Loose talk about being more leftwing – is it justified?

26th June, 2012 9:57 am

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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  • johnp Reid

    Thanks for the Blair got 2.4 Million votes than Kinnock In 1992 Or 5,2million more votes than Foot In 1983 Comment, aswell as LAobur losng 5 million votes in thelast 13 years
    But before I get accused of beign in the past there was things in the 1983 Mnifesto that would be good if introduced today,same as theri were things in the 2005 manifesto and 2010 one that would be good for a future manifesto ,Alright it’s the economy that people are intereted in, but in the 2005 election there was the Police mergers, Changing the abortion laws in northern Ireland and in the 2010 Manifesto there was Fixed term parliaments, A electoral sytem referendum and the living wage

  • I think there are three issues:
    1. Moving away from uncritical support for ‘liberal interventionism’, which will not be possible given the current Government’s cuts in defence. I do not want Labour to restore that expenditure. There are more important priorities

    2. Having a more critical outlook on both globalisation and the working of the market. This is starting to take shape

    3. Most controversially – to stop treating claimants as slightly higher than pond life and to recognise that tax dodging (avoidance or evasion) is a much greater drain on the economy than benefit fraud. Most claimants are not fraudulent, particularly those who get disability benefits

    I don’t know if moving in this direction is more ‘left wing’ but I think it is what we should do. I also think that the constant ‘reform’ mantra has become tiresome and in many areas is reform which is not necessary

    • AlanGiles

      Totally agree Mike, especially where point three is concerned.

      I fear Mr Akehurst is still suffering bereavement from his loss (NEC last week), and is in denial thinking that yet another push by the right-wing of the party will be as succesful for the party as his personal efforts in the recent NEC elections.

      He and those who think like him really must start understanding that the public were not impressed by us in 2010, they are not impressed by the Coalition now, and they won’t be impressed if the same old solutions are offered yet again in three years time.

      • johnp Reid

        Lukes percentage of the vote went up, Livingstones went down 3.7%

        • AlanGiles

          But he lost , didn’t he,  and KL didn’t. That must upset you but there it is.

          • treborc

             If it’s not history, he on about percentages, they cannot stand to see one of their Progress group lose.

          • johnp Reid

            I’ve never been progress and voted for Joanne Baxter and Ann Black, I also think Luke’s other blog pointing out that kens not as in touch as he isn’t a personal insult.

      • Chilbaldi

        No need to get ad hominem.

        Luke isn’t proposing a ‘one more push’ strategy as far as I can see. He is just cautioning against radical changes in direction. I agree.

        • AlanGiles

          ad hominem”

          Some of you love this term on LL, and always use it when left comments on the right, but when Akehurst and his ilk make ad hominem remarks against the left, as he did last week, I notice you never wag a reproving finger at him or them.

          • Luke Akehurst

            “ad hominem” means attacking a named individual. It doesn’t mean criticising a group of people or a set of beliefs.

          • AlanGiles

            And of course, Mr Akehurst, that is something you wouldn’t dream of doing yourself, is it?

            Well, lets go back to may this year:


          • Criticising how a specific candiate lost an election, particularly in an election like the London mayoral when the role of personalities was inherently elevated, is not ad hominem. It’s not an irrelevant personal attack, it’s a requirement for analysis.

          • “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…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.”

            Luke makes pretty clear that he is against a Blairite “one more heave” strategy. Incidently, I voted for Ed over David in 2010 for exactly the same reason Luke did, by the sound of it, and it’s nice to hear someone with his ethos speaking up, as it’s seems to be a rare and underrepresented niche view in the party. He also provides a good, but cautious, assessment of the 5 million voters argument here.  There’s a middle way between the “without David Miliband & a ’97/2010 manifesto, we are doomed!” shrieks from the ultra-Blairites, on the one hand, and the “without a lurch to the left we are doomed!” view on the left, on the other. The odd thing that both camps seem to have in common is that they were both under impression that Ed was more of a lefty that he ever was in practice, when like Luke, I tend to believe he’s someone who can bridge the divide in the party with a nuanced, relevant agenda.

          • AlanGiles

            Elliot, just a short time ago Mark wrote an article on LL regarding Lords reform. I quote: “What Ed Miliband proposes is that Labour will both vote yes and no. Labour MPs will vote for the Second Reading of the Bill but oppose the proposed timetabled – providing an opportunity for Tory rebels to back Labour and sink the bill. A whips trick. Too clever by half. Like on welfare reform Labour will try and have their cake and deny the cake’s existence.”

            As in so many other areas – he seems to want to point in both directions at once, getting Byrne to be both gung-ho and concilatory at the same time.

            I come to the reluctant conclusion Ed doesn’t really know what he wants till he has discovered what public opinion wants.

            He is a decent enough man, personally honest in his Commons expense claims, but I begin to feel he will dither, wobble and fudge. He is so afraid of upsetting anybody he seems too timid to say what he believes. Th clue to being party leader is in the title “Leader”.

