Measuring political success

Gwen Ngwenya on why winning elections is not the most important measure

Winning elections is not the most important measure of political success

Political parties are the conduits of ideas; ideas about the future of a country, how it should be governed, what the responsibilities of a good government are, and how we should live with one another. This is not to say they enjoy a monopoly in this regard, only that a degree of certainty on these topics give people something to mobilise behind.

The thread which runs through these ideas is a set of principles which we might call its ideology. As a result, the most important measure of political success then is the extent to which a party succeeds in instilling the principles it values into the society in which it lives, and seeing the ideas founded on those principles manifest.

Winning elections therefore is an absolutely crucial means to achieving that end, but it is not the end itself. What electoral success does is to give political actors the opportunity to govern and turn ideas into reality. Political parties go astray when they use electoral results to tune their ideological compass. They begin to think that if we get more votes then we must be right, if we get less votes then we must be wrong. And sadly, even those who mean a party well reinforce this message.

There has been no shortage of ‘I told you’ messages directed at the Democratic Alliance by political clairvoyants who warned the party of certain demise if it did not listen to them. And alas, their prophesy has now been fulfilled. Recent by-election results and the DA’s poor showing in the national election has prompted further questions on its strategy.

While this line of enquiry is justified, are we to believe that electoral performance is the bar against which actions are vindicated or challenged? A more interesting interrogation is to explore if the DA had performed well, what then should have compelled introspection?

The trouble is that it is easy to know you are wrong when everybody thinks you are wrong, it is much harder to know you are wrong when many people tell you, you are right. Political parties need to develop internal litmus tests which are independent of electoral results. Those tests don’t typically exist. It is no surprise that politics can feel so soulless and causeless when the measure of success is electoral victory, people quickly forget that the election is not the ultimate goal.

So, if the highest measure of political success is the fruition of ideas you have previously sown, how then does a political party test whether its ideas are gaining traction aside from electoral performance?

Ownership of ideas

A political party can and should track issues, or ideas, it is associated with. It is necessary for a political party to be associated with specific ideas in the public space or it becomes irrelevant. If you cannot think of an issue or idea in the public narrative which ‘belongs’ to the party you support, it might explain its irrelevance.

The EFF was able to lead the charge (rightfully or wrongfully) on higher education financing and land reform. Successful parties are strongly associated with the ideas they value. You don’t want another party to ‘own’ the issues you care about, or worse still to be associated with ideas you do not in fact hold.


It is difficult for the ideas you value to be implemented if the public remains hostile to them. A political party needs to track public sentiment in relation to its ideas. There is no way to know whether you are moving the needle if you do not monitor public sentiment on the positions and issues you care about. This tells you where to concentrate efforts or to adopt a different strategy. Public sentiment evolves and if you do not monitor it, you miss the opportunity to intensify a message at the moment when the public is most on your side.

Change in policy

A more equal parental leave framework might be signed into law by an ANC administration, but it was driven by ACDP MP Cheryllyn Dudley. A Small Business Ombud is now being considered, the idea having emanated from a once rejected private member’s bill proposed by then DA MP Toby Chance. Whatever the merit of these examples, the ultimate goal is to shape what South Africa values and the policies that govern it; when you achieve that without being in government that is no less a victory.

There is a great deal in the treasury’s latest economic blueprint that borrows from policy positions long espoused by the DA. Yet the opposition’s influence on policy is rarely tracked and communicated by the media- or by itself for that matter.

Translation of manifesto promises into government programme of action

Where one does win an election, the true measure of success is the ability to make good on what you promised. Otherwise it is a hollow victory. I am not aware of any political party which has a visible monitor of what it said it would do tracked against what it has in fact done. It is even more important as an internal tool, to keep public representatives aware that the ultimate goal is not electoral success but seeing what we value, and importantly what we promised, made real.

As a parting thought- a value system is not just for national politics, it matters at the local level too. Traditional thinking is that there is no municipal ideology because there are no partisan potholes. But municipal ideology is reflected by spending priorities, the extent to which municipal ratepayers are squeezed, how public spaces and land are used, who is considered a nuisance and what is done to them etc. And with the rise in crime and technological capabilities, where local governments draw the line between surveillance and privacy.

Ironically a party that owns ideas in the public narrative, which grows positive sentiment on the ideas it is most associated with, which has a dominant share of voice on those issues, is able to influence policy change, and keeps track of as well as keeps itself accountable to manifesto promises is very likely to perform well electorally. It does no harm to prospects of winning elections to care about something more than winning elections.

Gwen Ngwenya