Loose talk about being more leftwing – is it justified?

Luke Akehurst

There seems to be a lot of rather loose talk at the moment based around how much more leftwing Labour ought to be.

This seems to have drifted from a debate about how leftwing it was possible for Labour to get away with being, to one about how leftwing Labour needs to be to win, based on the theory Hopi Sen examines in this post:

“Roughly summarised, this idea is that the issue for the Labour party is that, thanks to Tony Blair, we lost significant support among the working classes and that the best way to win them back, and thus return to power, is to advocate policies that are demonstrably on the left.”

Before anyone dismisses this as a straw man that Hopi has set up, I should stress this is an argument that I increasingly hear put by real left-wingers in the Party, and put with increasing confidence, a good example being this post.

Rather than just be dismissive I thought I actually ought to engage with this as a concept.

I should start by saying that I don’t think business as usual was an option after the crushing defeat in 2010. We do need to win back as many as possible of those 5 million lost voters and we are not going to do so on the basis of our 2010 manifesto and positioning or our 1997 manifesto or positioning.

My concern with the hard left of the party though is that the same people (albeit 30 years older) who pushed the policies through Annual Conference that formed the basis of our 1983 manifesto are the voices calling for a leftward move not just from the Blair/Brown era but from the current orientation of Ed Miliband and Ed Balls, and in the intervening 30 years they haven’t learned very much or altered the basic mix of demands very much.

It was the desire to see a new positioning developed for the party that led me to campaign for Ed Miliband for Leader in 2010 – I could see that the new times we are in required radical and new thinking and thought he was the candidate most capable of delivering it.

Radical and new explicitly doesn’t mean chunks of our 1983 manifesto.

It does mean being open to ideas generated by the Blairite wing of the party when they are not just public service marketisation reductio ad absurdium, and ideas from the left when they are ones that look like they would work and be popular.

It strikes me there are three criteria by which changes of positioning and policy need to be judged:

1) The merits of the policy. Does it achieve its stated objective (note that some policies that look good on paper can have unintended negative effects)? Does it get us nearer to the type of society we would like to create? This is easier in some policy areas than others as, for instance, I could make a plausible argument that there is a case for Trident renewal being part of a Labour Government’s defence policy as I believe nuclear deterrence contributes to world peace, whilst a unilateralist would argue the exact opposite.

2) The sustainability and viability of the policy or positioning in terms of economic and external constraints. Can we implement it without a market backlash within the open, globalised economy? Is it compliant with the UK’s formal external commitments to global and EU institutions? Can the country afford it? There is very little point following the kind of trajectory of France’s 1981 Mitterand administration. President Mitterand started with a leftwing economic policy of nationalisations, a 10% rise in the minimum wage, reduced working hours, increased holidays, a solidarity tax on wealth, increased workers’ rights and benefits. All theoretically excellent policies (and perhaps some of them not that radical if introduced in a period of economic growth) but they led to devaluation of the Franc and the 1983 “tournant de la rigueur” (austerity u-turn). Perhaps a more cautious initial approach would have reaped longer-term benefits and caused less disillusionment with the left – I can’t help thinking it is better to meet or exceed carefully managed expectations than be elected with all banners flying only to retreat after two years. This is exactly what happened to the Wilson government after 1966. My pet project of Trident renewal might fail this second test of affordability, whilst some causes dear to the left just require legislative change, not a fiscal commitment, so might pass it.

3) The electoral viability of the policy mix. Gaitskell put it thus: “Let us not forget that we can never go farther than we can persuade at least half of the people to go.” Nowadays with a less binary party system we might want to rephrase that as “Let us not forget that we can never go farther than we can persuade at least a plurality of the people to go.” We can be reasonably sure that it is possible to win a plurality (though not guaranteed) with the current positioning being advocated by Ed Miliband and Ed Balls because we are up to 14% ahead in the opinion polls. The evidence base for the potential popularity of a broad move leftwards from our current positioning (as opposed to carefully chosen individual more radical policies) is at best tenuous and many of the policies put forward certainly fail the “I think we tried that in the 1983 Manifesto” test.

Which brings me to some key questions and points I have about the lost five million voters, which I throw out there for psephologists with more time than me to answer, whilst drawing readers’ attention to this pamphlet by the Smith Institute which at least tried to answer them.

