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The Left needs to unpack what “Electability” really means

Blair-ClintonThe candidacy of Jeremy Corbyn for the Labour Party leadership has stimulated the party’s old debate surrounding the Left and “electability”: supporters of the Islington North MP claim that elections are won by a clear and confident statement of one’s ideas, whilst opponents universally claim that elections are won, always and in any circumstance, by limitless and feral Right-wingery, which is referred to as occupying the “centre ground”.

The version of history used to support the latter claim is often selective and disingenuous: New Labour is portrayed as Labour’s first attempt at a “centre-ground” strategy, rather than a third attempt after two instances of abject failure under Neil Kinnock, the original “moderniser”. Forgotten, too, is the way in which Labour’s long-term demographic base and its reservoir of public good will were steady and disastrously eroded by the same Blairite/Brownite political machine that had successfully delivered the goods in 1997.

But if the Right is disingenuous, the Left has its own duplicity – the Labour Left oscillates between claiming that Labour would do better by clarifying and sharpening its platform, and on the other hand attributing failures to media hostility and other structural and incidental forces which align themselves against Left-wing contenders. It’s time to commit unequivocally to one of these two analyses. Sadly, I feel that the accurate view is the second: it is much, much harder to win elections from a Left-wing position than from a Right-wing one.

There is no evidence that this reality represents real, organic support among the populace for the neo-liberal status quo. Opinion polls are a less-than-perfect method of informing oneself about the public, but surveys do show crushingly overwhelming majorities in favour of sweeping renationalisation, rent control, tax rises and all manner of other Labour-Left policies which are somehow still considered to be election-losers. It is difficult to believe that huge numbers of people are lying to pollsters about something as socially un-charged as whether they believe Network Rail should be state-run.

What gives? Why did Andy Burnham recently describe the mansion tax, a policy supported by over 70% of voters and opposed by around 10%, as “politically toxic”? The truth is that “electability” is mainly a measure of one’s popularity with wealthy and hugely influential political and economic elites.

The first major way in which this influence manifests itself is through the party funding system. It cannot be pointed out enough times, and indeed has not been: the Conservative Party had a three-to-one advantage over Labour at the last election in terms of funding (garnished, naturally, with a generous self-helping of taxpayers’ money).

It is fatuous to pretend that spending by political parties is somehow unimportant to democratic outcomes. If it were then parties would not, after all, be so assiduous in courting donors. Money provides campaign organisers, equips the foot-soldiers with decent-quality campaign literature, pays for advertising, pays to move activists where they need to be, pays for decent data-modelling that lets you find your voters and get them down to the polls; quite simply, a political party is made first and foremost of money, and this is especially true when all the major UK parties are down to a skeletal level of voluntary membership.

The second major facet of elite influence is better-discussed, but highly controversial: it needs to be stated that the media does, quite definitely, play a key role in managing the outcome of votes. This argument is generally portrayed as a snobbish vote of contempt in the British public, and in particular working-class voters (who, incidentally, continue to vote Labour at higher rates than they vote Conservative, with the opposite being true of middle-class voters). It need not be any such thing. Political parties are advantaged when they have easy access to a pre-existing mass communication infrastructure to express their arguments, and are disadvantaged when they do not. Again, the proof is in the pudding: if the media were not pivotal, politicians would not fall over themselves to woo its owners, who are, by and large, billionaires who resent taxation and supervision.

People make the best choices they can with the information made available to them, but it would be quixotic in the extreme to claim that voters are so engaged and so ingenious as to intuit complex, multi-layered and counter-intuitive truths which are never so much as hinted at in the vast majority of media coverage. Much more than intelligence or education, it’s a question of engagement, and the reasons for voter disengagement are numerous and largely honourable. To acknowledge all of this is not anti-democratic, though it may raise questions about the particular permutation of institutions and conventions which currently constitute democracy in the British Isles.

It is understandably uncomfortable to many to suggest that public opinion can in any way be corralled or managed by powerful groups whose interests diverge from those of voters at large. The fact is that it can be, and it is, in every society on Earth. We already acknowledge this, albeit tacitly: when Yvette Cooper says that Labour needs to “reset” its “positive relationship with business” to win elections, she isn’t claiming that millions of voters will consciously modify their voting preferences in line with the recommendations of Richard Branson and Duncan Bannatyne.

