Yes, Labour should listen to its base

UK Labour's right wing calls on the party to ignore populism when that means blaming bankers or rejecting austerity but accept it when that means scapegoating migrants. What the polls really teach is that Labour's road to power lies to its left.

Adam Ramsay
Adam Ramsay
1 June 2014


By a ratio of 4:1, the people of Britain support bringing more services into public ownership and ending privatisation. In the last poll I can find on the subject (admittedly from a year ago), nearly three times as many voters (58%) thought austerity was harming the economy as thought it was helping (20%). 61% support the idea of a mansion tax, while putting the top rate of income tax back up to 50p gets 58% approval.

The right wing of the Labour party is calling for Ed Miliband to take a more aggressive approach to immigration. Apparently Labour should listen to its base. It's funny when Labour's right adopts the tone of populists. I don't remember them calling for the energy companies to be nationalised, the cuts to be reversed, the trains to be taken back into public ownership, the rich to be taxed more and opposition to the privatisation of the NHS to be the key message in every statement ever made by a front bench Labour politician.

The truth is that the right admonishes Labour for being 'populist' when the party supports popular left wing policies, but then demands it 'listens to its base' as soon as right wing positions are getting public traction. When criticising the rich is popular, they call for 'mature, grown up decisions'. When scapegoating the vulnerable has become a national sport, maturity can go hang.

At the core of all of this is a problem. Newspapers have a habit of reporting issues as if politics is a shopping list of salience. Immigration is a big issue today, so let's all talk about immigration. Tomorrow, maybe it's something else (though, more likely, it's immigration again). What this fails to grasp is that people understand the world through stories – tales which have cause and effect and goodies and baddies and credit, and blame, and more blame and more blame and more blame.

And when people see the world, what they experience are effects. Real things, like falling wages, rising prices, packed out classrooms, housing getting more expensive, 'foreign languages' on the train. No one experiences anything as abstract as net immigration or government fiscal policy. And so we rely on the media and politicians and our mates down the pub to help us make sense of the world we see – to tell us those stories about cause and effect and responsibility.

And this is where Labour has a serious problem. They decided not to have a full throated opposition to austerity, because they thought this was the only way to gain credibility with a Westminster media pack which, with the exception of the Financial Times and other people who actually understood economics, believed that cutting public spending was the only way out of the economic mess. This made them unable to explain what was about to happen to Britain as wages declined and public services became threadbare. It made it easier for others to sell the dubious idea that migration is the cause of these problems.

It's hard to stand up and say “it's not migrants who are putting pressure on public services, it's Tory cuts” if you've promised you won't reverse those cuts. It's tricky to say “it's not the movement of people which caused the economic collapse, it's the bankers” when you, ultimately, have an economic plan that is as dependent on speculative finance as is the coalition's.

If Labour simply confirm the story that it's migrants who are to blame for stagnant wages and deteriorating services, then people won't blame banks, tax dodgers and George Osborne. Instead, they will vote for the parties they trust most to be tough on migrants. And that's not going to be the Labour party.

If Labour start telling a new story, that the lack of space in schools is the result of the coalition cancelling “building schools for the future” the decline in living standards is the result of austerity, that our economic problems are a failure in the Thatcherite model of privatise, privatise, privatise, and that the solution is to renationalise and to tax the rich, then the polling is clear. A significant majority of British people support that sort of message.

But maybe that's too much to ask for. Labour's policy on austerity has already been laid out – they are not going to reverse the cuts. It's possibly too late to backtrack. As much as I think this is disastrous, it seems unlikely that this position will be reversed.

But there is something else in all of this which is still an opportunity for Miliband's party. Every month since January 2007, Ipsos Mori and the Economist have asked British people to list the issues which concern them most. Remarkably, every single month since December 2012, they have given the same four top issues, in the same order. And almost every month, these four have led everything else with a clear margin: The economy, immigration, unemployment, and the NHS.

The party seems a little tentative about talking about healthcare, and understandably so. It is, after all, guilty of saddling our system with PFI and internal markets. But it is the only one of these four issues on which it is more trusted than the Tories – and its lead is solid: 45% to 24%.

That trend will only increase as people realise what the coalition government has done to our most treasured national institution – and who paid them to do it. If Labour gets that story out, and repeats it, and repeats it again, and again, and again going into the election, as the right have repeated their stories about immigration, then they can do two things.

First, they can increase the salience of the NHS as an issue. Second, they can then confirm a broader narrative. When people are asked which party is only appealing to one section of the electorate rather than the whole country, or which party has the best intentions, Labour has solid leads. People still think the Tories are a party of and for the rich. The story of the sell off of the NHS is a powerful way of confirming these suspicions.

Two things seem clear from the polls: Labour will do better on economic questions if it veers rapidly to the left, because most voters are to its left. It will do better the more that it pushes the NHS as an issue. But this is about more than winning elections. If Labour lends legitimacy to the idea that it is the powerless, rather than the powerful, who are to blame for the failures of modern capitalism, then it will be doing that which it was founded to oppose. In trying to gain power, it will already have defeated itself.

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