Valence: what it is, why it matters for the Lib Dems – and the new evidence it matters for Labour too

You might like the choice of wine. But if it's not going to be served without being spilled... [Ed: That's enough tenuous metaphors. Bring back the camel photos.]

You might like the choice of wine. But if it’s not going to be served without being spilled… [Ed: That’s enough tenuous metaphors. Bring back the camel photos.]

As I explained in Liberal Democrat Newswire #65:

Political scientists crunching the evidence over how people decide who to vote for (such as in Affluence, Austerity and Electoral Change in Britain) find that policy issues matter much less than ‘valence’ issues.

That is, people don’t decide who to vote for based on looking at policies and seeing how closely a party or candidate’s policies match up to their own preferences. Rather, they lean on decisions over perceived competence on issues where different parties all have the same shared objective. For example, voting Conservative because you think they’ll be best at creating new jobs is a valence choice. All parties want more jobs, so picking the Conservatives is about perceived competence, not ideology.

Although there certainly are ideological choices and they do have an influence, it’s valence that dominates in British elections. Hence the problem for the Liberal Democrats in the general election wasn’t about having controversial policies which people didn’t like. There wasn’t even a small echo of the problems with the immigration amnesty policy of 2010 for example (good policy but burdened with the fatal combination of being both controversial and not amenable to a one-sentence defence). Asked where they put the Lib Dems and themselves on the political spectrum, voters kept on putting the party near to themselves overall.

Rather the problems were valence ones – about competence and trust in particular. Overhauling the party’s perception on those is not going to be a minor matter.

Hence the emphasis on valence politics in the new strategy for the Liberal Democrats set out by David Howarth and myself.

However, this isn’t just about the Liberal Democrats, as new data from the British Election Study on Labour’s predicament show. To quote the BES’s Ed Fieldhouse:

Elections are not just about left and right: our analysis of which party voters are closest to shows that only 12% placed themselves closer to Labour than to any other party. We show that whether Labour turns to the left or whether it takes up Blair’s advice, the impact on its support is minimal either way. Looking at people who would be predicted to vote Labour simply on the basis of left-right proximity at different left-right positions, the share changes from 16.5% at point 2 on our left right scale – very left -, to 18.0% at point 3 and 18.6% at point 4 (just left of centre).

Ultimately Labour’s fortunes are unlikely to rest on whether Labour choose a leader to the right or to left, but rather on choosing a leader who can perform the seemingly impossible task of simultaneously restoring the party’s economic credibility and at the same time appealing to its traditional supporters. What Labour needs is to avoid the ‘left-wing’ label but not necessarily the policies. This requires a leader with popular appeal and a program of progressive polices which can unify opposition to the Conservative government.

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