"The British electorate will never elect a socialist government," a friend told me recently. I have heard this argument in varying forms over the last year: Labour under Jeremy Corbyn has moved to the left and although this pleases some people alienated during the Blair/Brown era, it means they have lost touch with the centre ground of British politics that decides elections.
This argument presents the Labour Party's problems as simply one of positioning: shift to the centre and win an election. This argument is closely aligned to the argument that all Labour needs to do is to replace Corbyn as leader and their problems will be solved. Labour's troubles are not just limited to the leader. They are complex, deep rooted and have causes that stretch back decades. In these recent articles I have been exploring the many factors behind Labour's current woes.
There is arrogance on the Corbyn-skeptic side of the party that paints Corbyn as the only problem. They forget that Ed Miliband lost a general election because of the way that Labour was perceived by the voters. Miliband had policies that were popular- energy price freeze, a mansion tax to fund the NHS - but the public viewed the Labour Party as too much of a risk with the recovery so fragile. Labour needs to ask why there were not trusted if they want to win power anytime in the next decade.
Miliband’s foremost perception problem was economic competence. The accusation that the last Labour government recklessly borrowed and overspent has stuck, because the Tories relentlessly hammered it home. Labour tried to address this negative perception by promising a balanced budget and getting the OBR to sign off on their manifesto commitments. It made little difference and Labour still lost because the voters did not want Miliband to turn on the money taps.
The belief that they would be economically irresponsible is linked to another perception problem for Labour: they were seen as too generous with benefits. Public support for welfare spending is at an all time low. Even voters who rely on benefits believe spending on benefits is too high and that a lot of the money is going to people who do not need support. Labour have also tried to address this but have so far been successful. Any future Labour leader will have to deal with this perception problem.
Another problem is that Labour was seen as being too soft on immigration. Blair and Brown massively increased migration to the UK but failed to make the case for why this was a good thing. This vacuum was filled by the far right and now racist anti-immigration rhetoric has become part of our accepted political discourse. Again Labour have tried to tackle this perception problem by adopting a watered down version of this rhetoric, most notably with Owen Smith saying that immigration was too high in some areas of the country and his claim of a "progressive case against freedom of movement". Putting the word “progressive” in front of something does not stop it being right wing rhetoric. The view that Labour is too relaxed about immigration is still solid and the Brexit vote shows that a substantial part of the population wants immigration to come down. Any post-Corbyn Labour leader will have to deal with how hostile to immigration the electorate have become.
These perceptions are tied to the fact that Labour is seen as not on the side of the ordinary voter, David Cameron's oft-mentioned "hard working people". Political reality has little to do with this. Remember it was Cameron who wanted to cut in work benefits whilst passing on a billion pound subsidy to the finance industry in the form of discounted shares when RBS was fully privatised. These facts do not matter. Labour is seen as on the side of scroungers, the work shy and the recent immigrant by many a swing voter in places like Nuneaton. It this perception that preventing Labour from rebuilding its election winning coalition.
This is linked to the view that Labour is not seen as very patriotic, a perception that the Tories are eager to encourage. While this is a problem for Labour I am doubtful whether a sudden burst of flag waving would help the party much. No one will believe that Corbyn is patriotic, and it is unlikely that Owen Smith, Tristram Hunt or Chuka Umunna would be more believable. The only thing more toxic than being seen as unpatriotic would be insincere patriotism, or to be seen as cynically exploiting it for electoral gain. Miliband's clumsy attempts to address voters "concerns" about immigration came across as patronising to some, driving them to UKIP, while it made others uncomfortable and drove them to the Greens. I remain unconvinced that the British public want more American style flag waving in their politics.
Taken together this all looks very bad for Labour. It is part of a narrative of the wider decline of social democratic parties across the western world. Unable to provide new ideas to response to our current challenges they have fallen back on the 1990's combination of economic and social liberalism that is not conceiving voters anymore. Assailed from the left on economic issues and the right on social ones (mainly immigration) social democracy across Europe is in poor health.
Labour are currently positioned very poorly in the eye of the voters and this will cost them the next election. Getting rid of Corbyn would not change this. There is no front line Labour politician who can convince the public that Labour is strong on the economy and immigration. Labour can adopt all the policies on border control and cutting benefits they like but it will not change their positions problem.
This means that Labour need stop thinking in terms of positioning themselves and start thinking in terms of convincing voting of the merits of voting Labour. More on that in my next post.