Sunday, 6 March 2016

So just how left wing are Labour's members?

All the recent stories about Labour's new and expanded membership would have you believe that many Labourites are a load of far left entryists bent, at all costs, on shoving their party decisively away from the centre ground of politics - and towards widespread renationalisation, pacifism, neutralism and high taxes. If you listened to some people, the party is at risk of being taken over by highly organised extremists from the grassroots movement Momentum.

Well, allow us to be a bit sceptical for a moment, but that's completely unproven. Sure, many of them have voted for a very left-wing leader in the shape of Jeremy Corbyn (whose real views on a lots of issues would appall many of those who back him, were his straightforward and uncluttered opposition to the present government's policies of austerity not seen to trump any other considerations at the moment). And no doubt they are a special breed overall - for who really joins political parties in the first place? The recent flowering of passionate activism around Mr Corbyn is undeniable, if apparently limited to people who leant towards a socialistic outlook in the first place. He can bring out huge crowds on dark March evenings. He can make people break down in tears as they describe how he's their only hope to remake society on truly fair and equitable grounds. All the while sinking further and further in every opinion poll, to levels of favourability (or, let's face it, unfavourability) among the general public last seen when Michael Foot led the Labour Party. It's not an unusual dichotomy, though it is more than usually well developed in this case: citizens likely to join political parties - and still more those likely to organise and campaign on behalf of their favoured political grouping - are by definition very different from the background population.

But what we need here are comparators - ways of seeing Labour members' views in context and as against other views. Luckily, we have a lot of data on this - in part because we have a recent in-depth poll of Labour members and supporters commissioned by Ian Warren, recently one of Labour's data gurus but now busy acting as a sort of independent source of polling wisdom, helping all of us other researchers out with very kind data dumps covering British politics. And we also have previous academic studies of what Labour members used to think in the early 1990s and 2000s, in the shape of two excellent academic tomes on just this subject: Patrick Seyd and Paul Whiteley's Labour's Grass Roots: The Politics of Party Membership (1992), which surveyed members in 1989-90, and the same authors' New Labour's Grassroots: The Transformation of the Labour Party Membership (2002), which looked again at Labour supporters in 1997 and 1999. We can use the evidence there as a cross-check against what we see now - and compare Labour people's views then and now.

Let's have a look at some of that evidence from the Corbyn party. 68% don't agree with renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system (opens as PDF), while in the late 1990s that figure was 'only' 44% (at that point 45% of Labour's members agreed with keeping Trident, so the party was pretty evenly split). But in the 1990 data we can see that 72% of Labour people thought that 'Britain should have nothing to do with nuclear weapons' - a very, very similar number to that we see now, and in fact as you can see even a little bit lower. So on this measure, Labour have really just gone back to the relatively unilateralist views of the last days of Neil Kinnock as leader (above), at a point when he had only recently abandoned his own commitment to scrapping Britain's nuclear forces.

Take another example - the restrictive trade union laws that the Conservatives introduced while in office during the 1980s, and which New Labour in power only in part repealed. Labour members are way out of line with public opinion on this one, as you can see from that link above: 64% of them think that the trade unions should have more influence on British national life than they do today, as against 'only' 41% of Labour voters, and a much smaller 23% of all British voters. But when we look back at the situation in 1997, at the height of New Labour's electoral success, and on a rather different question, 74% of Labour members thought that there should be no more anti-trade union laws: a much lower 49% of voters thought the same. That's a narrower gap between the people and Labour supporters, but the gulf was already there. 74% of Labour's 1990 members disagreed with the proposition that 'it is better for Britain when trade unions have little power'. In 1999 that number was exactly the same - confirmation, albeit on a different question, that Labour people were always (as one would expect) much more sympathetic to the trade unions than most other people in the country.

Or how about this one? Only 23% of Labour's 2016 members and supporters agree with the statement that 'it is possible to achieve better public services such as health, education and the police by running them more efficiently, without spending more on them'. Again, they're way of out line with the voters - 57% of whom are happy to concur with this proposition. But if we scroll back to 1990, though again utilising a different question, 73% of that sample disagreed with cutting public spending, a figure that had admittedly dropped to 65% by 1997. We're not convinced that the more recent numbers represent a convulsion. The general public may have shifted rightwards a tiny bit on some issues, and Labour has certainly moved left since most of its members voted for David Miliband as leader in 2010. However, some more details found in Mr Warren's polling (opens as PDF) - that Mr Corbyn would be much less popular if he started to lose elections, and that his left-wing ally John McDonnell does not enjoy the same level of support - should give us pause before we conceptualise Labour as already that new ally of Syriza, Podemos and Die Linke that some around the leader want to build

This stuff matters. Labour members are very left-wing compared with the general public, on a whole host of issues. These numbers from YouGov and Ian Warren display that more than clearly. But actually, in some ways they're not as far away from the general public as many Conservative members - given their level of concern for the standard maintained by what's left of the welfare state, for instance, or their lack of obsession over the minutiae of the powers and competencies enjoyed by the European Union. 70 per cent of the Conservative Party's members have a positive view of Michael Gove - a figure way, way above that of the general public, as even Mr Gove himself would be the first to admit. They're not like your typical Briton. We knew that. What matters is the extent of their change, and the scale of their differences with the average voter.

Labour members are quite a lot more left-wing than they were in the 1990s. That should come as little surprise, actually, because there's little controversy over the fact that many of the incomers are actually older returning members - 'retreads', in Peter Mandelson's rather sniffy and unwise description of them - who are now coming back after a decade or two of sitting on their hands, furious over Labour's lack of socialist commitment, its multilateralism, its turn away from a planned economy, or perhaps the second Iraq War. But when we quantify that, using our history? They're perhaps not a million miles away from where they started on this great circular march, all those years ago in the late 1980s. Which tells us one more thing: they can walk themselves back towards the centre ground. And one day, they will.


  1. I'm not sure what "Left Wing" means any more. Common ownership of the means of production has gone. Largely because the goods and services the private sector produces are not labour intensive any more. What's the point of nationalising them? Where we do have high labour intensity is in the public sector - the NHS and Edication for example. Despite what some on the Left say neither of these sectors have been or are being significantly privatised. The threat is largely a fiction. Defence is not a Left/Right issue. Trident is opposed by Michael Portillo as well as Jeremy Corbyn. Actually Defence is really a Foreign relations issue. It is blindingly obvious that the UK only needs a small independent capability. Our real Defence is via alliances. So what else? Should some things be better managed in the public interest than they are? Energy. Yes. The Railways. Yes. Does that mean nationalise them? Not necessarily. The Tube and the John Lewis Partnership might be models here (different ones of course). No need for ideology. This Conservative Government is shifting the Left/Right balance in society slightly. But the mixed economy - the national Public/Private partnership - is much as it has been for 20 years. Social Democrats and Red Tories have much in common - a fierce determination not to have government by the extremes. That common ground is shaken sometimes. But it stands firm in the end. Usually!

  2. So your point is: Labour's members are not so left-wing that they can't be compared with where they were during a period of 18 years out of power? A period where being too left-wing was seen as one of the main reasons the party was unelectable. That's not actually terribly reassuring. What should we conclude from this? That Labour might recover one day, but it might take more than 18 years?

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