I’m going to start by listing a bunch of things that I believe to be self-evident truths:
- The distribution of political opinions in the British electorate is basically like a bell-curve: a few outliers sit at either end on the right or left, but most are clustered around the middle with centre-left or centre-right opinions.
- That’s because British voters are basically sensible, pragmatic and (as any Marxist materialist analysis would predict) self-interested. They want governments that combine sound management of the economy, not too high a tax burden, a patriotic defence of national self-interest and security, good public services, and a welfare safety net that deals with the worst of inequality and poverty. Sometimes as in 1997, 2001 and 2005 they think Labour is presenting the best mix of these policies, sometimes as in 1979, 1983, 1987, 1992 , 2010 and 2015, they think the Tories do. There isn’t any evidence that non-voters have particularly different views to people who do vote.
- This is borne out by all the polling on the subject. For instance, YouGov regularly asks where GB adults – i.e. both voters and non-voters – place themselves and the parties and leaders on the political spectrum. The 2015 results are here. Voters placed themselves on average at -7.1 on a scale with 0 being the centre – so just slightly to the left of centre and indeed to the right of the then-in-coalition Lib Dems. They put Labour in its pre-election guise at -36.4%, a long way to their own left, and Ed Miliband (being maligned by some Corbyn supporters as too cautious and “Blairite”) even further left at -40.1%. The previous year’s data showed voters’ views over time being that Labour had moved dramatically to the left since 2006, with them viewing this trend as happening under both Brown and Miliband.
The 2014 figures showed only 3% of British adults see themselves as “very leftwing”, 12% as “fairly leftwing”, 14% as “slightly left-of-centre”. That adds up to just under the score Labour got in the General Election. A further 20% – the people that decide elections – describe themselves as in the “centre”. The same people saw Labour under Ed as 9% “very leftwing”, 22% “fairly leftwing”, 26% “slightly left-of-centre” and only 12% “centre”. You can draw your own conclusions about the likely attractiveness of Labour moving yet further to the left.
- It also seems to be borne out by all recent political history. Whenever we move to the left we move away from winning elections and whenever we move towards the centre we do a bit better.
Now of course I have presented a simplistic account – “what about Scotland” I hear you cry.
And I admit to a personal bias. I am on the moderate wing of the Labour Party. I no longer describe myself as a Blairite as I was disenchanted with some of the late Blair period’s focus on marketisation of public services, but I identify proudly with the political centre-left. I’d like to think my views, whilst to the left of the average Brit, are not so far left that I would be seen as cranky. My vision for the country I’d like to live in is I know, somewhat to the left of most voters, but I hope not so far to their left that they couldn’t gradually be persuaded of it through incremental evidence of successful governments: I want good schools and hospitals, strong programmes to tackle poverty and inequality, but I also want business to be nurtured, taxes not to be crippling and in foreign policy Britain to be firmly aligned with the USA and other democratic countries and firmly opposed to totalitarians and terrorists, and with the military and the kit to do something about it. I guess my ideal country would be something like Sweden in liberal values, social policy, redistribution and public services that promote equality, but better at multiculturalism, in NATO, and with a strategic nuclear deterrent.
I’ve been intellectually intrigued though by supporters of Jeremy Corbyn who imagine a new electoral paradigm where you can win by inspiring our base and mobilising the political left, particularly reaching out to non-voters, rather than reaching towards the centre. They say we haven’t tried this. That 1983 doesn’t count as it was too long ago and the country has changed since then (yes it has, the sociological and economic pillars and tribal loyalty to Labour that guaranteed us 27% and 209 seats even in 1983 have been destroyed by Thatcher). That we can inspire a new coalition of the alienated, particularly the young.
That was until Ken Livingstone spoke at Corbyn’s rally in Camden and I remembered we had tried this alternative electoral strategy. Very recently. In the 2012 London Mayoral elections.
We had a candidate, Ken, with almost identical politics to Jeremy. A firm opponent of austerity and neo-liberalism. A staunch critic of British and American foreign policy and Israel. A fan of alternative models such as Venezuela. Lots of trade union support.
They are about the same age. They have been political allies for over four decades in London Labour politics.
