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Is Labour a campaigning party, or one that follows public opinion?

Vote key on keyboard pollingI had the pleasure of working with Deborah Mattinson during the 1987 and 1992 election campaigns when she undertook qualitative polling for the Labour Party. She was expert in interpreting what could be gleaned from focus groups, and those running the campaign, myself included, always listened attentively to what she had to say.

Politicians always listen carefully to what the pollsters tell them; indeed, it could argued that they are inclined to pay too much attention to poll findings, particularly in the middle of election campaigns when the apparent precision of the figures (if not of the facts behind them) can seem to be the only certain element in an uncertain world.

The problem for both politicians and pollsters, however, is that – even if the pollsters can accurately report what the voters are thinking (and they usually make a pretty good fist of that) – it is not at all clear what lessons should be drawn from that by the politicians.

The pollsters’ message may seem clear. They may report, for example, that the voters see the party as strong on issue X and weak on issue Y – but does that mean that the politicians should concentrate on issue X, to maximise their advantage, or should they make some effort to minimise or negate the handicap on issue Y? And if the latter, does that mean that they should change policy to align more closely with the voters’ perceptions or should they make a greater effort to persuade the voters of the merits of their policy on issue Y?

Much will depend on when, during the electoral cycle, the poll findings are reported. With a year or two to go, a change of policy or an increased effort to change public opinion on a given issue may make sense. But those are less sensible options during the campaign itself.

What all this means is that we should have no difficulty in accepting Deborah Mattinson’s assertions that Labour lost the last election because it was not trusted on the economy and did not do enough to change voter perceptions that the responsibility for the Global Financial Crisis should be laid at Labour’s door. The poll findings are all too clear.

The difficult part of the argument, however, is what should be Labour’s response to those factors? Should they concede management of the economy as territory inevitably held by their opponents, make no effort to counteract the false charge that they created the GFC, and concentrate instead on social and environmental issues that offer more promising terrain, which is roughly where the 2015 campaign ended up? Or do they face up to their problem (and the centrality of the economy as an issue in the minds of many voters) by either changing policy or the voters’ minds?

The pollsters’ answer to such questions is almost always the same; poll-driven politics seem to dictate that it is policy that must adapt to voters’ opinions, and not the other way round. That is why many in the Labour party will urge that, far from challenging Tory economic policy, the only path to electoral salvation lies in developing policy that looks more and more like current right-wing orthodoxy.

But that response is open to serious objection. A pale imitation will almost always be rejected in favour of the real thing. Why should the voters go for “Tory-lite” when it can only be seen as a reluctant and therefore unconvincing confirmation that no real alternative is available.

Even more seriously, where does that leave the whole thrust and purpose of left-of-centre politics? What would those who championed social justice, workers’ rights, full employment, public services have achieved if they had forsworn any attempt to change opinion? Is it not the role of those who believe that a better society is possible to challenge and change opinion and to do so by argument, debate and campaigning?

The pollsters’ message is in danger, in other words, of disabling any real attempt to bring about overdue change. And nowhere is this more urgently needed than in the management of the economy. If we want a healthier society and a more inclusive economy, a proper role for government, and a reversal of growing inequality, then we must argue for them and show how they can be achieved.

That is not a hopeless task. But it cannot be achieved if it is never attempted. The voters will never accept that what see today is not the best we can expect if they are never told anything different.

And it is not as though the time is not propitious. There is a growing body of expert and informed opinion that is clear that government can and should play a role other than simply imposing austerity, that inequality is the sign of a malfunctioning economy, that full employment is both desirable and achievable, that the deficit that really counts is not the government’s but the country’s.

How sad if Labour’s courage should fail it, so that it lags behind progressive opinion, just as a new mainstream is developing. A campaigning party has four years in which to persuade public opinion that their lives can be better than they are now. They should go to it.

