Valence voters and the centre ground in NI

Peter Kellner, the pollster, knows something about political junkies. A journalist himself, he’s married to Catherine Ashton, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs (stop sniggering at the back – it’s probably a very important job). As a reader of a political blog, you almost certainly fall into that category as well. It’s worth bearing in mind, then, that people heavily engaged with politics may approach it rather differently to those who don’t go out of their way to keep abreast of current affairs, but do still vote.

Kellner, in this piece for the New Statesman last year, sets out one way in which this can be manifested.

Suppose you feel that strongly about the role of the private sector in the NHS, either for or against. That is a positional view. But suppose you don’t mind that much either way, and all you want is prompt, high-quality care when you need it. In that case, yours is a valence view.

Most politicians, activists and commentators are full of positional views. But millions of swing voters aren’t: they take a valence view of politics. They judge parties and politicians not on their manifestos but on their character. Are they competent? Honest? Strong in a crisis? Likely to keep their promises?

Some utterly heretical voters simply don’t give a stuff about the ideological source, or unintended consequences, of a policy; all that matters is that it meets their needs. So the NHS can be private or public, so long as it sends the ambulance; tax can be high or low, so long as enough is raised and it is spent efficiently.

As a Blairite, Kellner makes the argument in service of his view that Labour ought to steer clear of left-wing shibboleths  and stick to the centre ground in Westminster. In Northern Ireland, though, the most obvious argument for the relevance of a “valence” vote is the emergence of what Mick has described elsewhere on Slugger as the “Ambivalenters” – people who don’t have a ready answer to the question of national identity, and harbour a distinct suspicion that it doesn’t matter all that much. They are the people you’ll see in vox pops at present telling interviewers that “it’s just a flag”.

On this approach, the Northern Catholic who declines to support a united Ireland is taking a valence view of the constitutional question: the devolved/British administrations deliver for her on the (non-sectarian, possibly economic) criteria by which she makes political judgements.

In principle, such voters ought to be susceptible to policy that makes a virtue of valence: candidates running on personal competence and a set of ideas that would be relevant whether Belfast were twinned with Finchley, Skibbereen or Timbuktu.

This is hardly revolutionary – it’s essentially Alliance, minus all the chat about a shared society. All non-sectarian politics comes up against the same basic conundrum: you cannot avoid taking a position on the union, tacit or otherwise. Union is binary: it ultimately demands an In/Out answer. Ignoring the question confirms the status quo, which is In. (And when passions on nationality are inflamed, you can still take flak.) What’s interesting to consider in light of the advance of the Ambivalenter non-tribe is whether we might see any shift toward wooing voters on different grounds than their answer to the constitutional question.

This shift might come about in either of two ways: first, and one suspects the most likely, is that the main existing parties seek to draw in supporters from across the sectarian divide, while retaining core support for their sectarian stance. Peter Robinson has been making the appropriate noises here:

“Unionism is… capable of attracting a working class Protestant, a Catholic businessman and an immigrant seeking to build a new life in our country.”

What Robinson sees is that in representative democracy, voters can only give one mandate on all positions. So a nationalist voter won’t plump for the DUP despite adoring their policy on criminal justice. But an Ambivalenter voter will, because the knowledge that the DUP have taken her mandate to rough up criminals and used it to support union with the United Kingdom won’t bother her.

The alternative is that Alliance and other avowedly non-sectarian political forces (such as they are) increase their showing. A great spur for that to come about would be a political system containing an official opposition, which would be incentivised to censure administrative incompetence and policy failure. The semi-permanent unity government that current presides has no external critics, and electoral success is hardly tied to the ability to deliver on a particular promise or handle a particular brief – except in the constitutional context.

But even within the existing framework, it is certainly possible that, in the First Minister’s language, enough “new political space” has opened up between the tribes that a grab for the centre ground is electorally worthwhile. Assuming this to be the case, the old formula of providing a third, neutral option in Northern Irish politics may be behind the times. A non-sectarian voter during the Troubles effectively had only that option; an Ambivalenter voter open to voting for a nationalist, unionist or anyone else needs persuading that yours is the best party to support on the merits.

Alliance has always traded not so much as the non-sectarian party, but as the anti-sectarian party. A vote for them meant that you were enlightened, pragmatic, non-tribal and probably from North Down. It has never really mattered what their policies were, exactly, as they were never going to be implemented anyway.

