Many policies in its manifesto have public supportby Ellie Mae O'Hagan / May 15, 2017 / Leave a comment
There are many ways to characterise this election, but a referendum on leftwing ideas is not one of them. Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents within the Labour Party would like us to believe that this is what the vote on 8th June represents, so that if the predictions of a Conservative landslide come to pass, there will be an excuse to put the left back in its box forever. After all, the election of Corbyn was originally supposed to defeat the party’s leftwing once and for all: “we need blood on the carpet,” as one anonymous Labour MP told the Telegraph.
But describing a Conservative victory as a rejection of “the left” would ignore some rather inconvenient facts. First, Brexit demonstrates that the British public does want radical change of some description. In this case, it was the exiting of an institution that—in the eyes of the public—favoured banks, politicians and big businesses over small businesses and people on low incomes. Second, it is notable that the only two policies the Conservative Party has floated (except for an extremely bullish position in EU negotiations) are lifted directly from Labour: building more homes and an energy price freeze. Finally, a recent ComRes poll revealed that voters overwhelmingly back Labour’s manifesto policies. For a long time, the British public has situated itself economically to the left of the British press—backing ideas like publicly-owned railways and energy, and harbouring distrust for big capitalist institutions, even as some papers denounced these beliefs as atavistic socialism.
I think those who argue that this election constitutes some sort of test of leftwing policies are too smart and engaged to believe their own arguments. They know that elections are decided by spin and slogans rather than the substance of policy. How else to explain the fact that the public consistently believes that Labour is profligate, despite the fact that the Tories have been the biggest borrowers of the last 70 years? Or the fact that it regularly overestimates the amount of migrants in Britain? The fact is stagnating wages, a lack of affordable childcare and the pressures of daily life mean that most people simply do not have the time to exhaustively pore over manifestos. They base their political judgements on the rhetoric around them, and this rhetoric often distracts from—if not directly contradicts—the reality of policy.
So it’s not that people simply passively absorb the messages of political parties (if they did, they wouldn’t support public ownership), it’s that they’re more likely to respond to an overarching, easily digestible story about the country. Coherent stories help preoccupied people make sense of the world. It is in this ability to tell a convincing story about the country, and not in proposed solutions to the nation’s problems, that Labour has been lacking. It needs a narrative to knit its popular and transformative policies together. This manifesto is the most exciting programme Labour has put forward since the 1940s. It needs to find a way to communicate that to voters: to tell them a story about why its manifesto is so necessary. Corbyn argues frequently that the system is rigged. This taps into voter resentment, which is good, but he also needs to explain why Labour policies will “unrig” the system.
And while Corbyn perfects a story to tell the electorate, his opponents in the party should drop any argument that this election constitutes some kind of experiment for the left. That time would be better spent debating what values they stand for and why they got into politics. If they’d started having that debate several years ago, they might not currently be wondering how they ended up with Corbyn leading them.
Where will Theresa May’s surprise ballot leave the government, the opposition and a divided country? Join us for our big election debate on the 6th of June 2017. Tom Clark, Prospect’s editor, will be joined by Nick Cohen, Matthew Parris and Meg Russell of the Constitution Unit.