Left-wing party manifestos fail to deliver electoral wins despite the popularity of their individual components because voters are smart enough to realise that promising the moon on a stick is not realistic
One self-deceiving mantra that we hear time and again from the Labour and the British Left is that people supposedly love individual left-wing policies but fail to vote Labour in the same numbers, and that if only they change X, Y or Z then the public will fall in love with the great package deal of free stuff + no responsibility and usher in a perpetual era of socialist government.
Currently, the excuse for failure is Jeremy Corbyn, and a number of leftist activists are busy consoling themselves that the Labour leader’s reputation is the only problem. Swap him out and keep the same policies, the self-deception goes, and everyone will suddenly start clamouring to vote Labour at all times.
How many times have we heard the likes of Polly Toynbee sanctimoniously declaring in a TV news debate that people “overwhelmingly” support left-wing policies like the renationalisation of the railways and the utilities sectors, hiking taxes on “the rich” or funnelling ever-increasing sums of money toward “Our NHS”? Too many to count.
And yes, certain individual policies can be very popular, particularly left-wing ones. If you prance around promising more stuff for less money – better public services, faster healthcare, higher welfare payments, all conveniently paid for by somebody else – you are bound to pick up a number of gullible admirers. But more importantly, when pollsters test the appeal of individual policies, people are likely to be very warm to left-wing, redistributive ideas when they are named individually.
It is only when you look at the systemic effect of implementing a basket of left-wing policies all at once that the appeal begins to wear off, as people engage more deeply with the question and the shine starts to come off the socialist Utopia. You might be able to convince voters that a punitive tax raid on the most productive people in society will cobble together enough money for one shiny new government programme, but when you start spending the revenues from that same tax hike multiple times and promising to do fifteen wonderful things with the same small pot of cash, that’s when voters’ natural scepticism kicks in.
Here’s the Guardian, falling into the same trap:
Renationalising the railways was backed by 52% of voters, with 22% opposed and 26% saying they did not know. Nationalising the energy market was supported by 49% with 24% against and 28% saying they did not know.
Labour’s most popular policy among those surveyed was banning zero-hours contracts, with 71% in favour and 16% against.
Despite the strong support for the party’s policies, only 30% agreed with the sentiment that Corbyn should be given a fair chance at leading the country, while 56% said he would be a “disaster” as prime minister.
And the Mirror, doubling down:
There is also widespread support for increasing income tax on those earning more than £80,000 a year.
This is backed by 65% of voters, with just 24% opposed.
A small majority (51%) of Tories also support the policy as do 80% of Labour voters, 72% of Lib Dems and 69% of UKIP voters.
Labour’s pledge to limit the state pension age to 66 is supported 74% of voters, with 15% against and 11% don’t know.
Again this policy goes down well with Tory voters, with 67% of them supporting it and just 22% against.
Here’s Manuel Cortes banging the drum at LabourList:
Make no mistake, Labour’s programme is transformative in a way not seen since 1945 or, Thatcher’s counter-revolution. We know our policies are overwhelmingly popular. Our challenge between now and June 8, is to turn the debate in our country away from Brexit onto the bread and butter issues which our policies tackle.
The polls tell us this will be a Herculean task but they are also saying that our manifesto commitments, on a raft of issues, have huge majorities in favour.
Meanwhile, Josiah Mortimer at Left Foot Forward at least recognises that voter preference is more complex than approval for a basket of individual policies, but still manages to miss the point:
It begs the question: if voters agree with most of Labour’s headline policies – what’s going wrong?
The latest poll of polls has Labour on around 30% – 16 percentage points behind the Conservatives. It’s a divide that makes sense only if you understand politics as being about much more than policies – but leadership, and above that: presentation of those policies and that leadership.
There are of course the usual misgivings over Jeremy Corbyn’s qualities as a statesman (56% say they think he would be ‘a disaster’ as Prime Minister while 30% think he should be given a ‘fair chance at leading the country’).
But beyond that, there is the issue of presentation. It’s been said time and again that Labour’s current policies aren’t significantly to the left of his predecessor (‘warmed up Millibandism’). From renationalising the railways and ending private involvement in the NHS, to prioritising council housing and clamping down on the energy companies: all this has been done and said before.
But it often feels that the left do ourselves few favours – in presenting policies as more radical than they really are – and voters do perceive Corbyn as much more left-wing than he is: with 0 being effectively a communist, and 10 being the most right-wing, voters put Corbyn at 2.2, and Labour at 3.
