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Stephan Shakespeare: David Cameron now has to address the floating non-voters

Stephan Shakespeare is founder and CEO of YouGov.

Cameron’s strategy is right. It’s successful. At least, it is right and successful for the territory it covers. Conventional wisdom is that most people don’t care too much about policies, they don’t need ideological lighthouses, they just vote for people they can respect and like.

I agree with that as a general proposition. But the result in Bromley and Chislehurst should make us aware that the keys to Number 10 may not be securely in the hands of the traditional floating voter. Instead, we should also be looking at the floating non-voter – the ones who may or may not bother to turn out.

To those who love politics, Cameron is a star. He’s almost as good as Blair used to be. While some observers sneer that Cameron, Maude, Hilton, and Letwin are a sort of ‘tribute band’ to the broken-up Beatles-of-politics (Blair, Brown, Campbell, and Mandelson), there is no doubt that the public do quite like the sound, even if they are not yet humming the tunes.

And for those who don’t much follow politics, but who do think it’s their duty to vote, Cameron’s strategy also works a treat. Make yourself modern, attractive and above all unobjectionable. Get to the point where you are not booed off the stage, and then maybe you can really start to play. Especially if the other guys are sounding awful.

The problem is, there’s an increasingly large section of the electorate who don’t just float between the parties, they float between voting and not voting. And these people may be differently motivated. By aspiring to be a perfect establishment politician, by saying nothing very much new or different, Cameron risks losing those who don’t give a hoot for status quo politics.

Does it matter? A strategy entirely aimed at existing voters, and at floating voters in particular, seems so eminently sensible that it seems almost mad to question it. Non-voters don’t vote.

But strangely, it was the non-voters who very nearly caused a catastrophic upset in B&C. For whatever reason they stayed away (and it’s very doubtful that the main reason was Bob Neill’s pin-striped image), it was not the LibDems, nor UKIP, whose vote declined.

This is the big risk to Cameron’s strategy: it’s not enough to go for a larger share of the shrinking pie. Because as the pie shrinks, its composition changes. It becomes more sophisticated, more individualized. People begin to say to themselves: since my vote really makes no difference, why not vote for something I truly identify with, rather than for the ‘lesser of two evils’? The incentive for voting then becomes affirmation of one’s own identity, one’s own sense of right. Hence the increase in vote-share for fringe parties or candidates with clear values or identities. Politics becomes more about the chemistry of particular constituencies, not about Westminster. And nobody can safely assume that all will return to normal in a general election.

So what else can we ask of David Cameron, who after all is achieving a genuine improvement in the opinion polls. Why isn’t that enough to deliver No 10?

I believe the whole idea of ‘delivering No 10’ is wrong. The current philosophy – do whatever it takes to win, and then you can do the good things you want to do for Britain – is fundamentally flawed. We saw what happened with New Labour. In 1997, it was a great way to win an election, and a lousy way to run the country. In 2010, it may not even be a good way to win an election. The people who were let down by New Labour will not necessarily turn to the New Conservatives. Some of them will. But some of them just won’t vote. Combine the bias of the electoral system with the maths of the differential shrinkage of the voter-pie, and even a star like Cameron could come to grief.

Voters turn into non-voters when they stop believing their vote matters. If they can’t see much benefit to having one gang of politicians in charge rather than another, the duty to give some politician his dream job won’t get many to the ballot box.

In the past, we had a political establishment being challenged by rebels. It made people vote, either because they wanted change, or because they wanted to protect themselves from change. But now we have two establishment parties who appear to some to care only about being in Number 10, rather than in changing anything. As this site has noted, Project Cameron is more preoccupied with reassuring voters than enthusing them. So where is the incentive to vote?

To win over the floating non-voters, Cameron needs to understand – and show he understands – the people struggling to make something of their lives. Not only people celebrating their youth and their delight in London living, but all those working hard to make ends meet, frustrated by high-cost low-quality public services.

They need someone to champion them, someone who dares to attack the cosy assumptions of the establishment, who shows no fear of offending the bien-pensants who already live rather well. If these people are forgotten, we should not be surprised when they forget to vote. They must not only be understood, they must be offered real benefits in exchange for their support. Otherwise, trudging down to the polling booth for the sake of some politician’s ambition would be a highly irrational act.

Stephan Shakespeare: What could go wrong with Project Cameron?


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