Can Labour win from the left?

Labour’s leadership election is increasingly a debate about whether or not the party was too left-wing at the last election. This is my go at adding to that debate.

To win in 2020, Labour needs to gain about 50 seats directly from the Tories, to produce a net gain of roughly 100 seats. That’s ignoring boundary changes, which would make things harder for Labour, but since they might not pass, let’s take the seats as they are now.

It’s clear that a major factor in Labour’s defeat was perceptions of it as economically unreliable, as I wrote here. So long as the economy isn’t booming in five years or at least is still an important factor in influencing votes – which I think is almost certain – this is a weakness Labour has to address.

But at the same time, left-wing economic policies poll well. The GQR poll shows support (particularly among people who considered Labour but didn’t vote for them) for a slower pace of spending cuts, being tougher on the banks and increasing taxes on the rich. Other polls consistently show the popularity of policies like renationalising the railways.

So there’s a paradox. On the one hand, there’s widespread support for economically populist policies; but on the other, people vote against parties they don’t see as economically prudent.

For now, I’m going to assume these positions can’t be reconciled by 2020 and so Labour has to choose between them. Some might disagree with this, but I think it’s reasonable. Labour is so distrusted on the economy at the moment and the Tory framing of austerity is so dominant it would be unavoidable that economic populism would be painted as irresponsible – and many people would believe that argument. Until it has reserves of economic credibility, there’s no quantum rabbit Labour can pull from the hat: one that’s simultaneously economically populist and seen as financially prudent.

Let’s look at the electoral implications for Labour of adopting either a leftist position of populist economics, which costs votes among those who’ll only vote for prudence; or a centrist position of austere economics, which costs votes among those who’ll only vote for left-wing economics.

I’m also going to assume that Miliband was perceived to have presented neither of these positions. Again, I think this is reasonable because, while he was widely painted as left-wing, Labour’s manifesto wasn’t particularly anti-austerity and the leadership clearly fought against the label of being the anti-cuts party. His leadership demonstrated the futility of alternating between policies that do both: promising a Mansion Tax and abolition of the Bedroom Tax while still pledging huge cuts seemed to confuse voters about his priorities. This means I’m not going to estimate the loss of 2015 Labour voters with either position: I’ll assume Labour’s voters were generally not either die-hard anti-austeritarians or bone-dry prudentialists, and the loss of voters from either wing would balance out.

Starting with the leftist position, let’s say it allows Labour to win every Green voter. In that case, Labour would gain 12 seats, 10 of which would come from the Tories. A start, but not enough.

How about Ukip voters? We know they generally like economic populism, and the GQR poll shows their economic views are more like those of Labour voters than of Tory voters (they would prefer Labour to help those in poverty rather than on middle incomes, they support higher taxes on the rich etc). Their top reason for considering Labour was that they saw it as being on the side of ordinary people; their second biggest doubt about the Tories was their view it’s on the side of the rich and powerful. If Labour could win every Ukip voter, it’d gain 67 seats, of which 63 would come from the Tories. Every Green and every Ukip voter switching to Labour would give 83 seats, of which 78 are from the Tories – enough for a comfortable majority.

But Labour winning every single Ukip and Green voter is hardly likely. Given that the biggest doubt Ukip voters had about Labour was that it would spend too much, we have to assume that economic populism would cost some Ukip voters who’re put off by fears about profligacy. If we lower the optimism and look at Labour winning half of the 2010 Ukip and Green voters, the gains drop to 35, of which 31 are from the Tories: not enough for a majority.

Turning to the centrist position, there seems to be more up for grabs. There are 56 seats that Labour would gain from the Tories with a swing of less than 6pts: enough to put Labour in power. A 9pt swing would give Labour 85 gains from the Tories: more than Labour would get from winning every single Green and Ukip voter. By comparison the Tory-Labour swing in ’97 was 10.3pts, while the Labour-Tory swing in ’10 was 5.1pts: we’re not talking about ludicrous swings.

So far this has pointed to there being more winnable votes and seats for Labour in the centre than on the left. But there are other factors to consider.

Up to now I’ve only talked about economics, but Labour also needs to make decisions about other policy areas. In some areas public opinion is clear. Limiting immigration and restricting benefits even further are vastly popular. Green, Tory and Ukip voters all say in large numbers that Labour would make it too easy for people to live on benefits. Tory and Ukip voters were also concerned about the Tories’ failure to restrict immigration – though Greens were much less bothered about that, pointing to a further difficulty for Labour of winning over both Green and Ukip voters.

Of course a Labour leader might well believe that we shouldn’t restrict immigration further and that benefits (or the safety net as its supporters could try calling it) are about right or even too tight. Maybe Labour can adopt more liberal policies in these areas and still win – but it’s hard to dispute that doing so would make it more difficult to gain votes. Other policies would have to do more work to make up the ground, at least for as long as it took to change public opinion on those issues, if that were possible.

How about Scotland? For Labour, winning the seats it did in 2010 would help enormously and would probably make it possible to get back to power with half of the 2015 Ukip and Green voters.