But the discrepancy between individual policy popularity and overall opinion poll performance is due to more than the “Corbyn effect”, and it is disingenuous of the Guardian and other left-wing media to pretend otherwise.
We see similar enthusiasm gaps between individual left-wing policies and overall voting intention throughout recent British political history – support for rail renationalisation has been high since the railways were privatised – and also in the United States, where Democrats love to crow that many voters actually support their high-taxing, pro-union, pro-redistribution policies only to be disappointed on election day when conservative Republicans keep being elected to various levels of public office.
But many leftists genuinely seem to struggle with this notion. To their minds, if one promises one wonderful free thing after another, the cumulative effect will be enormous and should result in nothing but a Labour landslide in the general election. They make no allowance for the diminishing returns of left-wing fiscal incontinence, or realise that each further promise makes the complete package less believable rather than more.
Owen Jones actually gets closer to the truth, admitting to Varsity:
However, Jones is quick to point out that popular policies aren’t enough saying “individual policies don’t win elections, you need a clear vision to inspire people in terms of what you’re going to do.”
As has been noted, Labour’s recent policies are indeed electorally very popular. You don’t win elections, though, with policies that – taken individually – have high levels of support, as Ed Miliband discovered. There has to be a vision to bring them together. If you don’t define what you are for, you will be defined by your opponents, already the critical problem afflicting Labour’s leadership. You need a sunny, optimistic vision, not a miserable shaking of the stick at everything that’s wrong.
Jones is right and wrong here. A vision certainly helps. However, the Tories have just launched their 2017 general election manifesto which contains no discernible vision or philosophy of government at all, beyond a final repudiation of Thatcherism, a spiteful kick at libertarianism and a pledge to make random gestures to the Just About Managing (JAMs) by pinching from the Labour playbook.
This blog certainly wishes that it were otherwise; that Theresa May had decided to fight the 2017 general election on an unapologetically small-government, conservative platform – particularly since electoral victory is all but guaranteed, together with the opportunity to reshape the country if only the political will was there. But the Conservatives’ imminent victory is proof that one does not need a logical set of policies or a coherent philosophy of government in order to win support.
If anything, the problem is that many voters know the left-wing vision only too well, and simply want nothing to do with it. Jeremy Corbyn may be bad at communicating an appealing left-wing worldview, sometimes couching even relatively pedestrian policies in the off-putting language of revolutionary struggle, but his predecessor Ed Miliband was as bland as bland can be, and still nobody took the bait. Likewise, since leaving office the heavy fisted Gordon Brown has developed a talent for giving angry TED-style intervention speeches at crucial political junctures, but he too was unable to sell an attractive, convincing left-wing vision to voters tired of centre-left New Labour rule.
The problem is not that the left-wing vision does not exist, or lacks decent salespeople to pitch it. The problem is that people who know it tend to dislike it. Envy of the rich, a desire to tear the successful down rather than build the underprivileged up, a seething antipathy to business and entrepreneurship, the stubborn insistence on inviting the government deep into the private lives of every citizen, treating half the country as perpetually helpless and “vulnerable” people in need of constant nurturing by the state, endless moralising about being the sole keepers of compassion, and now the embrace of toxic and divisive identity politics – there is no confusion about what Labour stands for, only dislike ranging from mild indifference to complete revulsion.
Unfortunately, though, these beliefs and attitudes run deep through the political Left. Even when voters like a particular individual Labour policy they are too often unconvinced to give Labour their vote because they rightly perceive that the policy is borne from the wrong motives.
Labour could promise to cut income tax to zero for everybody earning below £50,000 and throw in a £10k rebate on top, funded by punitive taxes on millionaires and confiscatory wealth taxes on assets, which would be a hugely popular policy, but they will not persuade an election-winning coalition of voters to back them based on it because in the back of their minds, voters know that even if they are to personally benefit from one of Labour’s pie-in-the-sky ideas, everybody will suffer – themselves included – when they quickly succeed in driving the country into the ground.
Hard as it is for some on the Left to believe, voters sometimes actually appreciate it when political parties level with them rather than endlessly trying to flatter and bribe them with “free” stuff. It was a Democratic president, John F. Kennedy, who exhorted his fellow citizens to ask what they could do for their country rather than what their country could do for them. Somewhere along the way, on both sides of the Atlantic, the Left seems to have lost this spirit, and replaced it with the gnawing certainty that voters want a shopping list of bribes, a promise to be perpetually looked after by the state and alleviated of all responsibility for their lives.
Fortunately this is not the view of most voters, which is why the Labour Party and the British people look set to continue talking past one another, on June 8 and into the future.
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