07 May

A Values Analysis of Yes and No to AV reveals a strong conclusion

A Values Analysis of Yes and No to AV reveals a strong conclusion: Yes could have “gone negative” and won

It was predicted early on that we would lose the referendum on the Alternative Vote. But how many of us realised we would lose it just so badly? A seven to three split is a pretty damning rejection. How did this happen?

John Sharkey – the ‘Yes to Fairer Votes’ campaign director and a LibDem Lord – was heard to say in a speech at the Yes campaign’s defeat party yesterday that he and his team had run a good campaign. It just “wasn’t our time”, he said. My conclusion is – as you might suspect – that that’s simply not a good enough answer, and that it could have been their time if they had only understood better who they were trying to appeal to. Specifically, if they had better understood the values of the British electorate, and that those values weren’t necessarily their own.

Values analysis is gaining credence in Britain. Campaigning organisations such as WWF, Oxfam and Friends of the Earth are working together to research into it. George Monbiot has blogged about it in the Guardian.

One important contributor – possibly the most important contributor – to values analysis is George Lakoff, a cognitive scientist at the University of California at Berkeley. An analysis of the two sides of Yes and No to AV, using Lakoff’s conservative Strict Father and progressive Nurturant Parent models, not only makes startlingly good sense, but yields a strong conclusion: the conclusion that Yes could have “gone negative”, and won.

Values analysis is not rocket science. I’m going to take you through the metaphors that populate both the conservative and the progressive models, step by step, and show you how they would have framed people’s perceptions of AV.

The theory behind this all is that the two competing models are made up of metaphors, and some metaphors are important enough to effectively be shared cultural artefacts; concepts and stories that we  recognise and use, often subconsciously, in the world at large. The job of a political campaigner, whether they know it or not, is to “activate” one or other of the models in the minds of his listeners. Once one metaphor is activated, that increases the likelihood of others in the same model becoming activated, and that’s when you start to make people see things “your way”, not just in facts but in terms of values. The activation of one model “inhibits” the activation of its opposite; it takes you down a logical and ideological path. Some people live largely by the Strict Father model; these people are called conservatives. Other people live largely by the Nurturant Parent model; these people are progressives. But most people can access and understand both models (Lakoff calls this majority “bi-conceptuals”; Reaching these bi-conceptual “swing thinkers” further increases the importance of “activating” in the minds of the electorate the model that you subscribe to, before your opponents can activate theirs. This is the real battleground that British politics is fought on, and we’re only recently starting to map it.

Here’s a brief outline of how the Strict Father set of metaphors work, in order of descending importance, mapped on to how they apply to thinking about the Alternative Vote. This is how a committed conservative would think about all politics, and how a majority of the country was encouraged to think of AV:


Moral Strength

This is the first and most important Strict Father metaphor. It says that people need to have moral strength. The assumption is that being strong would make you, naturally, a winner and therefore the metaphor conversely implies that if people are not winners now then they are probably not morally strong and we should not be changing the system to help them. To do so would be to help the weak and thus the immoral. The strong win, the weak fail: within the logic of the Strict Father system this is the good and natural state of affairs.

Moral Order

In affirming the natural existence of hierarchy and conflating “dominance” (whether through force of arms, money, power) with morality this metaphor encourages the idea that the dominant people under First Past the Post were dominant for a good reason. To help people who aren’t winning already would usurp a natural moral order. Thus “fairer votes” becomes “more chances for weak undeserving people please to rise to where they don’t belong”.

Moral Essence

This metaphor encourages the idea that people (or parties) are by nature either good or bad and therefore deserving of winning or not. To change the system in a way that obscured the identification of positive moral essence would be to obscure an indicator of morality and to thus unfairly move goalposts.

Moral Self-interest

This links self-discipline with self-reliance and asserts that seeking self-interest is moral. If every candidate seeks her self-interest in winning, that is moral and good. What is needed is competition, to prove the existence in candidates of self-discipline and self-reliance. This works in exactly the same way that, in the same ideology, good business practice is supposedly brought to the fore in a freely competitive market. A moral system would be a voting system that proves this presence of self-discipline and self-reliance. Any candidates that need “help” to win are therefore morally inferior and to help them would not only be “do-gooding” but would be an immoral act that would undermine the rewards-based closed logical system of self-interest.

Moral Nurturance

Nurturance has the very lowest priority in the Strict Father system, and is subservient to all the higher priorities. Nurturance could be reasonably defined as “helpful change”. Changing the system to be “fairer”, “nicer”, “more inclusive” or to “make more people’s votes count” is only moral if it supports the cultivation of self-discipline, authority and moral strength (that is, to uphold the higher values of Strict Father ideology). Otherwise it would be not only mollycoddling and pandering, but immoral.