I accept that of course some of the lost voters were leftwingers disillusioned by Blair. It would be absurd to pretend this segment of voters didn’t exist. I am just sceptical about how many and about whether there are many of these voters who haven’t already gravitated back to us since 2010. For those that have not come back yet I need to be reassured that the political shift required to get them back would not be so huge it lost a bigger set of people on our right flank, as the electorate is normally modelled by pollsters as a bell curve with most voters near the centre of the spectrum.

• The starting point for the “lost five million votes” thesis is Blair’s 13.5m votes in 1997. This included 2m extra votes above what Kinnock won, acheived on a 7% lower turnout. Many of these were switchers straight from the Tories – the “Wqs” from the 1997 canvassing script. Switchers from the Lib Dems in 1997 were also coming from a party that was at that point to our right. It is difficult to believe that people who switched to us between 1992 and 1997 really wanted a Labour Party positioned to the left of its 1992 stance.

  • 1.1m votes have been lost directly to the Tories by Labour according to the Smith Institute. Presumably they felt Labour was too leftwing for their tastes.
  • The Smith Institute report also points out that “The Tories almost certainly gained more from Labour than the figures suggest as they must have lost some of their core vote to UKIP.”
  • The turnout in 2010 was 1.6m lower than in 1997. Some of them will have been part of the 4.9m lost Labour votes. Do we think they all stopped voting because of disillusionment with Labour being “too rightwing”? If so why did the big drop in turnout happen in 2001 when Labour’s popularity ratings were sky high? An alternative theory might be that turnout dropped in 2001 because the election was a foregone conclusion, and they then lost the habit of bothering to vote.
  • Some of this turnout drop-off will have been caused by disillusionment with Labour over issues that a turn to the left would not address. People who were angry with Blair and Brown over immigration, Europe, crime/ASB and welfare reform – often the people who we find on the doorstep angry about these issues are working class voters (who may still have “left” opinions on other issues).
  • The post-2008 recession will have been a major determinant in turning some voters off Labour. Kavanagh and Cowley point to Labour’s vote firming up in communities with high numbers of public sector workers in 2010 as Labour was spending to protect those jobs, but dropping disproportionately in areas where the private sector was shedding jobs.
  • Gordon Brown’s personal unpopularity will have been a factor
  • How do we quantify long term underlying sociological and demographic trends that are constantly eroding Labour’s core vote – embourgeoisement (people getting more middle class), class de-alignment (the breakdown in the relationship between social class and voting behaviour), population movement from north to south and inner cities to suburbs that removes people from peer pressure to vote Labour?
  • There were two big blocks of votes that Labour lost in 2005. The anti-war vote, including a big Muslim component, already came back on board to a great extent in 2010 according to Kavanagh and Cowley’s authoritative “British General Election of 2010” and the polls suggest Ed Miliband’s confirmation that he opposed the Iraq War has further accelerated that return. The students who were unhappy about tuition fees have returned to us since 2010 because of Clegg’s betrayal on this issue.
  • The Smith Institute report cautions against thinking Labour can win by reverting to being a class-based as opposed to a people’s party for all classes. Quite aside from the wishful thinking of assuming working class non-voters are all disillusioned left-wingers, “for Labour to win back a majority it has to gain the support of more C2DE voters, but must be very careful not to damage its standing amongst ABC1 voters. The make up of voters at the last election was roughly ABs, 29% of the electorate, C1s 30%, C2s 19%, and DEs 22%. Whilst Labour’s support from ABs looks fairly strong, in 1992 Labour secured just 19% of ABs. If Labour had this result in 2015 it would require a 9% rise amongst DEs to have the same overall support as it did in 2010. There is no working class majority and therefore there cannot be a ‘core vote’ strategy in its crudest form.”
  • We decided to stick with the First-Past-the-Post voting system last year. That means the election is decided in marginal seats which are predominantly in suburbs and middle sized towns where the average voter is relatively conservative (obviously there are exceptions like university towns with more radical voters).

I throw all this into the mix not to throw cold-water over all policies more radical than our current positioning but because I think we should be just as sceptical about a general leftwards lurch based on trying to hoover up possibly mythical lost leftwing voters, as we should also be about a simplistic strategy based on triangulation and total focus on Tory/Labour swing voters.

To win we need a carefully constructed broad coalition that brings and holds together disparate economic, social and political groups of voters around a shared agenda of rebuilding Britain. Ed Miliband set out that agenda at the National Policy Forum in Birmingham. Across the party, left, right and centre we all have specific new policies and tactical ideas to contribute to that agenda, but we need to unite behind Ed’s strategy, not promote alternatives to it.

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