In my weekly survey of Britain’s general election, it does not look to have been a bad week for Labour. Their poll rating has hardened from the lower twenties to the upper twenties, and the leak of their manifesto moved the election agenda away from “strong and stable”, the Tory slogan, to policy choices. Can Labour claw back further? I think not.
I hold fast to my predictions of last week that the Tories will achieve about 400 seats to Labour’s 170 or so. The Conservative vote is holding up well; the Lib Dem challenge is in the doldrums; and Tory prospects in Scotland look positive.
Labour in fact have done little to address their fundamental weakness – their lack of credibility. Take the manifesto. The final version is published today, with a lot of the media attention focused on the costings and how spending commitments are to be funded. Unlike the news media, I don’t like to use this medium to speculate, when those speculations can be turned to facts in a very short time. But it is clear is that this manifesto will be unchallenging. The leaks showed a lot of popular policies but very few new ideas. Labour spinners referred to it as “radical”. In only one sense could that said to be true: their idea is to raise levels of public spending substantially, and also taxes on businesses and people with higher incomes (I nearly wrote “the wealthy”, but actually that isn’t true – I am wealthy in the Labour conception, but have little to fear from their ideas of higher taxes). And, indeed, the whole enterprise is a challenge to the public policy consensus that the left likes to refer to as “neoliberalism”.
But this is radicalism by default. What we have heard so far of Labour’s promises is “no lobbyist left behind” policy formation. Every Labour supporting interest group seems to have come forward with their wishes, and these have been granted. When challenged about how this is to be paid for, and the answer comes: “somebody else”. There seems to have no serious question of choosing or prioritising. This is in stark contrast to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in 1997, before Labour’s greatest ever electoral triumph. They had decided to hold to Conservative spending plans, and had spent most of the previous year or two saying “no”, while confining themselves to a quite limited and focused set of promises.
And that gets to the heart of the matter. Messrs Blair and Brown were not opponents of public spending. Indeed they oversaw a massive expansion of the public sector in their three terms. But they understood the need to appear to be credible managers in order to win public trust first. The public don’t like entrusting politicians with spending decisions if they can’t say “no” to their friends from time to time.
There is, in fact, quite an interesting debate to be had about what scope there is to increase public spending, and what sorts of taxes are needed to support this – and even the extent to which it has to be backed by direct tax funding. And since I believe that public spending must be expanded (if only from the logic of the late, great economist William Baumol who died recently), it is a discussion I really want to engage in. But Labour’s manifesto is not the right place to begin that debate. That would give it too much credit for coherence. Effective management is always about making choices between things that you want to do – Labour’s leadership shows no inclination to confront that truth.
So what explains Labour’s slight bounce? I have not seen much evidence to explain it, so I’m back to speculation. I suspect that it reflects weakness. Labour-inclined voters don’t have any sense that Labour will actually win, so they have little to lose by voting for them. They are open to be swayed by their local candidate, or the general principle of disliking the Tories.
This factor should help the Lib Dems too. The perception that the 2015 election was a close one was a disaster for them, as the Conservative national campaign were able to promote fears that they might let Labour in by the back door. This is still a problem that Lib Dem strategists have done little to address – and I have my doubts whether they will ever have the courage to do so. But that is a problem for another day. And yet Lib Dem poll rating are at best stuck, and may be slipping. The surge of new members when the election was announced has slowed to a trickle. What the party lacks is enough compelling reasons for voters to support it. They have one: an expression of anger at the result of the last year’s referendum on Europe. That plays well here in Wandsworth in London, where I’m expecting the party to do quite well. But only about 20% of the electorate at large now want to reverse the result of the referendum. Other Remainers are trying to move on, and are in the depression stage of grief over the result, or perhaps even acceptance. This leaves too small a pool of voters to fish in and win the seats the party needs to.
The Lib Dems next message that “we are the opposition”, based on the shambles of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, has some traction, but it is not enough in itself. It is yet another variation on the theme of “vote for us because we are not one of the other two” which is superficially attractive (and seems to play well in focus groups, given how popular it has been amongst the party’s professionals) but doesn’t get enough people across the line in the end. It may yet gain traction. If Labour do succeed in getting more people to think about Conservative policies (and their manifesto was successful in doing that), and if they are unable to maintain discipline themselves, then who knows? But I fear that the election has come a bit too early in the party’s revival for strong electoral results – though it will be a useful learning experience. I would urge all Lib Dem supporters who want to help to go to one of the small number of target seats.
In my Facebook bubble, I see growing support for anti-Conservative tactical voting. I place little credence in this. It is not clear what all this for. It may limit the Tory majority a bit, but that will change little. There is no credible coalition of anti-Tory parties. If there ever is one, it needs to be put in place long before an election with an agreed platform. Labour show no interest; they observe how the Conservatives have absorbed Ukip voters by crushing the smaller party, and they want to carry out their own version of that manoeuvre. And the critical task is to persuade people who want to vote Conservative to vote for somebody else – and talk of a “progressive alliance” does not help here at all.
And so I conclude that Labour’s relatively good week is what City traders used to call “dead cat bounce” – the sort of bounce you get when you hit rock bottom. There is no game-changing happening.