Does any of that make sense so far? This doesn’t have to be what conservatives are thinking out loud. Lakoff’s assertion is that these metaphors operate largely subconsciously, but are nevertheless very real. And they apply, he asserts, to contemporary Western society in general. Here is the description of the progressive, Nurturant Parent system as applied to AV:


Morality as Nurturance

This is the number-one metaphor in Nurturant Parent ideology. It asserts that helping people meet their needs is a moral thing, in fact, the number one moral thing to do. This primes progressives from the outset to be open to people’s needs for change, and to want to help.

Morality as Empathy

This metaphor implies that listening to opponents and being sensitive to issues is in itself moral. It implies that being open to new ideas, science and art is moral. Notice that this priority just simply does not exist in the Strict Father system. That’s not to say that Strict Father conservatives cannot listen or have empathy. But it is not, within their metaphorical values system, a moral imperative for them to do so.

Morality as the maintenance of Social Ties.

This metaphor implies it is a moral imperative to keep society together and keep listening to other people. It therefore prefers co-operation and inclusion to competition and exclusion. There is no equivalent of this in Strict Father morality.

Morality as Self-Development and Morality as Moral Growth

These metaphors say that people are able to change and are not fixed, and in fact should change and develop. They also encourage growth of ideas through empathy, science and art. This stands in opposition to the Strict Father metaphor of moral essence, which is fixed. For progressives there is absolutely no problem in a loser becoming a winner, unlike the bemused Conservative conclusion heard in one No2AV broadcast “the winner should be the winner”.

Morality as Happiness

This moral imperative to make ourselves happy positive people (perhaps unfortunately) helps us think that what we really need is fun videos about cats (which, for the sake of an important middle-ground, we really do). But it would be seen as trivialising a serious moral issue by more poe-faced conservatives.

Moral Strength

In this metaphor, strength is needed to enforce nurturing and to ensure protection, and to ensure needs are being met, and to, for example, enforce a fair system of voting. But strength, and the demonstration of it, is the lowest priority in Nurturant thinking and the highest priority in Strict Father thinking. So Nurturants are more likely to think that being rational and nice is important rather than showing strength, passion, indignation, moral outrage or anger. Not showing these traits however indicates to Strict Father thinkers that you are less strong and therefore probably less moral.

Moral Authority

Moral Authority is displayed by demonstrating that you and what you espouse does indeed work to meet people’s needs, which was hard for the Yes camp to prove. All the No side had to do was show that they were upholding their own value system.


Can you see the number of ways in which progressive approaches would have unwittingly prompted disapproval by more conservative thinkers with elements of Strict Father thinking? Yes, to progressives, the Strict Father thinkers come across as judgemental, inflexible, humourless, hierarchical, disciplinarian and authoritarian. But to someone with that thinking, progressives seem weak, woolly, do-gooding, permissive, unprincipled, flippant and fluffy. Sound fairly familiar?

And notice also that the Strict Father values are not just “capitalist” values. They are, to a large extent, traditional “working-class” values of hard graft and personal responsibility. Certainly the Nurturant values are noticeably more middle-class. Can you see how a values analysis begins to make sense, even more than a conventional “Left-Right” analysis would…?

The aim in politics should be to bring people (and preferably not just the bi-conceptual “swing voters” but everyone) round to your point of view, to invite them to share your values.

There is one thing however that the Yes campaign could have done that would have appealed to both Nurturant and Strict Father values (and with a foot in the cognitive door of bi-conceptual voters, all the Yes campaigns’ other values would have seemed more authoritative): we should have gone negative. Not negative about the No camp themselves. Negative about the status quo.

To Nurturant Parent thinkers, protection from negative things has a very high priority, because protection (metaphorically of a child) comes even before the ability to nurture.

To Strict Father thinkers, protection from negative (immoral) things also has a high priority lest those bad things push Moral Boundaries, including threatening Moral Health, Moral Wholeness and Moral Purity (other Strict Father metaphors that are sufficiently self-descriptive for current purposes).

So, the Yes camp could have appealed to both conservatives and progressives by framing AV as a fight against protecting Britain from existing wrong-doing: people (Tories) getting something for nothing.

Instead, the secret to the No side’s success was that they framed it exactly the opposite way: as rather a struggle for special pleading: progressives wanting something for nothing, and not deserving it.

The No side won because of this very frame. It’s not that the majority of Britain is fundamentally conservative, and it’s not just that there was a lack of positive support from progressives. The No camp succeeded in switching people’s minds on to thinking the way they did. Those bi-conceptual “swing voters” were swung over to a conservative mindset, at least on AV. But we do need to watch out. Because when this happens often enough, this is what pulls a country to the right. And Britain has already been moving that way throughout Thatcher, Major, Blair and now Cameron. People’s minds – the metaphors their brains routinely access – have literally been changed in the last thirty years. Our job is to make sure we fight back and convince people of progressive values.