This article first appeared at Bryan Gould’s blog


  1. swatantra says:

    There are some in the Party Bryan who would have Labour a Party in continual protest.
    But I’m no one of them. Sometimes, we have to shoulder the burden of responsibility and take the difficult decisions., and not leave them to others

    1. John Penney says:

      You certainly parrot the mass media/Blairite “Austerity is the only way narrative” continuously , swatantra. What you of course mean by “taking the difficult decisions” is for Labour to be yet another party promising to enforce the economically bogus and viciously pro superrich policy of “Austerity”. This is precisely the strategy which has utterly destroyed Labour in Scotland – utterly outflanked to the Left by the cynical SNP – in promises and rhetoric at least.

      Your contributions on this site are always no more than neoliberal/Blairite trolling swatantra.

      Bryan Gould is of course absolutely correct – a serious Let of Centre party needs to offer radical policies which challenge the dominant neoliberal pro austerity narrative – not just because the uusterity narrative is viciously damafging to the most vulnerable in society , but also because the deflationary Austerity politics of the Tories, the coalition and Blairite Labour is simply economic nonsense – repeating all the catastrophic recession-deepening economic mistakes of the 1930’s.

      1. swatantra says:

        Any Party that chooses to ignore Public Opinion does so at their peril. Usually the Public have a knack for hitting on what they consider right or wrong, and its not always put in their minds by the notorious right wing Press and Media. They come to a view about certain issues of right and wrong, and Labour must not dismiss their concern out of turn, in a condescending way, but try to unpick those genuine concerns and worries.
        Labour failed to do that on the Economy and EU Migration last time and basically put their backs up We were not trusted. The Public see Labour as a profligate Party How do we dispel that image and notion? By pointing to the actual facts That we spend money to invest?. That we do not throw good money after bad? That we are indeed prudent with our spending plans. That every penny is accounted for?

        1. John Penney says:

          I love the way so many Blairites , like the persistent Labour Right Trollers , swatantra and John P Reid on here , treat “Public Opinion” as if it is a spontaneously emerging collective “hive mind” conclusion by “the General Public” on key issues.

          The reality is of course as far from this as could possibly be. One doesn’t have to be a Marxist , just vaguely politically/sociologically aware, to understand that the entirely billionaire owned and controlled mass media works every hour of every day to shape and reinforce the key elements of “public Opinion common sense” which serve to distort most people’s understanding of how a capitalist society works, and who their real enemy’s are.

          Of course it is in the careerist, Big Business kow-towing interests of the Labour Right to misrepresent the worst features of this constant indoctrination process as something that has to be accepted as the spontaneous viewpoint of “public opinion”. Unfortunately for the Labour Right the harsh realities of the neoliberal Austerity Offensive is nowadays ever more obviously causing masses of people to see through all the daily bullshit spewed out to divide the working class and secure support for the entirely superrich benefitting Austerity con trick .

          That is why the SNP, with its bogus, but widely believed Left of Scottish Labour policy narrative has utterly crucified Labour in Scotland, and why the hugely increased post May 2015 Labour Party membership has decisively shifted Leftwards , with a radical Left (reformist) new leader in Jeremy.

          All you Right Blairites and also mildly Leftish perennial accomodationists with the Right ,posting on this site , are trapped in the mindset of the neoliberal ideological hegemony domination of the last 30 years – in which the long UK economic boom based on a series of debt and property bubbles , gave overwhelming mass credence to the lies and distortions daily peddled by the mass media. Today that almost universal dominance of the pro neoliberal “Public Opinion” is starting to break down under the hammer blows of mass impoverishment. The petty nationalism and cod Leftish radicalism of the SNP in Scotland, and the rise of the Corbynite Surge within Labour (and unfortunately the rise of UKIP, and the much nastier Far Right across Europe) are harbingers of a much more febrile “public Opinion” in the years ahead.