            It becomes more and more difficult to see how all this yes and no nonsense will make people confident enough to vote for him

          • robertcp

            I agree.  I have always been in the centre of the Labour Party and oppose lurches to the hard left or hard right.

      • Luke Akehurst


        please read what I wrote. It is explicitly as against “another push by the right-wing” as it is against a lurch to the left. It’s a defence of Ed Miliband’s more nuanced approach.


        • robertcp

          I agree Luke.  Your article summed up very well what should be Labour’s approach, although I disagree about Trident. 

      • johnp Reid

        They give their time and their commitment and progress members don’t get to vote on NEC lists or leadership ones, you can still give to the labour party levy and not be a member and even vote for the leadership candidate who you think would do worse for labour

  • Daniel Speight

    But there is one major change that’s shown to be needed so well that even one of the Progress supporters conceded it a few days back. That is  that we have seen the neo-liberal economic model fail, and fail spectacularly. The division between the Tories and Labour now becomes obvious. Labour  can no longer follow the Tory lead of leaving it to the City and the markets.

    Now to some that will be far too left, but in reality there is little choice for a social democrat party. (And yes this was the real failure of the Blair/Brown governments. “No more boom and bust” becomes their epitaph.)

  • JC

    Until the party decides what it actually stands for and what it’s principles are, there is no hope. With an understanding of what we stand for, not what we stand against, we can build policies and make statements of intent.

    For example, do we support the working poor? On another post, it’s not clear that we do. There’s a commitment to support those not in work, but not to help people back into work by making them better off when they do.

    Another one is education. Do we know what purpose it has? I don’t think we do. We’re against the Tories and whatever they suggest, and can always find reasons why they are wrong, but have nothing as an alternative. 

    Housing. We know that more houses need to be built, but we’re against relaxing planning legislation.

    Tax. We’re against avoidance, but don’t want a simple tax system as it will alienate the special interest groups.

    Left, right? They’re out of date labels that no longer mean anything.

  • G Barratt

    New Labour was the tame left party suitable for the neo-liberal economy. Unions were shackled, industry was secondary and the casino  economy appeared to generate prosperity. If you could not afford to buy an electronic consumer toy, there was always your flexible friend, the credit card. There was therefore at that time, an argument for the embourgeoisification of the working class. Blair and his cronies ruled supreme.

    But now the neo-liberal economy has crashed, graduates cannot get jobs and have to live with their parents. There is now immiseration of the middle class, and a Tory debate about basic welfare rights, in order  to turn employed workers against the unemployed and homeless.

    In a democratic society, there must be a political debate about  what sort of society we would would like to see in the future. Questions of equality, opportunity, the role of the state and democratic control of the economy are all part of this debate. If you regard such matters as evidence of a resurgent hard left, then so be it.

    George Barratt,

  • A thoughtful contribution to an important debate. Perhaps, though, we should try and formulate our thinking without reference to ‘left’ and ‘right’. These labels tend to prevent rational assessment of policy approaches and how we respond to them.

    To debate whether Labour should move to the right or to the left is a pointless exercise. There are not distinct right or left solutions to every real-world problem (and probably to none of the currently important ones). And how many of the electorate think in these linear terms?

    We should have faith in our (hopefully shared) conviction that treating one individual as a human being, not as an economic agent, adds to the humanity of us all.

  • HuH

    The words I want to see as far as the Labour Party goes are words like rational, humane, compassionate, decent, progressive and fair. All this sectarian garbage about left, right and centre and, even worse, all those bloody small minded factions with their bloody stupid signature gang colours – blue, black, red, purple, whatever – jostling for influence and position well you can stick that foetid garbage where the sun don’t shine.

    Fight the Tories.

    Challenge their pernicious policies.

    Expose their maliciousness, toxicity and web of lies. 

    Be fearless.

    Be Labour. 

    • AlanGiles

      I sympathise with your point of view, but I am afraid right and left still comes into it: by and large the Progress shower are right-wingers and they broadly subscribe to Coalition policy and view on things such as welfare. If we are going to have draconian policies it hardly matters to the sick and disabled whether the Coalition on right-wing Labourites institute it – indeed we started the Freud proposals and the coalition is finding it easier because of that to persist with them – and Cameron’s tub-thumping yesterday was, in part, due tot he fact that Labour endorsed that ill thought out report in the first place. Had we not instituted Freud, cameron and co would have had to start off in 2010 and frankly I don’t think they had the musicle to do so. We made their job so much easier for them

      • johnp Reid

        Fabians and unions are different to progress as they vote on political issues with their choice to pick the leader, progress readers can’t get to vote on the leadership,

        • Daniel Speight

          …progress readers can’t get to vote on the leadership.

          John, I’m not sure if I misunderstand you, but that does seem to be the problem. We have and organization that is influential in the PLP and nobody really knows who is pulling the strings. How does Progress choose its leadership.

    • John Dore

      Careful, making all those good points at once.

      Someone will be along soon to call you a Tory, perhaps “mate” in a condescending tone.  It’s a bit like buses, three arrive at the  same time.

  • John Dore

    A welcome conclusion Luke.


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