But if there really is a growing cohort of people who don’t take a strong position on the union, they may not feel the same need to vote symbolically. They may care deeply about water rates or early years education instead; equally they may not.

This means that parties of the centre need to (a) make sure these voters come out and vote anyway and (b) make sure they are not won over by any of the Big Four, who after all have a strong platform from which to push any policy ideas they might happen upon that are of more substance than playground names.

Going forward, then, it may not be enough for Alliance to pose as mature, neutral and civilised; the “coping mechanism” enabling the peace process; the repository for the votes of those both sensible and marginalised. Their policies need to have specific appeal if they are to prevent the bigger parties retaining their sectarian support while simultaneously contesting for a non-sectarian centre, issue by issue.

Post scriptum: Kellner’s polling in support of his valence thesis shows that in economic and social contexts, a generic “valence” option – by hypothesis, one fair and competently implemented – will be chosen by most British voters in preference to the policy of the left, right or status quo. But for “nationalist” themes such as immigration, most support an ideological stance (the conservative one, as it happens) over a value-neutral but effective generic policy. Identity politics, it seems, are everywhere irrational. And for so long as national and cultural values are prioritised by Northern Irish voters over social and economic goals, political parties will deploy accordingly.

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  • ‘Valence’ voting seem, to me and at first sight, to be the other end of the Clinton (and hence Blair/Mandelson) notion of ‘triangulation’.

    Again, I’m unclear why the ‘pragmatism’ of Harold Wilson, back in the ’60s, wasn’t a prototype. Or even, earlier still, Stanley Baldwin.

    With all due deference to the erudite Peter Kellner, my doorstep experiences, now in their fifth decade, convince me that people happily vote ‘against’ more often than ‘for’ anything (e.g the current europhobic tizz). Which explains, in part, why all and any GB party in government can expect to leach support at three-quarters to one per cent annually.

  • David Crookes

    Valence, violence, and viscerality in NI politics: discuss.

    Might the Alliance Party be annihilated by a new party which is even more “enlightened, pragmatic, and non-tribal”? One with robust leadership, lucid spokesmen, and a clear constitutional doctrine?

  • im-power-shall

    @David Crookes: I foresee a point where everyone is so bored of the political see saw that it becomes a Northern Irish version of Fight Club… Rule no 1: you don’t talk about North Club. Rule 2: you DON’T talk about North Club. Rule 3: you want to win? Gouge out Naomi’s eyes so you can eat her soul and absorb it into your agenda.

  • @Malcolm, I wholly agree that it is not a new concept – it just may give a slightly different perspective on familiar issues. Could easily descend into truisms like “voters like the country to be run properly” and “parties should devise popular policies”. But I think the point that regular voters, as distinct from the political classes, are more concerned with ends than means these days is an interesting one.

    @David, I would think that possible – not necessarily a new party, even, as there is no reason parties from the south and the mainland couldn’t wade in where they don’t take a strong line on the Union. The current Alliance leadership seem quite capable from where I sit, but it’s a hard party to make sexy. The flags row has given them more exposure than anything positive I can think of recently.

  • David Crookes

    Thanks, im-power-shall. When people get well and truly bored of the political seesaw, they will no longer be content to see what their ancestors saw. At that point they may be ready to welcome a new idea.

    The present mess reminds me of Mayan hip-ball. It’s all so stupidly absolute. At the end of the game, every member of the losing team is put to death.

    We’ve had the 2011 census figures, and yet some members of NI’s largest political party are dreaming about a return to majority rule. You couldn’t make it up.

  • David Crookes

    Many thanks, CJ McKinney. I had in mind a party that would atttract members of both sides of the border. Of course that party will need to present itself attractively. If it turns out to be largely or completely middle-class, it’ll never take off.

  • ayeYerMa

    As long as Nationalists keep undermining the Good Friday Agreement, by trying to continually erode all British aspects of Northern Ireland (and let’s face it, they aren’t going away you know), then you can’t get away with being constitutionally neutral and expect a great deal of power. Alliance recently had a litmus test of power, with the opportunity to simply say no to disruptive Republican agendas, failed to do so and will hence meet their destiny of irrelevance.

  • im-power-shall

    Actually, as much as I think Naomi’s stance on the fleg may have done her harm, it may have done her almost as much good. The MC (middle class, not rappers) may applaud her for being for our wee our country, as opposed to her being for our wee country as long as its purely red white and blue.