          Labour in 2015 (despite the ludicrous claim now that Labour had “left wing” policies in its Manifesto) , and in its strategy today amongst the Labour Right/Blue Labourists , wants to simply cravenly follow the most reactionary short term vote winning policies out there amongst voters , eg, petty nationalism, anti migrant phobia, scapegoating of welfare recipients, and on it goes – mimicking the Tories. This is a route to oblivion for Labour, just as it killed Labour stone dead in Scotland. The policy future for Labour, if it doesn’t want to be left dead in the water across the UK , as it is in Scotland, as the New Labour-like PASOK was in Greece was, is to be “ahead of the political sea change curve” with a radically reforming Left Keynsian, interventionist, policy bundle that actually offers a real prospect of positive change for a mass public facing a permanent future of deepening poverty under the increasingly discredited unending Austerity offensive .

          1. John P Reid says:

            On a website called left futures for the Labour Party, why would being in the tight of the Labour Party, make one a trolley,
            By the way I backed Ed miliband for leader,canvassed hard for livingstone 4 times,and am anti the EU trident renewal, Swat,backed Jeremy for leader,doesn’t believe in a two state solution for the Middle East.

      2. John P Reid says:

        Didnt Swat back Jeremy for leader

        1. John Penney says:

          Errr, perhaps because the Blairite neoliberal Right of the Labour party are not in any shape or form actually on the political Left, John. They are just in the Labour Party – a broad church as always. The neoliberal narrative that you spout in your every post (and I have no interest in the psychological motivation for Swatantra apparently backing Jeremy for Leader . A bizarre choice for Swatantra if true given his (her ?) politics – masochism ? ), means that your posts just habitually disrupt a sensible discussion of Labour Leftwingers about the way forward. ie it is therefore disruptive Trolling. There are alternative forums for the non socialist Labour Right to discuss the neoliberal way forward.

          I fail to see how a vote for Ed as Labour Leader was a “Left” preference. He wasn’t actually “Red Ed” you know.

          1. john P reid says:

            I’m sure you’ll take this as trolling,but you can be on the right of the labour party and be against Neo liberalism, The Co-op, blue labour for instance

            and I’m sure you can be in favour of certain left wing things, scrapping trident renewal, or leaving the EU,traditoinally associated with the far left an be neo liberal, in the labour party,

            I wasn’t sure that left futures was just about discussions, as the article implies is labour a campaigning party or just following public opinion, the latter would imply just discussing and agreeing among ourselves

    2. Verity says:

      The article may be worth a re-read because I thought the author was arguing that we would not win by mimicking others. No one would believe us. So by adopting an essentially Conservative perspective would leave us as a looser as well a being non – protesters.

  2. David Pavett says:

    I agree with Bryan Gould. It is stunning how deeply the culture of “we can’t say that because the polls show we will lose votes” has become within Labour. And I am not just talking about MPs and apparatchiks but ordinary members too. It shows the extent to which commitment to believing that we have a mission to change society in any fundamental way has been squeezed out of general discourse.

    That is why we have a hard battle ahead to change that culture and, as Jeremy Corbyn has said, it can’t be done by small numbers of people in small rooms. Neither can it be achieved on a secure basis with manipulative techniques which try to get results which are neither understood or even known about by the majority of members (control freakery is not only a right-wing phenomenon).

    A genuinely radical party has the task of shifting public opinion and not merely reflecting it. That is part of what is involved in believing in a different order of society.

    1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

      I hate this quote; in fact hate this whole book; mostly because for it resonates so strongly with and offers such a feasible analysis of, the current debased state that British politics is now in and particularly the all but completely defunct British Labor party at a time when country has never need it more desperately.

      “Voting, we might even say, is the next to last refuge of the politically impotent. The last refuge is, of course, giving your opinion to a pollster, who will get a version of it through a desiccated question, and then will submerge it in a Niagara of similar opinions, and convert them into–what else?–another piece of news. Thus we have here a great loop of impotence: The news elicits from you a variety of opinions about which you can do nothing except to offer them as more news, about which you can do nothing.”

      ― Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business

  3. Back in the day when Bryan was involved in the soft left in the form of the Labour Co-ordinating Committee, this question was aired repeatedly, and the answer is dialectical. Any party that ignores public opinion is doomed to be a sect. There are plenty of these, and some are trying to get into the Labour Party at the moment.

