The election of Jeremy Corbyn has undoubtedly re-exposed the age old division in the Labour Party between the democratic socialist ‘left’ and the social democratic ‘right’. This isn’t a new phenomenon in the Labour Party and indeed first occurred in 1900 when the party was formed and there was a huge row over whether to include the word ‘socialist’ in the Party name. The ‘moderate’ social democrats won that time, as indeed they did in the late ’80’s and especially after the Party lost the General Election in 1992, when it became accepted wisdom in the Party that ‘history was over’, ideology was dead, and ‘socialism’ could never win an election in the UK again. Thus an attempt was made to break the chains of the Party’s history and re-brand it as an entirely new party, as ‘New’ Labour in fact. New Labour made no claims to be a ‘socialist’ party and purposefully drooped all reference to socialism and socialist ideas. This was done because it was claimed that elections in the UK are won and lost in the middle-ground and the purpose of the Labour Party is to win elections.
It is undoubtedly true that in recent times (since ’79) elections have been won on the middle-ground, but it is not the end of history or the death of ideology that has created this electoral reality it is merely the geography of the electoral system.
(Now please forgive me for a minute but just to order my thoughts I’m going to run over some pretty basic stuff.)
Most constituencies in the UK have traditionally been either solid Conservative or Labour, with a few in the West Country being fairly solid LibDem. The party majorities in these constituencies are usually so high that in reality they are not really contested seats. There are constituencies in Gloucestershire that have voted Tory for 150 years.
There are however some constituencies where two parties are pretty much evenly balanced 50:50. Ergo, in these ‘marginal’ constituencies a tiny percentage shift of voters from one party to the other will change the result of the election.
So if most voters in the UK vote on tribal grounds, political Party’s can rely on this ‘core vote’ to vote for them whatever policies they put forward, i.e the 50% Labour of the 50:50 in a marginal seat will vote Labour anyway whatever the party does and vice versa with the other parties. So if you are a strategist for a mainstream political party in the UK, the thing to do is to design and present policies to appeal to the ‘floating voters’.
Now obviously these ‘floating voters’ are ignorant of, or at least unconcerned with, ideology, or they would be voting for one of the main parties anyway. They are also likely to be ‘average earners’ because the competing ‘class interests’ traditionally promoted by Labour and Tory are of no interest to them, i.e. they see no direct benefit to them in voting for one party or the other. They are also by definition, credulous and open to persuasion, i.e. they don’t, by definition, know what they think and are open to be being told what to think. Thus the ‘floating voter’ can be seen as a ‘pragmatic’ voter who views voting as a transactional activity, being more concerned with how policies will directly impact on their life and income and their own security, rather than any implications for others and society as a whole. ‘Floating voters’ are also by definition, cautious and thus more likely to be conservative with a small ‘c’.
The upshot of this is that to appeal to ‘floating voters’ you must use reassuring advertising like propaganda to put forward ‘moderate’ policies, that don’t frighten the horses, suggest only modest change and show how you will directly benefit the average earner. Or conversely use scary, terrifying propaganda to suggest how your opponents will grievously threaten the income, status and security of these ‘floating voters’ .
The problem with all this is that the vast majority of us, wherever we are in the political spectrum, don’t think like floating voters. The vast majority of us do have a sense of ideology and a sense of where we stand on the ideological spectrum. For the majority of us left or right, Labour, Tory or Conservative, the political focus since 1979 on these ‘floating voters’ is deeply baffling and unsatisfying and of course deeply unrepresentative because this relatively tiny group of cautious, credulous, ‘floating voters’ get to decide who wins elections and the focus on them has significantly contorted our electoral system.
Since 1992 all three main parties have been crammed into the extremely narrow ‘centre-ground’ so as to appeal to this tiny number of ‘floating voters’, and as a result of how unsatisfactory this is to most of us, we have seen the emergence of UKIP, a proper right of centre party prepared to speak to proper conservatives rather than the Conservative Party which at election time at least, is only speaking to ‘floating voters’. And on the left the professionalism of New Labour and the concentration on the ‘moderate’ floating voters has simply left a massive ‘Old Labour’ shaped hole to the left of British politics. There have been a number of attempts to build a UKIP of the left; RESPECT, Left Unity and TUSC were the most recent unsuccessful. But the problem for the left, unlike the right, is money! Very few corporations or wealthy individuals are going to donate to a genuinely left wing political party and the only other source of proper money to the left are the trade unions. So as long as trade union money remains attached to the Labour Party there is no hope for an alternative party of the left in the UK.