  • David Crookes

    Have to appropriate ayeYerMa’s last three words. Any party that stands before the electorate as constitutionally neutral DESERVES only a ‘destiny of irrelevance’.

  • im-power-shall

    Damn you Crookes, as you are neither for one or the either I will find a way to castigate you for being for both… *shakes fist* if it wasn’t for you darn kids…

  • David Crookes

    Maybe so, im-power-shall, but a large section of the unionist electorate, which voted AGAINST the incumbent MP last time, may decide to vote AGAINST the incumbent MP this time. NL was the AP’s first-ever elected MP (Stratton Mills converted to Alliance without fighting an election), but she did not owe her election to a wide-ranging acceptance of AP policies.

  • im-power-shall

    @DC I’m not a statistician, I don’t have the answers. I just don’t see many down the Road as having voted for her party. I can, however, imagine, many non committal MCs voting her way as opposed to their family’s traditional UP votes.

  • David Crookes

    Mind who you’re shaking your fist at, im-power-shall. I wud poke a boy brave an handy.

    Better talk a wee bit about the valence thing. When people see their politicians not dressing up in shiny suits and nodding solemnly in televised debates, but working hard on their streets, every available day, they will begin to take a ‘valence’ view of politics.

  • My modest proposal.

    Since the only thing that will enable to flag to be replaced every day is another vote reversing the recent decision. I suggest that the protesters and their SOT defenders join the Alliance Party and try to get their policy changed. If they can’t afford the fees perhaps they might be able to get help from Belfast Chamber of Trade and Commerce

  • Gopher

    How can a new party form and be part of a bad system? It would have stand from day one on opposition and reform of the assembly without opposition. Any new concept is damned to 10%, a, ministry and becoming fat lazy and part of the problem. Pardon the analogy but you would need people with the zeal of Roundheads. It would have to the most radical fire in its belly one could imagine because on both sides you are against hundreds of years of tradition. Joining it would be like taking the pill in the Matrix and forgetting your past.

  • David Crookes

    100% agree, Gopher. And yet I still think it’s worth trying.

  • Gopher

    You would have to be like Chris from the magnificent seven David and start recruiting your party


    “Any new concept is damned to 10%, a, ministry and becoming fat lazy and part of the problem. ”

    To succeed any new party would almost certainly have to be committed to reform of the Assembly including the introduction of a more effective government model (incorporating an official opposition) and a more efficient public sector.This would rule out the taking of a Ministry under d’Hondt. If it wasn’t committed to reform it would only offer more of the same.

  • Zig70

    The big problem with alliance and green party is that they don’t reflect the views of the silent majority. The manifesto is dull and lacks any concrete plans which contradicts the valence view above of voting for someone who could get things done. And omg the Catholic unicorn thing again. Liberals always have a problem viewing other people’s actions without their own pure hearts.

  • I am not sure about Kellner’s proposal of valence voting. It is a new term to me, and looks more like an encouragement to Labour modernisers than a serious analytical concept.

    In any case, there has always been a lot more cross-community voting in Northern Ireland than people like to acknowledge – especially at Westminster elections. All three of the SDLP’s current MPs are clearly getting thousands of votes from people who do not normally vote Nationalist. I reckon both Sylvia Hermon and Ian Paisley Jr got a couple of thousand votes from people who will have been tallied as Catholics by the census, if for slightly different reasons. And of course many people who previously had largely voted Unionist voted Alliance in East Belfast in 2010.

    There is a tendency to minimise these examples as transient and tactical. I think that is wrong, and that it is precisely the votes that don’t fit the traditional patterns that may be telling us the most interesting things about politics. But I am not sure that “valence voting” is really useful to help understand it.

  • Gopher

    Apart from opposition another radical policy that I would gladly vote for, is that at council level it will concern itself only with Bin collection and other day to day functions. My party would have to vote against any political motions. If the Flag dont fly in Derry my party would have vote against a motion to raise it. If the Flag flies for 3 days in Craigavon my party would have to vote against any motion of change. The voters have to get the message that my party is just there to run the council not to facilitate confrontation.Refer all political stuff to my parties Assembly and Westminister team we just empty the bins.

  • David Crookes

    Gopher, you’ve taught me a lot over the last few days, but your Magnificent Seven idea takes the malted chocolate biscuit. Reminds me of what Hiter said. “Wenn unsere Partei nur sieben Männer hatten…..” You have to start somewhere.

