‘How Left is Labour?’, Compass, 23 March 2015

Red Ed.  His opponents swear he is.  Some of his supporters wish to God he was.  For every Tory politician who claims that Labour has moved left under his leadership, there’s a Labour activist who only wishes that it really were the case.  Where does the truth actually lie?

Some of the rhetoric certainly sounds – or at least has sounded – radical.  This after all, is a party led by a man who thinks some businesses are predatorsrather than producers, who’s singled out particular firms – notably energy and payday loans companies – and promised to fix their prices while he ‘resets the market’, who’s repeatedly promised to do something about bankers bonuses, who’s not happy about the growth of zero-hours contracts, poverty pay, or the exploitation of cheap foreign labour, and who believes the state has a role in not only in regulating capital’s tendency toward oligopoly but even in owning and running services which have previously been privatized. That same state, he believes, should provide more free childcare and greater subsidies for those going onto higher education.

And the radicalism doesn’t stop at the economy and public services.  This, after all, is a party prepared to stop a government bent on joining the US in military strikes against Syria in its tracks.  Yet Labour has by no means abandoned its internationalism.  It remains heavily committed to overseas aid and to meeting challenging targets on climate change.  It is also absolutely wedded to the idea that the UK remain an active, even leading, member of the EU.

Labour is also far from conservative on the constitution.  Officially at least, it is also determined to democratize Westminster’s archaic second chamber, to consider reforms to the electoral system, and to preside over an unprecedented devolution of power (and presumably spending) from national to local government.

Have voters noticed?  To some extent, yes.  YouGov regularly asks voters to place themselves, the parties and the party leaders on a scale running from minus one-hundred (very left-wing) through zero (dead centre) to plus one-hundred (very right-wing). Ed Miliband is seen as considerably more left-wing than Gordon Brown and much more so than Tony Blair.  And Labour as a whole is seen to have shifted a little more to the left than it was in 2010.

But the shift isn’t that great – and in some recent surveys, it appears to be thought of as a little more centrist of late.  Whether this has got anything to do with Labour’s underlying shift to the right on immigration (courtesy of Yvette Cooper) and, with the symbolic exception of the bedroom tax, on welfare(courtesy of Rachel Reeves), is a moot point.  But, whatever, it may be no bad thing.  It doesn’t do Labour any harm that the Tories are seen as significantly more right-wing than Labour is seen as left-wing (the latest figures are +51 vs -36), but as a general election approaches, it doesn’t do to be stranded too far from the average voter (on -7).

Miliband, incidentally, is seen as slightly more left-wing than Labour as a whole, in contrast to Cameron, who is seen as slightly more centrist than the Conservatives – one reason (among many, say his critics) why Ed, unlike Dave, is perceived as a liability rather than an asset to his party.

On the other hand, the fact that voters seem to think that Labour (and Ed) has shifted marginally in their direction recently might be a legitimate cause for concern for activists, confirming fears that some of Labour’s (and Ed’s) radical rhetoric isn’t be matched by the reality of its manifesto offer.  The Tories and their supporters in the media might be desperate to pin the anti-business charge on Miliband, but Labour has been making serious efforts recently to mend fences. We’ll still hear something about bankers’ bonuses in the election, but anyone expecting a Labour government to break up the banks might have a long wait.

The same goes for serious constitutional reform – and probably for devolution, which always looks more attractive when you haven’t got your hands on the levers of power than when you have.  And given the party’s support for the fast-tracking of the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers (DRIP) Act last year, as well its harrying of the government over the abolition of control orders, civil liberties campaigners should expect much either. Moreover, anyone hoping to see some movement on Trident, which includes many of Labour’s parliamentary candidates, shouldn’t expect anything at all.

Even on the NHS and social care, which Labour will be campaigning hard on up until May, you have to wonder whether Ed is guilty of willing the ends but not the means.  Certainly, the additional funding coming from various revenue-raising gimmicks announced won’t be anywhere near enough to plug the looming gap between demand and supply.  Indeed, if there is one area in which his oft-expressed desire to ‘under-promise’ and ‘over-deliver’ risks going unfulfilled, this is surely it.

Still, all campaigns are a trade-off between inspiring core supporters and reassuring floating voters. We’ll see on 7 May whether Ed – Red or otherwise – has got that balance right. If he hasn’t, he’s toast.  And even if he has, he’s bound to find that getting it right in opposition is a whole lot easier than it is in office.

[Originally published at http://www.compassonline.org.uk/how-left-is-labour/]


About tpbale

I teach politics at Queen Mary University of London.
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