And then low and behold, the election of Jeremy Corbyn presents us with the unforeseen possibility that the ‘Old Labour’ shaped hole to the left of British politics could be filled by… The Labour Party! And no one, and I mean no one, including Corbyn himself, saw that one coming.
But straight away the election of Corbyn throws the Labour Party back to the bloody ‘floating voter’ problem. The Corbyn phenomenon illustrates that there is a huge appetite for a proper left of centre party in the UK. Not a ‘majority’ interest for sure, but a massive and significant interest nonetheless. However, it is probably true that the type of policies advocated by Corbyn are at first glance unlikely to appeal to cautious, credulous ‘floating voters’, who will be scared stupid by Tory propaganda.
And this dilemma is at the heart of the current split in the party that threatens to tear the party apart. People like me believe that a Corbyn led Labour Party could bring enough core voters back to the Party and carry enough floating voters with us to stand a chance of winning. The anti-Corbyneers think that is a forlorn hope and a Labour Party that can’t appeal to these bloody ‘floating voters’ is doomed to permanent opposition.
And within the Labour Party Corbyn himself is facing the ‘floating voter’ issue. Roughly speaking 50% of the party voted for Corbyn; that means 50% didn’t. Those who didn’t vote for Corbyn spread their votes across the other 4 candidates – hence Corbyn’s massive majority. A 50:50 split pro and anti-Corbyn puts Corbyn in a much more vulnerable position that his majority suggests… IF only one candidate stands against him.
The dominant narrative put about by the media and the anti-Corbyneers is that regardless of whether Corbyn’s views are supported ‘within’ the Labour Party, they are poison ‘outside’ the Party and thus Corbyn will be ‘unelectable’ once he faces the general electorate.
Roughly speaking polls at the minute are saying there has been a minor upsurge in Labour support as a result of Corbyn’s election and currently Labour stand at 31% and the Tories 33%. So the Commentariat and the anti-Corbyneers have decided that Corbyn needs to get 35% of the vote to survive as leader.
So fast-forward to May and the election results are in. Corbyn got less than 30% of the votes across the three elections, Khan lost the election to become Mayor of London and Labour made no significant gains in the Scottish Parliament.
This is portrayed by the media and the anti-Corbyneers as a catastrophic failure and a single stalking horse candidate is put forward by the PLP to trigger another leadership election (Hilary Benn?). Because of the poor performance in the May elections and the undoubted turmoil in the party resulting from Corbyn’s victory, significant numbers of ‘floating voters’ who voted for Corbyn last year might not do so again in May.
So if a Corbyn led Labour Party does badly in May and there is only one leadership challenger the new candidate would only need a nominal swing of ‘floating voters’ away from Corbyn to remove Corbyn from office.
Conversely if Khan wins in London and Labour make significant gains in Scotland and get say 33%+ of the vote across the UK County elections then the ‘unelectability’ narrative would be more difficult to sustain and the justification for another leadership election would be far more difficult to make.
Thus the results of the coming elections in May are absolutely crucial to the survival of Corbyn and the ideas he represents.
The truth is that if the doomsday scenario happened and Khan lost, Labour made no gains in Scotland and attracted less than 30% of the vote in the UK County Elections. then Corbyn would almost certainly need to resign. His position would simply be untenable.
However, the most likely outcome, and unfortunately possibly the very worst outcome, is that Khan wins (which looks likely), Labour make only a few gains in Scotland (again most likely) and Labour only get 30 or 31% of the vote in the county Elections (unknown). In those circumstances both the Corbynistas and the anti-Corbyneers could claim they were vindicated and Labour would be left pretty much where they are now. In which case the anti-Corbyneers would probably still mount a leadership challenge (Hilary Benn again) and it would be a very, very bitter fight indeed.
Bloody ‘floating voters’. Drive you mad!