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The left are more realistic about the working class vote than some think

Since the publication of Progress’ Class edition, and the polling that has been done through YouGov, there seems to be some confusion about how the left perceive the voting behaviour of working class people in Britain.

Reading Luke Akehurst’s fair piece on LabourList, aside from the harsh reality-check that working class voters in this country are not all egalitarian socialists, one gets a sense that the Labour left ignores this reality and pursues wrongheaded politics regardless.

I would like to challenge this myth, while exposing the dangers of going too far the other way and pursuing only a politics based on the polls of the day.

Firstly, I wonder if Akehurst has in mind writers like Owen Jones who on many occasions reminds us that Labour lost 4.9 million voters between 1997 and 2010, of which 1.6 million voters were of the C2 and DE groups. This is often used by Jones to suggest that Tony Blair’s New Labour project was perceived to be detrimental to working class people and a great number of them left as a result. But Jones does not pretend to understand what politics would necessarily unite these defectors.

Indeed he has accepted the harsh reality as well. Many of those voters have gone to the Liberal Democrats, some the British National Party and some have stopped voting altogether. This acceptance by Jones is not one which blindly asserts a radical working class – quite the opposite.

Furthermore anyone on the left who has looked at previous polling will know that what errs many people is in stark opposition to many of the progressive policies we in the Labour party stand up for. According to an Ipso Mori poll studying 2010/11 matters of political importance, immigration was more focal than the NHS, crime/law and order and unemployment.

In February 2011, from a sample of 1004 adults, 37% felt that immigration was a very big problem, 37% believed it was a problem, 16% felt it was not a very big problem and 5% felt it was not a problem at all.

Moreover it is quite obvious why Cameron has brought in Lynton Crosby and all but abandoned going into the next election with a “hug-a-hoodie” attitude. 35% of those who voted Conservative in 2010 appealed to family values over anything else, 41% voted for them on matters of traditional values (compared to just 19% for Labour) and 28% on patriotism – while only 6% voted for the Tories appealing to tolerance and diversity (which, actually, Cameron sought to highlight).

Cameron wanted to try and change his party and the electorate on some of Labour’s natural turf, like rehabilitation on crime, gay marriage and equality. That he failed at this does not then mean that Labour should never challenge the electorate to support its long-held principles.

What worries me about pieces like that of Akehurst’s is that it subscribes to a similar defeatism. Just because on the doorstop we don’t hear people singing the Internationale does not mean we have to abandon some of the principles for equality and equity that have held us together as a party for so long.

The point is not to accept contradictory messages on the doorstep, but to listen to them, acknowledge them, then challenge them from the position of a party that was set up to deliver on fairness.

As Peter Kellner from YouGov also points out in his piece for Progress Magazine:

“To observe all this is not to argue for Labour to adopt a reactionary agenda. Any attempt to abandon principle and embrace the prejudices of C2 and DE voters would be counterproductive”.

Even as Akehurst says himself in his LabourList piece:

“Some of the very stark responses that came through in the YouGov poll, such as that “among C2 and DE voters a ban on all immigration is supported by 67% to 26%”, are inconsistent both with our values as a party, and with the national interest.”

I reject the idea that the left by and large are naive to the popular support they enjoy, which seems to be Akehurst’s contention. But regardless I’d suggest that the desire by Labour to represent strong, radical ideas, is not born of delusion, but principle.

Let the Tory party be the political chameleon, saying one thing to voters then doing another. Labour should be proud to be the party that takes voters’ opinions so seriously on the doorstep that it is not afraid to dignify and challenge them.

I think we need to be clear: the Labour party is there not to serve changes that are shown through polling, but to change in order to fight for the best, and most equitable, deal for all people. This means arguing the case for immigration, gay rights, those overseas who rely on British aid and unemployment benefits. If that doesn’t tally up with what the opinion polls are saying then we must challenge that. Politics, after all, is the space where we can take up this challenge. And if we haven’t won over the electorate on our principles then we need to try harder.

3 Comments

  1. Jon Williams says:

    Should the Labour Party change policy to agree with opinion polls? Possibly yes to ensure we’re choosing policies the electorate might support. They give a very small insight into current public thoughts before elections. It would be easy to dismiss them as annoying news stories but they hold a little bit of truth not to be ignored.

  2. Solomon Hughes says:

    Kind of ridiculous questions from Progress skew the survey – if blue collar folk were going to be more “left wing”, it wouldn’t be on foreign aid : They don’t even think about asking bread and butter questions about , say, raising the minimum wage or more, better council houses.

    But the idea this survey is “bad news” for a move-left strategy is a bit absurd when the good news is that , in their polling, most people of all classes are way to the left of Progress on many economic issues: 54% of people want rail renationalised, only 24% think it is a bad idea.71% of people want worker directors on the board of companies – only 15% don’t. So there are two obviously goodd policies for Labour I expect Progress to adopt .

    Even on the tax question the news isn’t bad. They find 33% of people support “
    Increasing income tax in order to protect the current level of public services and abandon plans to cut spending”, 54% oppose. That;s close enough for me to feel you would get a positive result by asking about increasing taxes on the rich instead, I think

  3. Rob says:

    “…held us together as a party for so long.”

    Excuse me? Myself and a couple of thousand others, who resigned and watched Labour become Tory Lite, have just been dismissed in nine words as though we never existed.

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