    But the other side of the argument is trying to follow public opinion to win votes. There has to be a core of belief that you defend, and this identifies you. Our battle with Kinnock was just to set this out, against Mandleson and company who argued for a focus group led party.

    The outcome was as Philip Gould says in his book, New Labour changed politics “for ever”. In actual fact for 8 years, 1995-2003. The result was that Labour lost its identity. The three parties who had a strong image in 2015 got increases in votes -Tories, SNP, UKIP. The three that didn’t were Labour, Green and Lib Dems- though Labour and Greens did get marginal increases, polls show clearly that voters did not know what they stood for Labour only polled well in the big cities.

    The dialectic is hardly ever about policy. it is about identity. New Labour’s mistake was not being the party of ordinary people. As Ken Spours says in his pamphlet about Osbourne, the Tories can now pose as the blue collar worker party

    If the hard left think this is a question of policy, and ignoring public opinion, Labour is headed for the wilderness. Ordinary people have to feel Labour is the party that Represents them. How is always going to be controversial, but the Blair party of big business is a non starter

    As the election results after 2001 show.

    Trevor Fisher

    1. David Pavett says:

      Trevor, I have no fundamental disagreement with what you say but I would put a different emphasis.

      It would be idiotic not to take current public opinion, in so far as it can be known, into account.

      It would also be unprincipled not to analyse the problems of society on their own merits irrespective of current public opinion. These two strands then need to be brought together by carefully thought through short, medium and long term objectives which are then put in a way that can connect with public opinion while at the same time shifting it.

      This would give real meaning to the “art of the possible” and is something that Labour has never yet attempted.

      1. John P Reid says:

        But as Deborah Mathison says the Beckett report, thinks, the mansion tax,and the 50p higher tax were popular with the public, I know people who voted for Jeremy,who feel that the higher rate of tax, would drive away business,not bring in,in come, and the mansion tax, would put up, house prices in London, for average income earners,

        As for following popular opinion, it hadn’t been defined, having a EU referendum, drove away potential, voters,as does labours current policy of not emailing members saying they can campaign to vote Leave,

      2. Peter Rowlands says:

        Both David and Trevor are right. In 2015 Labour had compounded its loss of identity under Blair by vaguely moving towards a weak form of social democracy and then stepping sharply back from it over austerity.No wonder the voters were confused!
        But the key point is that public opinion, as measured in polls, should not be dismissed but neither should it be accepted as something unchanging that cannot be fought against. The tragedy is that Labour never seriously tried to dispel the myth that they were responsible for the 2008 crisis or that there was an alternative to austerity.
        I hate to say it but the example we should look to is early Thatcherism, where a determined promotion of neo liberal ideas eventually succeeded in changing the prevailing consensus.We have to be equally determined and confident in promoting our ideas. . John McDonnell’s excellent economics roadshow is an indication of how this could proceed.

  4. C MacMackin says:

    The pollsters have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it. 😉

  5. Mervyn Hyde (@mjh0421) says:

    As local activists of long standing the one thing that impressed us was how to counter the media. We decided during the Thatcher years to bombard our local residents with factual information that rebutted the mythology they read and hear in the media.

    There are some simple truths about politics that ordinary members need to understand, a tiny elite that has held sway in politics is still there, they utilise every means at their disposal to keep us where we are.

    This being the 21st century you would think that would not need emphasising, but it does.

    Next that money has been used as a political weapon to preserve this elite, every objective has been to protect the financial assets of a tiny minority, that sits on mountains of money and who’s sole aim is only to accumulate more.

    Our money system gives them the freedom to exploit us.

    It should be glaringly obvious to any thinking person, that now the cat is out of the bag and more people understand that money is created out of thin air, that we stop giving it to the people that hold us to ransom and start spending it to benefit people, explaining why and how this has come about.

    The idea that we can consume the worlds resources indefinitely without consequences is coming sharply into focus. (Ponzi schemes such as Fracking).