But I struggle to see what Labour policies would allow this. Despite the common claim that Labour failed in Scotland because of its apparently centrist policies, Scottish voters only seem to be slightly more left-wing than English and Welsh ones. The SNP’s economic policies were really not that different from Labour’s.

Instead, the problem for Labour in Scotland seems to be much more about its disadvantage, relative to the SNP, at being seen to be able to deliver for Scotland. I’m not convinced policy changes could make a difference to this. To change the dynamic it needs to convince Scottish voters that Labour, and not the SNP, is able to produce improvements for Scotland – which seems to be a question of competence, as in the rest of the UK.

That leaves non-voters. They seem on the face of it to offer the best argument that Labour can win from the left. There certainly are some that Labour can gain, but non-voters don’t look like the liberal ideal. The more I look at non-voters, the more they look like Ukip voters. They’re more likely to think the country is going in the wrong direction, to think the Tories stand up for the rich and powerful, to want more restrictions on immigration, protection of public services, and taxes on the rich – but they’re put off voting Labour because they’re worried about tax rises and think Labour make it too easy for people to live on benefits. I could see how a leftist economic approach could appeal to some non-voters, but it would still suffer from accusations that Labour would raise taxes, and it might also need to be coupled with a closed anti-immigrant, anti-benefits approach.

So putting this all together can I make the case that Labour could win from the left? Yes, just about. There are probably enough people who voted Green or Ukip or didn’t vote in 2015 who want a populist anti-austerity government that’s tough on banks and the rich and won’t raise taxes on the poor. If Labour could be seen to stand for those positions without losing many 2010 voters, it might be able to put together a majority.

But, unless it can change public opinion – a tall order in five years – it would also need to take anti-immigrant and anti-benefit positions that would be very difficult for many of those on the left to accept. Some of those positions might put intolerable strain on the coalition Labour was attempting to put together.

And at the same time, it seems to be easier for Labour to win from the centre. To get a majority, the swing it would need from Tory voters is large but not unprecedented. There aren’t such obvious tensions between the views of the people who would be needed for Labour to win.

In the longer term, Labour might once again have enough credibility to be able to reconcile economic populism with prudence. But for now, it seems that a choice is unavoidable – and there seem to be more votes in one direction than in the other.

  1. Leon says:

    Lot of assumptions in here. The oddest one is that austerity is somehow of the centre; it’s not — it’s of the right. There’s no reason why a centrist Labour Party couldn’t argue against austerity.

    • Leo says:

      Hi Leon and thanks for commenting. I agree that’s an assumption I’m making and I might be wrong – in which case the premise of the piece wouldn’t stand. My view is that the Tories have so successfully framed austerity as the only *responsible* approach to the economy, it’s become seen as the centreground, and anything else will be seen by many people as profligate. With their current lack of trustedness on the economy, I don’t think it’s possible for Labour to overturn that in the next few years, particularly since they’re going to get even less attention than Oppositions usually get with the EU ref dominating politics for a while.

      I wouldn’t claim austerity’s inherently of the centre – but then I wouldn’t argue it’s inherently of the right either. Its position is a product of its time. I suggest the debate has shifted sufficiently over the last few years so it’s currently seen as responsible (and so currently of the centre), and while it could in principle be shifted to be seen as of the right, I don’t think Labour’scapable of doing that or that it will happen in general by 2020.

      • Leon says:

        Labour hasn’t tried to make a counterargument since 2010 — and look where that got it.

        It shouldn’t take a Jeremy Corbyn figure to make the case, but that’s how emascalated and inward looking the Labour Party’s become.

        It’s hard to say whether it’s all Tory genius when no-one from the political mainstream has bothered arguing the other side.

        Austerity *is* a right wing response to a set of circumstances; your Krugmans argued for stimulus… if Labour can’t argue against a hawkish approach to the economy when there’s no ’emergency’ to respond to it might as well give up.

        Apart from all that, it’s hard to see how it will keep its paying supporters if someone like Liz Kendall ended up as leader. I’m not a Corbyn fan, but I’d certainly leave the party…

  2. John Band says:

    Your logic suggests that Labour faces an uphill struggle if it fails to change the dialogue. The post-WW2 consensus was that everyone was entitled to a fair chance in life. That meant an education, a health service, a job and an affordable home. In the 50’s and early 60’s the Tories were building up to 200,000 council houses a year – more than Labour ever managed – and the private sector was building 150,000 a year. The best course for Labour would be to focus on these core values. It needs to drop the dogma and make a big push for investment in affordable housing and infrastructure. And there is a magic wand to pay for it. Among the measures used to save the Banks from collapse the Bank of England printed 385 Billion pounds and called it “Quantitative Easing” – although this is theoretically part of the National debt, it is interesting free (in a complicated way) but it is owed to the Bank of England. If Labour committed to invest say 40 billion a year on housing and infrastructure for ten years, financed by the Bank of England like QE, we could solve several of the country’s problems, while getting the existing 385 billion back over the same period by taxing bankers and the very rich. If it was worth doing to save the banks, it has to be worth doing to give everyone a fair chance. “Fair Chance Party” anyone?

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