Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Why Ken might be right after all

(Please note: content not quite as scary as the title!)

Over at Political Betting, Mike Smithson is questioning why Ken Livingstone is putting so much emphasis on the environment when only 4% of voters nationally rate it as the most important issue and just 10% rate it as an important issue at all.

There are a number of factors here.

Many of the issues that voters rate as more important are not those that could possibly be winners for Livingstone. The number one issue - immigration - is one of those dog whistle issues. You only have to hear the word and you know what you think (and, by and large, that's not the same way Ken thinks).

He also wants to stay clear of the number two issue - crime, law and order and so on. After all, he's up against an ex-copper and public perception doesn't play well for Ken (whatever he and the Government might say, people think crime has got worse recently).

The number three and four issues are nothing to do with Ken - health and the NHS is at three and the economy is at four. Let's face it, no Labour candidate is going to be parading the economy at the moment.

Ditto five - defence and terrorism.

In fact, the number one issue for which Ken has some degree of competence is the environment. It just so happens that it ranks a lowly ninth with the punters.

But in addition, I have to question Mike Smithson's reliance on that particular question. There are three questions you could ask when thinking as a political party about what to campaign on. You could simply campaign on the issues that matter to your party and its members. That's what the Lib Dems did up until about 1992 when we talked a lot about PR. It's what UKIP still does, as do the Tories occasionally when they only talk about Europe (only 1% rate it as the most important subject).

You could base your campaign on the question asked in this poll - the perceived most important issue for the country as a whole. That rules the day in some elections - notably the 'Who Govern's Britain?' election of 1974 and, arguably, the 1997 advent of New Labour. But I think this type of election is less common.

The final question you could ask, and the question that I think rules the day in most General elections, is 'What is the most important issue for you and your family in deciding how you vote?' This one is all about self-interest. It is about hospital waiting lists rather than NHS reform, about getting your child into your first choice school rather than reforming A-Levels into a baccalaureate, and it is about the pound in your pocket (as Harold Wilson would say) rather than trade imbalance with China. Issues such as Europe and defence really don't figure highly in this one, but local environmental factors (and local transport issues -another issue on which Ken is actively campaigning) do.

Finally, finally. There is, of course, one more question that could be asked in relation to the Mayoral election. As Mike Smithson touches on, this is a national poll with national answers. Perhaps the results would be very different if the poll was confined to Londoners and directed them towards the London elections.

Oh, and as an after-thought. If you were Ken, campaigning for a third term against Boris and Brian, what on earth would you campaign on?

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