    Free Market theology has been the only political message propounded for over forty years now, it took a decade and a party with the political will to get it established, we need that kind of dedication to reverse it, we also have the evidence to support our policies.

    Cameron today on prime ministers questions time
    used the names of past Neo-Liberal ex Labour Ministers to support his case for not taxing the rich. We should expose those same people in defence of our objectives precisely because they conflict with the aims and real aspirations of ordinary people. ( most people want a roof over their head, a decent living standard, job security, and a welfare state that supports them) those people in power, past and present preach insecurity as a virtue.

    We have all the money we need to create the society we deserve, we don’t have to sit around waiting for some benevolent billionaire to suddenly decide they can make more billions by exploiting our talents.

    We need to nationalise the banking system and print money directly into the real economy, where it is needed when it is needed.

    Money is created out of thin air and we regulate it by taxation and interest rates, that’s how it has always been.

    1. John P Reid says:

      youre implying the Statements the Tories made in the 80’s were lies, what ones? And if you’re sure they were lies, how did you prove it, if it was just written down, the Tories could have had taped stamens,that labour had said things that were electorally, in popular.

      1. Mervyn Hyde (@mjh0421) says:

        Sorry John I could not make head nor tail of what you are saying, if you could elucidate further I could respond.

        1. John P Reid says:

          Stamens = statements

          1. Mervyn Hyde (@mjh0421) says:

            You have well and truly lost me John.

  6. Verity says:

    Such a valuable and well argued case and such an important topic being adopted by the parliamentary Labour opponents of Corbyn. I agree with the all the points made.

    I suspect that there is not an inconsiderable number of people who if asked, “If I adopt all the policy measures you suggest, would you vote for us?” would reply – probably not, and more likely concealing a definitely ‘no’. There are voters who are good at opposing Labour but at best would abstain from the Conservatives. They have little confidence in the coherence of their own positions and sometimes even on specific policy issues. Often we seem to have the capacity to say one thing and in practice do (or adopt) another. Rational, balanced and persuasive debating points are not always as successful as we feel they should be. It has been commented upon before that the Left is so strong on policy, but perhaps less sophisticated in grasping behaviour and motivations.

    Many of us are probably not really capable of giving any less emphasis to policy but maybe it would be wise to appreciate that many people do not vote on ‘policy’. Even the adoption of a neo – liberal consensus policy position would still not be a winner. Does not a whole body of voters really seek a confident, seemingly competent, convincing fighter for the interests of those whose vote we seek, irrespective of how rational we portray our case?

    1. J.P. Craig-Weston says:

      “There are voters who are good at opposing Labour but at best would abstain from the Conservatives. They have little confidence in the coherence of their own positions and sometimes even on specific policy issues. Often we seem to have the capacity to say one thing and in practice do (or adopt) another.”

      That’s an interesting and quite provocative statement, but perhaps, (once again,) the real problem is not so much the, “wrong kind of voters,” as the currently completely schizophrenic sate of the Labor party.

      If the only issue were JC I’d have rejoined the Labor party already, (and I’m still looking for any excuse at all to do so,) and with enthusiasm, but the reality is actually somewhat different.

      No matter how high the respect and prestige that JC commands; the PLP Labor part is still packed with the toxic Blair legacy, people who not only do not support JC but are actively and vigorously opposing him at ever turn.

      What I and most other people I know expect, even demand, of a Labor party is socialism, it’s no complicated and it’s not difficult and that’s what I’d vote for, (but not for the Tories by other means, as it were.)

      What I’ll be getting if I vote Labor is something else entirely, something vile, (Vachel Reeves, Chukka Umana, Liz Kendell, even Tom Watson, etc..)

      I live in Oldham where only 40% of electorate even bothered to vote at last election and I am far from impressed that the only candidate that Labor could muster after the death of Micheal Meacher was yet another sleazy right wing nutter, (another sticky fingered local government careerist; who apparently dislikes disabled people and those of us who are unemployed etc…) nor are our other 2 MP’s much better, Debbie Abrahams is currently engaged in organizing some kind of business/charity consortium to bid for local government funding after the disastrous model of the NHS privatizations and since everyone here will already be so familiar with that tedious antics of Simon Danczuk further comment would redundant.

