly, it would mean giving more power and training to the worker doing the assessment. They would need to know about other projects and schemes that are out there (not solely government schemes) and be able to recommend these to the claimant.

Secondly, it would mean changing the terms of the relationship between the claimant and the worker. It would become less transactional and more relational. The worker would actually listen to the claimant and then they would jointly come up with a plan. The worker would probably also have some responsibility for checking on how the plan has progressed and encouraging the claimant.

Thirdly, it would mean the experience being quite different for the claimant. The current system asks claimants to prove that they are in need. This proposal would mean that the claimant would need to prove that they have goals but that they need support to achieve these goals. They wouldn’t feel like a failure but as someone with aspirations and some of the tools needed to achieve these aspirations.

Overall, I think adding three questions about assets and drawing up a plan would significantly improve the means test. This approach could be used in housing allocations, benefits assessments, adult social care assessments and so on and so on.

P.S. I should say that this blogpost was partly inspired by Alex Fox’s excellent post on Joint Strategic Needs and Asset Assessments


Can you buy an election?

One more though following yesterday’s post about money in politics.

One of the most common objection to the current system is that money can be used to buy elections through, for example, producing negative ads about opponents.

I’m not convinced.

Look at what happened in the recent(ish) Iowa caucus for Republican candidate for President.

Rick Perry spent $4.3 million on ads there, Romney spent $1.5 million and Santorum spent $30,000. We all know what the result was.

This paper found that “campaign spending has an extremely small impact on election outcomes”.

In fact it seems like once you get above a certain threshold of cash raised any extra money you spend on campaigns really does not give you that much.

I am tempted to think that we should look at the amount of money a campaign has raised as one way of measuring how successful a campaign has been run up to this point rather than as a guarantee that they will continue to do will.

Of course, some campaigns are particularly inept and others might be very good at running attack ads but money itself is no guarantee that you will win a campaign.

There is not enough money in politics

The amount of money being spent this year on political campaign ads by candidates, political parties, and outside groups poses a real threat to the fairness of our elections and the ability of Congress to get results on our most important issues.” (my emphasis)

Three quarters of Americans agree with this statement. People are not happy with the way political campaigns are funded. They are right to be concerned but perhaps their concern is misplaced.

I do not think that it is a problem that there is a lot of money spent on political campaigns. Let me clarify that. I don’t think the overall amount being spent is a problem. After all, political campaigns are important, why shouldn’t they be well funded? Do we really want political campaigns that can’t afford ads and meetings?

It is, though, a severe judgement on political campaigns and political parties that most people (especially people on low and middle incomes) give no money and do not feel moved to directly participate in these campaigns.

I don’t think making it harder for rich people to give money will fix these problems.

You see pressure groups like Fair Elections Now are pushing for a cap on donations and for some element of public funding for campaigns. This might well have the effect of reducing the amount of money spent on political campaigns but it would not, by itself, create a situation where a larger number of people (especially people on low and middle incomes) give money or feel that the political system is responsive to their concerns.


Currently the political system is not responsive to the concerns of low incomes families. Larry Bartels found that representatives from both political parties are far more responsive to their wealthier rather than their poorer constituents. Here is a chart he produced to show this.


Some would say that Bartels’ findings can be explained by the fact that political campaigns are funded by contributions from high income households. A recent article in Bloomberg lays out the stats;

Only 0.26 percent of Americans give more than $200 to congressional campaigns. Only 0.05 percent give the maximum amount to any congressional candidate. Only 0.01 percent — 1 percent of 1 percent — give more than $10,000 in an election cycle. And in the current presidential election, 0.000063 percent of Americans — fewer than 200 of the country’s 310 million residents — have contributed 80 percent of all super-PAC donations.

So, very few Americans give to political campaigns. In 2008, 60% of total donations were accounted for by less than 0.1 percent of the population.

But would reducing the amount that these people can give change anything?


The reason I think it wouldn’t is that Americans by and large have never been keen to donate to political campaigns in any significant numbers.

Here is a chart showing the number of people who said they donated during a presidential campaign over the last 50 or so years.

Here is a similar chart showing that the vast majority of Americans do not go to political meetings during elections.

Why would people who do not currently donate to campaigns start to do so just because rich people are giving less money than before? In fact, is it not a possibility that capping donations might just make campaigns cheaper to run and achieve little else?

For me, a more important question is;

What do people in political parties have to do differently to win the trust and support  (financial and otherwise) of low and middle income households?

The American President is not a breakfast cereal

Politics is about choices, but not always in the way people think.

It has become common to bemoan the lack of choice people have at the ballot box. You may remember Cynthia McKinney, the Green Party’s candidate for the 2008 American Presidential election, complaining that you have hundreds of choices of breakfast cereal but only two choices for President.

This raises the question; should we choose who is to be the President of America in the same way we choose what to have for breakfast?

Many people think we should.

Recently, late night talk show hosts had some fun with the story that many Egyptians are not enthused by the two candidates for President. ‘Just like America’ they chuckled to themselves.

Martin Bright, Political Editor of The Jewish Chronicle, asked the related and hopefully rhetorical question about the recent London Mayoral elections “How on earth did the Labour Party end up with a candidate many loyal supporters (Jewish or not) couldn’t stomach voting for?”

I say this was hopefully rhetorical because we have to imagine that Martin Bright understands how the Labour party chooses its candidates. I think by looking a bit closely at this question of choosing candidates we can understand a bit more why the American Presidency is actually strikingly different to breakfast cereal.

The short answer to Martin’s question is that Ken Livingstone successfully organized the situation so that he was chosen to be the Mayoral candidate.

Anyone who has had any experience of how Ken’s ‘machine’ works will know that it is pretty formidable. He was able to build an organization that had endorsements, pamphlets, voter segmentation, fundraising, policies, boots on the ground and so on and so on. Oona King, his rival, was not able to match this organization. This is not surprising given that Ken Livingstone has been influential in London politics since before I was born.

We get the same answer if we look at why Egyptians are faced with the choice between an Islamist and an official from the old regime in their upcoming elections; these are the two candidates who organized most effectively. The Muslim Brotherhood and the Generals are both enmeshed in a complex web of patronage and support throughout Egypt. None of the liberal parties has anything like this degree of organization.

Most embarrassingly perhaps we see the same story playing out in the recent unsuccessful attempt to recall Governor Walker in Wisconsin. Not only was it a disastrous political decision to choose to collect enough signatures to recall Walker but it was also an embarrassment that the Democratic Party and the Labor Unions were so comprehensively out organized in a battle of their choosing. Walker personally raised over $30 million while his opponent raised under $4 million.

Walker won because he was better organized. Livingstone was selected because he was better organized. Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood is potentially the next President of Egypt because of their organization.

We might say that the reason that our political choices are limited is that other people limit them because those people want their candidate to be chosen. If we want other choices we cannot just turn up on election day and hope that there will be other candidates available to us. We or someone else actually has to create this choice. A vague disorganized desire amongst a large number of people will always lose out, politically, to a specific and organized desire amongst a much smaller number of people.

Woody Allen once said that 80% of success is turning up. He was absolutely right, but you have to know where and when you need to turn up.

When you are buying breakfast cereal you can just turn up at the supermarket and be pretty sure that you will get something like what you want. When you are voting for a political candidate who will stand up for what you believe in, you better turn up a bit before the election to make sure that your candidate is actually on the ballot…