  • David Crookes

    “Apart from opposition another radical policy that I would gladly vote for is that at council level it will concern itself only with bin collection and other day to day functions.”

    Gopher, do you mind if the new QGO party steals that eminently sensible policy?

  • Gopher

    Nope David the lesson has been to my benefit, thank you

    If I was to advise you David I would quote Jacky Fisher “Fear God and dread nought” and get on with it. (Even though I am an atheist I kinda like that one)

  • aquifer

    If our three legged racer coalition manage to keep their policies hid they will stay in office? What is wrong with local lobbyists that they get away with it?

    A few representatives have a personal vote based on ‘character’, and maybe social media will make it easier to gather those votes -or lose them.

    My own take on this is that so long as ‘centre’ parties issue predictable gutless platitudes, fail to appreciate people’s needs and core beliefs, and fail to make clear any common ground they have on policy, the sectarian junta is safe.

  • David Crookes

    Agree 100% with aquifer: “… long as ‘centre’ parties issue predictable gutless platitudes, fail to appreciate people’s needs and core beliefs, and fail to make clear any common ground they have on policy, the sectarian junta is safe.”

    Let me extract from that piece of prose a number of guidelines for the spokesmen-and-weemen of any new party.

    No gutless platitudes. No pious idealities. Above all, no meaningless ‘educated’ words. Forbid yourself to talk in abstract nouns. DON’T BE PREDICTABLE. Speak only when you have something fresh to say.

    Appreciate what real people actually need. Produce a sensible plan for turning anarchic hell-pit schools into places where children will do what they’ re told and learn useful things.

    Appreciate the core beliefs of real people. Don’t try to stir up hatred against the creationist community, and don’t refer to any flag as a piece of cloth.

    Boldly define any areas of common ground that you have with other parties. If you agree with the Green Party that farmers shouldn’t be allowed to poison our rivers with near-impunity, say so.

  • David Crookes

    Many thanks for the mottto, Gopher (12.01 am)! Admiral Fisher is exactly the right person to adduce in a country where nearly everything needs to be overhauled, and where many of the politicians deserve to be keelhauled.

  • otto

    “My own take on this is that so long as ‘centre’ parties issue predictable gutless platitudes, fail to appreciate people’s needs and core beliefs, and fail to make clear any common ground they have on policy, the sectarian junta is safe.”

    So is the conclusion above that as regards identity there is no “valence” policy and that identity isn’t something people can compromise on? Can it be redefined though – and can that redefinition can be led?

    Makes sense. We’re a small colony species. We need to belong to a tribe. Our tribe needs a name and a tartan, a flag or a facial tattoo. Once we’re safely in the tribe we’re happy to bumble along day to day balancing equity, altruism and self interest in some sort of selfish gene type “valence” calculus.

    And despite the aversions of liberals we expect our leaders to represent the tribe. They can’t just politely say “that’s your business” and try to sell us some kind of glorified facilities management contract as a manifesto. That’s why the Queen and the President are needed – to represent who we are as a united people – even if they actually do feck all government wise. (It’s also why unionists should be pushing hardest for change to the Act of Succession but that’s a different topic).

    So what’s the complaint from Acquifer and others. Is the request from centre parties (pretty much Alliance for now) that they champion a common identity, two parallel ones or pick one and stick to it?

  • David Crookes

    Thanks, otto. You ask, “Can it [ = identity] be redefined though – and can that redefinition can be led?”

    Perhaps. Hitler united the different classes in Germany under the banner of fascism.

    If sixrty-six million Germans can be led to redefine their identty in a mailign manner, then one million Ulster unionists can be led to redefine their identity in a benign manner.

  • otto

    I suppose you’re right David.

    Re Bits of cloth – I’m pretty sure Naom

  • DC

    Valence voters would probably be put off by any centrist party that brings about violence inadvertently or otherwise in the name of a flag which such voters probably do not care that much for up or down.

    But if the flag had to be removed they would care for it to be done so efficiently. I.e. without provoking violence on the streets, regardless as to who is really to blame.

    £7 million to police this new flag policy, whenever it cost nothing to fly it 365 days a year.

  • DC @ 3:16 pm:

    In fact, there is a cost. I know of one young person who was grateful for the double-pay overtime when the flag needed weekend hoisting and bringing down over a public building, and the other public servants couldn’t stir from their matutinal beds and evening soaps.