If anything Ken had an advantage over Jeremy in that he had a successful track record of delivery both as GLC Leader and Mayor from 2000-2008, a CV packed full of taking executive decisions successfully, whereas Jeremy has been a lifelong backbencher.
The strategy was identical – mobilise the base. London was one big constituency so each borough was given careful precision mapping of all the leftwing but low turnout wards where we needed to inspire people who had been alienated by Blair and Brown to turn out for “our Ken”. There was also London-wide targeting of ethnic minority groups and other sub-groups like students who again Ken could reach out and inspire.
The ground campaign was superb. Orchestrated by London Labour’s formidable machine, with the added strategising of Jeremy’s current campaign manager and Ken’s long-term aide Simon Fletcher. In fact I would say it was one of the best ground campaigns I have ever been involved in. Huge numbers of doorstep conversations with voters across a massive city. Vast numbers of motivated and enthusiastic members and non-member volunteers including campaigners from unions and peace and anti-austerity campaigns. Vibrant walkabouts greeted by happy voters. Rallies. Big rallies. Great leaflets.
The messaging was clear too. A straight fight between Ken and his clear leftwing policies – most of them very sensible ones about investing in public transport, and Boris Johnson’s shambolic Etonian Thatcherism.
The Alternative Vote system meant there was no question of a split left vote. Ken appealed direct to Greens, TUSC etc. for leftwing transfers.
By any objective standard his task was easier than Jeremy’s. No inconvenient places like Thurrock or Basildon to clutter the London electoral map like they do the national one. Not much cultural appeal for populist rightwingers like UKIP in multicultural London. The most black and ethnic minority and young voters of any region in the UK. Vast reserve armies of low turnout leftwing voters in the inner London boroughs. A huge party membership compared to any other region to do the Get Out the Vote. A political and economic climate in 2012 that was far more conducive to a left victory than 2015 or 2020 – midterm so the government was unpopular, massive cuts and austerity fresh in people’s minds, the economic recovery yet to begin.
He didn’t even face the same turnout task as Jeremy has set himself. Jeremy needs to get people who never vote to vote. Ken only had to persuade people who vote in General Elections to vote in a Mayoral one.
I worked my guts out as volunteer borough campaign manager in Hackney to try to get Ken elected. Many of my friends thought I was mad to be helping someone I disagree with on many fundamental issues, some of whose views I find deeply unsavoury, and who I have run against three times for the NEC. But that’s what you do if you are a Labour activist. You work for who the party democratically picks. It’s what I will do for Jeremy if he is elected Leader.
But ordinary voters who share my stodgy compromising Nordic vision of social democracy and find Venezuela or Syriza or sharing platforms with Hezbollah terrifying rather than inspiring, or are even, whisper it, “Blairites”, or sit in the centre and pick and choose who will best look after them out of Labour and the Tories, don’t have to follow along with the same level of discipline us members do.
And if you pick a candidate in the leftmost decile of the UK political spectrum they may well have views and policies and rhetoric that alienate people in deciles two to ten, the 90% of people to their right.
And so for every leftwinger Ken inspired to vote, how many people in the centre did he alienate? If you have marmite views on controversial issues it might fill halls in Liverpool and Camden but it might put people off in Finchley or Croydon.
So he lost.
It doesn’t take a genius to work out if Ken can’t win in London, Ken’s mate Jeremy is unlikely to win a General Election where we need to gain 100 sceptical middle England places like Nuneaton from the Tories.
And I am afraid to say I cannot recommend that Labour re-runs this very large and hugely expensive experiment on a bigger and more difficult national scale, tilting at windmills to make ourselves feel better or test a hunch that there is a reserve army of secretly socialist non-voters waiting to be inspired. Trust me, there isn’t.
Members and supporters can choose to ignore the reality of who the British people are and what they think.
They can choose to gamble our party’s future, its credibility, and the standard and quality of living of the ordinary people who depend on us winning elections to live decent lives.
That is their democratic choice,
I am a party loyalist so I will ride with them all the way in some death and glory charge at the electoral guns, like a latter-day political Light Brigade at Balaclava. There will be aspects of the experience I will even enjoy and find exhilarating.
But I will reserve the right afterwards to say “I told you so”. I’m cutting to the chase by telling you so now.