We must be entirely honest about the scale of the problem. In the unlikely event, for instance, that Jeremy Corbyn is elected Labour leader, it will be extremely difficult for him to become Prime Minister. And as we see in Greece, where a recently elected Left-wing administration is battling to stave off a coup d’état by forces of global finance, arriving in government only worsens the disadvantage: to the hostility of domestic elites is added that of mighty supranational institutions. When we acknowledge this, we can articulate the reason why fighting and winning on a Left-wing platform is still worth doing – namely, that the alternative is capitulation in the face of oligarchy.


  1. gerry says:

    Max – interesting article: you say that polls say that lots of left policies are supported, but those same polls also say that lots of right wing policies are very popular too – benefit cuts,benefit caps, reduced immigration, a referendum on Europe, no tax rises, right to buy…and when it comes to actual votes in general elections, voters choose to prioritise those right wing policies – overall – than left ones

    New Labour’s success was in neutralising Tory leads on the economy and crime – we promised to stick to John Major’s spending plans for 2 years after winning in 1997, a masterstroke in neutralising Tory “tax and spend” jibes, which up till then had been deadly effective for 20 years.

    Electability is down to voter perception too – and without doubt since the mid 1970s the perception of most C2 skilled workers and older voters has been that parties of the Right – Tory, UKIP, Alliance in the 1980s when there were clear Left/right divides on offer in 1983 and 1987 – were more in tune with what they wanted.

    And in 2010 and 2015 they have reverted to voting Right, after three elections when Labour successfully appealed to them. Until he reveals some hitherto unknown strategy to connect with these demographics, then Jeremy Corbyn will be blown out the water electorally by these working class voters.

  2. swatantra says:

    Its a good article. The way I see it is that Politics does not operate in a vacuum, although the Left of the Labour Party does. The Tories are pretty good at detecting the changes and which way the wind is blowing and acting on it; they tend to go with the flow, whereas the Left are stuck firmly in their strait jackets and refuse to see the wood for the tree; they Left rather than being ruled by principles are in fact ruled more by dogma and ideology; they have a fixed vision of the world; unfortunately for them the world is changing at such a pace that societies and communities are being transformed not in a generation but virtually overnight. And that’s where pragmatism must be introduced into the equation. People are finding it difficult to cope with the rapid change; that’s why thy turn to UKIP and other protest Parties which offer quick solutions, not necessarily the right solutions. The trouble with Labour at the moment is that it is offering no solutions. The people are crying out for solutions, not more problems.
    Its often been said that Labour is only successful in Govt when it comes in and the economy is doing well, or when the Tories are going through periodic internal crises like in ’64 and ’97.
    I don’t think Labour has ever been successful at turning around a poor economy into a good economy.

  3. Robert says:

    Labour is not needed the Tories are a better bet and are to the right, and if the careerist politician win again in labour leadership then sadly I cannot see labour being needed until the Tories look tired and are in a mess, but people will remember then what mess labour had when in power.

    Actually labour are back to where they have always been, trying to offer the Tory swing voters something while losing the grass-roots , which means it has a yoyo time of politics and the fact is we do not need labour or the drones that are now on offer for the leadership, and I exclude Corbyn from that, we have two Blair-rite and a Progress drone.

    And to be honest our new Chancellor is a total unknown ans so far sounds he is to the right,where as Osborne is looking far better.

    Seen it all before on the left and the right once the Tories get in and then look tired have nothing to offer or have a bad down turn labour may be trusted for a term or two or maybe not.

    Time for Progress to come to the for and take the party to the right maybe the Progress party, and then labour can rebuild. Mandelson for chairman

  4. swatantra says:

    I’m getting a bit fed up with people having a go at ‘career politicians’ including myself. Surely if your GCH broke down you’d want a professional skilled engineer to come round and fix it, not some smart alec you met in the pub who used to make Airfix models when he was a lad. We don’t want amateurs taking decisions of life and death which affect us all at Westminster. We
    want people who know about politics and have the nouance to make it work for the people we represent ie the ordinary people who work 24 hrs a day and can’t have weekends off like MPs and their infinite recesses, more hot dinners than Bank Holidays.
    But we certainly don’t want people who think that living off their Parliamentary salaries from the age of 25 – 79, without having had a proper job, and life experience, because they calculate they are better off at Westminster than being on benefits. There are quite a few MPs like that still around unfortunately. Serving your country should be a vocation, not an easy job for life.
    At the end of your stint of 3 Terms, you should actually be out of pocket with loans and debts to pay, not sitting on £60m.

