Transactional politics isn’t working

An electoral campaign based on empty bribes isn’t helping the two major parties break through. The technique, despite historical success, simply doesn’t work in the current UK context. A coherent vision might.

This election, perhaps more than any in post-war history has been characterised by a steady drum beat of pledges from the major parties on what benefits they will deliver to their voters: The Labour party has pledged to ensure that working family tax credits are maintained, to exempt stamp first time buyers from stamp duty and to freeze energy bills. The Conservatives have pledged to give council tenants the right to buy, to reduce inheritance tax and to enshrine a freeze on income tax and VAT into law. Each financial bride is costed in some detail and generally funded by expropriation from whichever segment of the population they feel is an irreconcilable outgroup for their party: For the Tories the idle poor, for Labour the rootless rich. As far as either party has an overarching vision it is almost entirely negative: For Labour the Tories will destroy the NHS, for the Conservatives that Ed Miliband will wreck the economy. 


What is intriguing, is despite the inordinate amount of energy devoted to the development of one bribe after another by the wonks of each party, this style of campaigning has singularly failed to move the polling dial for either of the major parties – both hover stubbornly around the 33% mark, bobbing around according to the events of the week, but not really breaking through. Why isn’t it working?

Transactional politics has a great history of success, particularly in less advanced stages of democratic development. The machine system of transactional politics, whereby voters were offered direct benefits (jobs, local road repairs, and in some cases cash) dominated the US throughout the first two-thirds of the 20th century. It proved so successful that the Democratic machine nominated Harry Truman, a man who at 49 confessed himself an utter failure, to the Vice Presidency to show that the machine was more important than one man. Mayor Daley of Chicago, a figure who inspired Kelsey Grammer’s acclaimed TV show “Boss”, dominated City politics for three decades right until the 1980s. The model has also works successfully in contemporary Turkey, where the AKP (the most successful party since the death of Ataturk) famously offers white goods for support to voters in central Anatolia.

But the model isn’t working in UK politics. One of the reasons has been much commented on: the high probability of a coalition makes promises hollow, the parties can always dump their pledges and claim force majeure resulting from their minority status. The other reason is less commented on – the decline of local strength in party organisations. Transactional politics always works best when implemented down to a local level – the Chicago machine worked down to the street level , each ward captain new the citizens names and problems and could promise bespoke favours which really mattered to the day to day lives of ordinary people (“Your cousin needs a job?” “Sure there’s an opening in the local council”). While the local system was never as strong in the UK as in the US, it has now largely disintegrated, less than 1% of the UK electorate is now a member of a UK political party, the Conservative party has fallen from a membership of almost 3 million in 1950 to a mere 135,000 today. Without the ground troops transactional politics simply can’t work.

Rather than returning to a twentieth century style of politics the major parties would do well to adopt a different approach; actually articulating a clear vision of where they want to take the UK in the years ahead, rather than laying out, an increasingly unmemorable, list of bribes. The only party which has adopted this approach, with its vision for an independent Scotland, is now poised to produce the largest landslide north of the border in history. The Unionist parties would do well to adopt its tactics. 


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