      To me and most people I know these people, not Jeremy Corbyn are the real face and the reality of Labor post Blair and it’s not a pretty sight.

  7. Bazza says:

    I have canvassed all my life and have had racists, sexists, homophobes etc. and do you know something we should stand for what we belive in with passion and communicate it effectively which means simply.
    We should be a Party with a cause and engage in POLITICAL EDUCATION! Solidarity!

  8. Dave Roberts says:

    The basic problem that Labour have is that like Khan in London Corbyn is now faced with a whole load of statements and policies that were ok when he was a backbencher but are now suicide as party leader.

    Not content with a load of things like leave NATO, hand back the Falklands, scrap Trident, appear on stages with Islamic terrorists and describe some of the worst of them as ” friends” he doesn’t even try and distance himself from them.

    Who was it persuaded him to appear in Calais with Dianne Abbott on the very same day the No Borders campaign decided to storm a cross channel ferry? That one couldn’t have been dreamed up by Tory Central Office in its wildest moments. He then in the same week reiterates that he wants to talk to Argentina about the sovereignty of The Falklands after it was pointed out that more than ninety nine per cent of the population of those islands are opposed. It’s called democracy but Corbyn doesn’t seem to understand.

    He represents policies and attitudes that most Labour voters, and potential Labour voters are hostile too and this negates Labour policies they can support. One of the most vicious pieces of legislation on housing which will essentially abolish the social aspect of it in this country is going through almost un-noticed while Corbyn is in Calais worried about asylum seekers. Pathetic.

    1. John P Reid says:

      Would there have been a labour choice for mayor,you would have backed Dave,

    2. John Penney says:

      Congratulations Dave, you’ve just won a clean sweep of the Daily Mail smears and lies Headline Bingo game ! The prize is the right to vote Tory (or UKIP, or BNP) for ever more.

      Fortunately the mass of Labour voters do not necessarily prioritise your Daily Mail petty nationalist anti “immigrant” obsessions. Dave. Imagine that .

      1. John P Reid says:

        The mass of labour voters, I’d say that’ll be 6 and half million if Jeremy leads us into the next election

        1. John Penney says:

          Dearie me, John P Reid. On the Labour Right wing trolling goes. The uber Blairite Murphy-led Labour Party in Scotland has already been pretty much destroyed in the 2015 General election . So you advise a rerun in England and Wales in 2020 ? Labour should replace Jeremy with, whom ? Some other neoliberal Progress-backed Blairite Oxbridge clone – who will mimic Tory policies yet again – and utterly destroy Labour in England and wales too.

          Why do you waste everybody’s time, including your own) with your endless anti Corbyn Right wing posts, John ? Nobody on the Left reading this LEFT Futures blog cares what you (or Swatantra) thinks.

          1. Mervyn Hyde (@mjh0421) says:


          2. John P Reid says:

            Swatantra cares what I think, and I hope on the future ,others will care so we don’t on,y get 6.5m votes in 2020 by the way, just quoting Jim Murphy who’d been leader for a few months when they voted SNP doesn’t reflect England where labour need to get votes from tories not SNP as for you saying its trolling,read my other comment,and if you seriously think that swinging to the left will get us votes you’re deluded,

          3. Mervyn Hyde (@mjh0421) says:

            John, you Can’t be serious, you ignore the fact that since Blair took office New Labour lost 5 Million votes, following the crash they lost a further two elections, what would it take for you to wake up one day and recognise, that your side of the argument has lost all credibility.

            You persist in attacking the person you think is vulnerable and yet offer no strategic ideas of your own, the reason of course is you do recognise that Neo-Liberalism is finished and that your chosen belief system run out ground.

            So it’s easier to poison the water attacking those you think are vulnerable, rather than offering a real alternative vision.

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