  5. Mukkinese says:

    I largely agree with the article and laughed out loud at the comments which buy into the idea that the majority of voters want the Tories who, apparently, are economically competent. This despite the performance of the past five years. The Tories are tolerated because of perceived economic competence.

    It is “the economy stupid”, no doubt about that now, but the new Labour leader wannabes need to realise that simply capitulating to the Tory story on the economy is foolish.

    Who is going to vote for a party that declares itself economically incompetent?

    Labour, particularly Brown were exceptionally good with the economy. Unfortunately, averting one international credit crunch when selling off gold reserves, seemed to make Brown somewhat complacent to the risks that the bankers and financial sector kept on taking, despite their close call. The press, predictably, ignored his triumph on this and declared he sold the gold at below market value for some unknown “mad” reason.

    All this mad gambling cheered on by the “economically competent” Tories at the time and they have done little to change things in this regard.

    That would be the same “economically competent Tories” that now condemn Labour for spending too much, even though, at the time, they promised to match those spending levels “penny for penny”.

    The same “economically competent” Tories that inherited a recovery with modest, but real growth and then, despite very many economists, including at least four Nobel laureates, telling them that austerity would likely put that recovery at risk, still went ahead with their austerity plans anyway.

    Not only did the recovery stop, for eighteen costly months, the OBR confirming last year that Osborne’s austerity measures were the biggest factor in that, but when the economy finally began to recover the Tories were lauded as our economic saviours.

    And the gullible lap it up…

  6. John P Reid says:

    Although Neil kinnock failed to win the election, the loony left in 1987 ,deatoryed any chance to gain the ground in 1987′ let’s look at what kinnock did increase labour a vote from 8.4m to 10m ,then to 11.5m (which incidentally was more than Wilson got when he won in Oct 1974)’ but the damage of 1983 was so bad that it was impossible to win in 1987 or 1992

  7. swatantra says:

    Not often you see a serial adulterer and a warmonger pictured together.

  8. Barry Ewart says:

    Labour would have won in 1997 anyway with John Smith or whoever and the New Labour/SDP may never have been although the forces were there in Labour to support it (and with ‘Progress’ still are).
    The rich and powerful soon saw that New Labour was no threat to their power and only offered crumbs to working class people and billions for example were given in tax credits to subsidise poverty pay (and this upper class welfare to aid profits would have pleased the bosses) as New Labour continued Neo-Liberalism with gusto and most importantly were policing the Labour Party and to an extent trade unions as they took power from grassroots members and for themselves – a top down Labour.
    Labour under New Labour CONTROL won 3 elections but WE didn’t win power.
    Some talk as if we must accept people as they are and appeal to what is and it doesn’t appear to enter their heads that we are a political party capable of promoting political education to try to win people to helping to build a dynamic, caring more equal and more progressive society.
    Labour should be a crusade, to nurture a society (and World) of critical thinkers, to try to win the millions who have given up and don’t vote (15.9m) – the more people who are politically aware the stronger we are (sadly at present many millions probably think they are all the same) and the millions we lost over the Iraq War and the millions we lost with New Labour neglecting working class communities which left a vacuum.
    We need to be honest and argue simply and clearly for what we belive in (and we have to be honest, the left has often used language only for insiders).
    My simple rule is could you take an idea (in the language you use) to discuss on the high street, on estates, to the workplace?
    Of course the Tories and right wing media will want Corbyn because they can slur and vilify him (like for example they do with migrants) and exaggerate and distort to misinform mainly the general middle class so they vote for them by appealing to the prejudices they have sewn.
    We need to try to reach the ‘given ups’, appeal to working class people, the progressive middle class, and to try to politicise the general middle class to try to win them to the progressive middle class.
    So we should support Corbyn plus get resolutions to the NEC etc. to: get power back to members at Conference re policy making, CLPs to be allowed to choose their own Parliamentary shortlists, and positive working class action to get more working class democratic socialist Parliamentary candidates (social classes 3-6) on Parliamentary shortlists.
    With Corbyn hopefully it’s an alternative to Neo-Liberalism but with the others it’s probably more of the same.
    I belive grassroots and bottom up Labour democracy is the future and to quote the Greeks (hopefully)
    ‘Hope is coming.’

  9. Matty says:

    What is electability? – the result of today’s Greek referendum where a Marxist PM has won 61% of the vote on a “suicidal” platform should make people think.

  10. Mervyn Hyde says:

    What I say is if Jeremy doesn’t win then I for one won’t support Labour, why should I, they will only carry out Tory Policies, the very thing I am opposed to.

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