    However, the real issue is that this particular flag is a symbol of ascendancy, and so imposes a real cost in decency, tolerance and equality.

    But — hey! — why consider the feelings of others, when you can riot, petrol-bomb, threaten, create mayhem …have a bit of a laugh?

  • otto

    Still on Aquifer’s point at 7:12

    Aquifer says;

    “My own take on this is that so long as ‘centre’ parties issue predictable gutless platitudes, fail to appreciate people’s needs and core beliefs, and fail to make clear any common ground they have on policy, the sectarian junta is safe”

    There’s a designation for ‘centre’ parties Acquifer. It’s called United Community. It might even represent a “core belief” and deserve respect. Just saying.

    I asked, “So what’s the complaint from Aquifer and others. Is the request from “centre” parties (pretty much Alliance for now) that they champion a common identity, two parallel ones or pick one and stick to it?”

    It’s a genuine question because I don’t really understand the terms. For example;

    Trevor Ringland (NI Conservatives who say they’d chose united community designation) left the UUP because Tom Elliott said he wouldn’t attend a GAA match. Was Trevor disrespecting Tom’s “needs and core beliefs” or respecting those of gaels? Is Trevor being gutless?

    When Naomi told Willie on RTE what she thought members of her family fought for in WW2 (which is where the “piece of cloth” misquote comes from), her words echoed almost exactly those of Doug Beattie. Doug tweets “I’ve spent 31 years serving my country at home and overseas. I don’t need a flag to remind me I’m a loyal British subject. #Flegs #wiseup”. Is Doug a gutless wonder speaking in platitudes?

    Basil’s not quite UC yet but is he being “gutless” when he suggests a common (designated days) policy across Northern Ireland and points out the Lisburn example.

    What if UC parties were to just ask why people who claim they respect the (actually our) flag don’t fly it according to standard protocols rather than treating it as a dog would its piss, spraying it over every lamppost and leaving it to rot.

    Would that be better?

  • Gopher


    Fisher would be fine example indeed for unionist to model themselves on. Although a devout Christian he had was always a great technological and social innovator had little time for outdated tradition. He always increased efficiency as famous for scrapping outdated ship as building new ones. He also had that great quality that is rarely found in Christians these day tolerance of people who live different lifestyles. My next favourite quote of his reflects this. When told about Percy Scott, his gunnery experts less than wholesome lifestyle he replied “I don’t care if he drinks, gambles, and womanizes; he hits targets!” Lincoln also had this uncanny trait. Where would the USA be without Grant and Sherman?

    Anyway have to run, East Antrim Jacobin club tonight this month we have got Theresa Villiers leading this months debate “Poynings’ Law and Secretaries of State since 1972”

  • David Crookes

    Secretaries of State since 1972! Well, have a good time, Gopher. Your anecdote about Fisher and Scott reminds me of the late Cecil King, who was kind enough to treat me as his unofficial grandson when I was a young man. CK was Winchester-and-Oxford, the son of a knight, but he enjoyed working in partnership with Hugh Cudlipp, who had left school at the age of fourteen.

    More than once CK told me that since he didn’t really have time to do or supervise anything himself, he relied almost completely on his greatest gift, which was the ability to pick the right man for a job.

    CK was a sort of friend of Edward Heath. When EH was under pressure from France to do something about NI, he asked CK how he should govern NI once Stormont had been prorogued. ‘You need to make your best possible man SoS for NI,’ King replied. ‘Your very best man. Who is that?’ ‘Whitelaw,’ Heath replied. ‘Well, then,’ said King.

    CK was deeply involved in NI politics. At the height of the Troubles he met the leaders of a unionist paramiltary organization in a room in the Europa. A stern-looking gentleman sat outside the door with a gun in his hand.

    Sorry to run on so. Fisher is indeed a good model for unionists. If any man ever cleared the decks for action, he did.

    Whether you’re a Christian or an atheist, when you employ someone to do a particular job he needs to be able to ‘hit targets’, like Percy Scott. I’m a part-time preacher, but I could tell you some horror stories about nice evangelical builders who believe all the right doctrines. And I know one church elder who says that he’s unwilling to employ a local plumber who isn’t either an atheist or a Buddhist.

    Some fly oul badgers come out with holy chat whenever they think it’s good for business.