Jeremy Corbyn, by David Holt.
“We’ve got to win in Cardiff North. We’ve got to win in Nuneaton. We’ve got to win in Milton Keynes”, asserted Owen Smith in the recent leadership campaign. “We’ve got to get Tories and Greens and Liberals to vote Labour.”
In the mainstream commentary surrounding Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour party, one thing is clear – he must claim the centre ground of politics and reach out to Tory voters. The BBC’s political coverage is often based on this assumption, with the corporation deciding to hold its 2015 televised Labour leadership debate in the well-known marginal seat of Nuneaton.
This has been the dominant, so-called pragmatic, way of doing parliamentary politics for my lifetime – what Professor Jeremy Gilbert from the University of East London calls “politics as marketing”. In this conception of politics, “there is only ever a very narrow range of opinions which can really be considered sensible, because they are predicated on an understanding of how the world really works.” Voters are rational, self-interested actors with fixed preferences. The politician is sold to the voters as likable and competent, much like a salesperson selling the party brand to customers. “The target market is almost exclusively floating voters in marginal constituencies”.
Writer Tariq Ali argues this endless battle for the mythical, ‘sensible’ centre ground has led to the creation of an “extreme centre” in British politics, with Tory-Labour bipartisanship leading to destructive wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, the financial crisis, privatisation, rising inequality and nasty and dangerous narratives being pushed on welfare and immigration.
As well as being tone deaf to radical social movements, this focus on a tiny number of voters in marginal seats ignores what has been called the largest party in British politics – the 15.7 million who didn’t vote in the 2015 General Election.
Corbyn himself has repeatedly said he wants to reach out to those who don’t vote, especially young people. Noting that turnout went down from 84 percent in 1950 to 66 percent in 2015, Professor Danny Dorling from the University of Oxford agrees, arguing “the best strategy for Labour to increase its share of the vote is to target people who vote for minor parties and the much larger groups [who] have given up voting or even registering to vote.”
So, who doesn’t vote and why don’t they bother? Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary university, notes the people who don’t vote tend to be “the poor, the poorly educated, the young, the transient, the newly arrived, and the less politically knowledgeable and interested.” Speaking to voters in Manchester before the last general election, the BBC’s Emma Ailes reported that “it seems anger not apathy is turning people off voting” – an observation highlighted by polling. According to a 2013 poll by Survation the top reasons given by people for not voting were a belief that their vote will not make a difference; that the parties and candidates are all the same; a lack of interest in politics; not enough information or knowledge to choose; and that their beliefs are not represented by the parties and candidates.
This deeply concerning reality is neither natural nor inevitable. As I note above, in the 1950s, general election turnout was around 20 percent higher than it is now. The Nordic countries have very high levels of voter turnout. Indeed there have been British votes recently with very high turnouts – the Scottish referendum (85 percent – the highest turnout in any British election since universal suffrage) and the EU referendum (72 percent). Arguably, in contrast to most of the elections of the past 35 years, these two votes actually meant something – there was actually a real choice for voters to make.
This gets to the heart of the issue. Citing British Social Attitudes survey data, in 2010 Alison Park, the Research Director of the National Centre for Social Research, noted one reason for the low turnout in recent elections “is that New Labour’s move to the political centre in the 1990s has led to voters thinking there is relatively little difference between the two main parties.” Professor Bale explains turnout goes down when “the connection between who makes it into office and the policies they pursue is vague”.
To counter these common criticisms of modern politicians, Corbyn needs to position the Labour party as a clear and easily understandable alternative to the Conservatives and make sure the party follows through on any promises it makes. In addition, Labour needs more working-class MPs, a problem Corbyn’s 2015 proposal to provide grants to less affluent parliamentary candidates would help alleviate.
To mobilse non-voters commentator Owen Jones has suggested Labour carry out the biggest registration drive in history. And with Labour membership standing at over 600,000 and Corbyn attracting crowds of thousands of people, journalist Paul Mason believes Labour supporters can play a key role by being ambassadors in their communities, engaging with the wider electorate. Trade unions, which have traditionally encouraged the working-classes to vote, also have an important role to play.
However, it is important to note the first past the post system means significantly expanding the electorate will not, on its own, win the election for Corbyn. This is because the people who don’t vote tend to live in Labour dominated seats, meaning a higher turnout in most constituencies would simply mean a bigger win for the Labour MP. However, it would still lead to some gains, with a Fabian Society analysis showing a 7.3 percent boost in turnout in marginal seats would lead to Labour winning 52 seats if each new voter backed Labour.
Corbyn, then, will almost certainly need to attract significant numbers of people who had voted Conservative. This isn’t as unbelievable as the mainstream media would have you believe. Polling suggests many of Corbyn’s political positions – on the NHS, on railways, on housing and foreign policy – have the support of large sections of the British public, sometimes the majority of Tory voters.
Beyond the narrow electoral math, there are a number of reasons why Corbyn’s Labour Party (and other political parties) should work hard to engage with non-voters – for their party’s own benefit and for the nation as a whole.
First, though it may not translate into immediate electoral gains, getting the support of non-voters would increase the popular vote for Labour, one source of legitimacy in political debates. In addition, it would increase the number of the poorer people who are interested and involved in Labour politics, and politics more generally. This process would hopefully mean Labour increasingly becomes more responsive to working-class concerns (such as income inequality and social housing) and begin once again to seriously represent the working-class communities who have been effectively ignored by New Labour and the Tories for decades.
More broadly, this could be the starting gun for a mass re-engagement with the political system, with previously disheartened and unrepresented sections of society becoming invested in parliamentary politics and the outcome of elections. The importance of this should not be underestimated. It is clear the Brexit vote was decades in the making, the product, in large part, of the politics of the ‘extreme centre’ that the UK has endured since New Labour was established. For example, a recent Oxfam report noted the UK’s extreme level of inequality was a likely contributing factor in the vote to leave the European Union. Similarly, focus groups run by Britain Thinks found “Britain is divided – a nation of people who describe themselves as ‘haves’ and ‘have nots'”. The research found the ‘have nots’ – who were much more likely to vote Brexit – described “a powerful sense of injustice about their situation in life” and “the feeling that systems are in place which work in favour of elites and against their best interests”.
In a similar vein the 2011 riots that swept England were informed by social and economic issues coming out of ‘the extreme centre’. In addition to difficult relations with the police, an extensive LSE-Guardian study noted rioters identified a number of motivating grievances, “from the increase in tuition fees, to the closure of youth services and the scrapping of the education maintenance allowance.” The report continues: “Many complained about perceived social and economic injustices.”
If the UK is to move forward and build the progressive, more equal, tolerant, just society that Corbyn supporters and many others want, then the political system has to sincerely engage with, and listen to, all of society – not just swing voters in Nuneaton.