Nothing illustrates Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s failings more than his assertion that, at the last general election, his party “won the argument”. The party’s vote went down by 2.6 million. Any sense in which the party won an argument is so abstract as to be worse than useless. But not enough people on the left realise just how much trouble they are in.
While some on the left show shocking complacency, others exhibit a level of despair similar to that in 1992, after the Conservatives won their fourth successive victory (and proper victories, unlike 2010 and 2017) when voters fled from Labour and the Lib Dems at the last minute. If the Tories could win then, in such an unpromising election for them, it seemed to presage them winning forever. The journalist Will Hutton caught the mood with a political bestseller The State We’re In. In it he suggested that the Tories had so deeply penetrated civil society that they were unbeatable. He also decried Tory (and American) economic policies, while praising those of Germany and Japan. Only a few years later Labour won their biggest ever election victory and the Tories were knocked so far away from power that people dared to think they would never regain it. Meanwhile Germany and Japan plunged into an economic crisis from which, seemingly, only Anglo-Saxon economic policies could lift them. It is surprising that Mr Hutton dared to show his face in public again, but newspaper comment by him still pops up quite regularly.
The Labour and Lib Dem revival was evident in the elections of 1997, 2001 and 2005. This led to complacency on the centre-left, and the idea of a “progressive majority” that was floated back in 1992. It was observed that if you added the Labour and Lib Dem votes (and perhaps the Greens too) there was a clear majority of the popular vote: 55-60%. This was advanced as a reason to embrace proportional representation, which would confine the Tories to a prison. But as politics poisoned after the MPs expenses scandals, and the financial crash, the weakness in this line of argument became plain. Ukip rose as a fourth, emphatically non-progressive force. The Tories revived in the 2010 election, and Labour and the Lib Dems were unable to form a parliamentary majority, though they had 52% of the vote between them. The Lib Dems entered coalition with the Conservatives instead.
The Lib Dem vote promptly collapsed, but the idea of a progressive majority persisted. Labour reckoned they could win on their own simply by picking up disillusioned Lib Dem voters, without trying to convert any Tories. This suited the Labour left, and its increasingly vocal socialist element, which had been marginalised in Labour’s government years, and which was energised by opposition to the coalition’s austerity policies. But, alas, this simply drove more Lib Dem supporters into the arms of the Conservatives, who formed an outright majority in 2015 (with a combined Labour and Lib Dem vote of just 38%), mainly by picking up Lib Dem seats. By now the “progressive majority” was shown to be a clear fiction: adding Ukip and Conservative vote share took you to more than 50%. Proportional representation would not have saved the “progressives”. And that is more or less where things have stuck since. In 2019 Labour and the Lib Dems mustered just 44% between them, down from 47% in 2017. That leaves the left with an uncomfortable truth: they will not win majority support unless they win over substantial numbers of Conservative voters: that they “win the argument”, in other words. And they haven’t done that since the great financial crisis of 2007/08, unless you count that narrow majority of votes in 2010.
Much has been written about this, but most of the thinking has been done by people on the right of politics. Their analysis focuses on values, and the way many voters crave a sense of belonging, undermined by a rootless liberal elite, or left-wingers impassioned by foreign causes. This is fine as far as it goes, but thinkers on the left have a long tradition (starting with Marx and Engels) of looking at economic interests, which they assume lie behind people’s values. This has often been taken too far, but right now there is not enough of it. The narrative of the left is that it is on the side of the “many”, often quantified as 95% or even 99% of the population, against an economy “rigged” by “the few”. This clearly isn’t working.
There are two things to observe about the strength of the right. First is that it is based on older people, as it wins over increasing numbers of the baby-boomer generation. The second, heavily overlapping, point is that they appeal to people who own property, or who have an inheritable interest in property. They are especially making progress in “left-behind” areas where property values are sinking, creating a sense of grievance.
For the most part Conservatives have been very sensitive to the needs of these groups. I remember seeing an analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies showing that austerity policies after 2010 largely bypassed older voters, whose lot improved overall. Old age pensions were improved and tax allowances raised. Interestingly these policies were driven forward enthusiastically by the Conservatives’ coalition partners, the Lib Dems, for whom the “triple lock” on state pensions was a cornerstone policy. A Lib Dem minister, Steve Webb, skilfully piloted pension reform that postponed pensions for many with minimal political damage. It is no accident that the left’s biggest moment of opportunity since 2010, the 2017 election which saw a surge in Labour support, came when the Conservatives dropped the ball on looking after older voters, with their proposals on social care. There was no chance of them repeating that mistake.
Property ownership, meanwhile, is becoming the critical economic dividing line in British society. Ownership is steadily sinking as housing becomes less affordable, but it still remains high, at over 60%. This does not fit the narrative of “the many” versus “the few”. By and large, property owners and older voters are not so exercised about austerity policies, and are less concerned about changing working practices, such as zero hours contracts. They are distrustful of the radicalism that the left trumpets so loudly. This may not be wholly rational. If austerity has caused economic growth to sag, then this affects the property market. But the left is more comfortable stoking up a sense of outrage amongst people who rent their homes, or have a dependency on the types of benefits that have been cut, than they are in making more nuanced claims for the benefit of Britain’s top three quintiles of income.
Won’t time shift these factors in the left’s favour? The older voters are dying, while more younger ones enter the electorate. We often heard that argument in the context of the Brexit referendum. But people’s political perspective changes as they age, and the left seems to be losing its grip on voters in the middle of the age range. The proportion of older voters is likely to go up, demographers tell us. Things are more promising from that perspective on property ownership, which has been falling steadily. But the change is slow and the Conservatives are acutely sensitive to this, doing what they can to make sure new homes are built, and that people can get themselves onto the property ladder.
So what should the left do? It can hardly ditch its core support among younger voters and those renting homes in order to win over Conservatives and Brexit Party supporters. Some of the policies needed to address the needs poorer and more disadvantaged voters will hurt property owners (e.g. more social housing undermining property prices) and older people (e.g. higher taxes on investments). In my previous post on Labour I suggested three things; radicalism (less of it), pluralism (more) and competence (also more).
The one party that has made some headway in attracting former Conservative voters is the Lib Dems. It has done this by being only marginally on the left (many Lib Dems, myself included, hesitate to call ourselves of the left at all). But it still signs up to many signature left wing priorities: better public services and stronger action on the environment in particular. The party is still vilified by many on the far left, who call them “Yellow Tories”. In the last election Labour sent its activists into seats like Carshalton, Wimbledon and Finchley because they preferred the Conservatives to win these than let the Lib Dems gain traction. But unless the Lib Dems are allowed to gather up Conservative votes, even as they gather Labour ones too, the left as a whole will not succeed.
There is another way forward, as suggested by the coalition of 2010. That is for parts of the left to team up with Conservatives in order to make headway on critical priorities. This has happened in Germany with its grand coalition, and now a Green-Christian Democrat alliance being mooted. The Greens and the conservatives have formed a coalition in Austria. The Lib Dems experience in the 2010 coalition was unhappy, in that its support collapsed, though it can point to achievements. The German SPD’s experience is hardly better. The Lib Dems will not be tempted to go down that route again. But if Labour continues on the road mapped out by Mr Corbyn, that may be the only option for the left to have a serious influence on government.