The “crowded centre-left” may seem an odd phrase to use when the Labour Party appears to be about to lurch off to the hard left, but there is some context here for both the self-indulgence of Corbynism, and for some of the decisions we will have to make as a party in the coming months.
Many, notably David Howarth and Mark Pack, have argued, in an otherwise very good paper, that the socially liberal, economic right is a desert, and we must be pitching our tent economically on the centre left.
The evidence for this comes from the British Election Study, which does indeed appear to show very few voters of any kind on the economic centre-right, which begs the question of how on earth the Conservatives managed to win the election. Of course there are other factors, but the economy (stupid) has to be significant. I suggest there are problems with the BES here, but that it can still provide some illumination.
Most of the BES data relates to questions that are asked of the same people multiple times over years to show changes in public opinion. A few, however, relate to what are thought to be reasonably static attitudes and are only asked once. 5 of these relate to how left or right-wing the respondent is. They are:
- Government should redistribute income from the better off to those who are less well off
- Big business takes advantage of ordinary people
- Ordinary working people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth
- There is one law for the rich and one for the poor
- Management will always try to get the better of employees if it gets the chance
In each case the subject is asked to select from
- Strongly Disagree
- Neither agree nor disagree
- Strongly Agree
Howarth quotes the first of these questions and concludes (4-Agree is about the average response) that the people support redistribution and so are centre-left. This is not quite good enough. No parties are proposing to abolish redistribution, and if you support redistribution to a smaller extent than currently occurs, you might give any one of the five possible answers.
The questions strike me as left-wing grievances rather than good discriminators of left-right opinion. You would get a different picture asking for agreement or disagreement to
- Taxes (on people like me) are too high
- It is too easy to live on benefits without trying to work
- There is too much immigration
- We need a strong growing private sector economy to create wealth and jobs, and support the public sector through tax revenues
- Union bosses care too much about their personal power and prestige and not enough about the school students/commuters etc whose lives they disrupt
These are not better questions, they are equally bad questions reflecting different grievances.
Nonetheless, just for fun, let’s take everybody’s answers to the questions we have, convert to numbers (1 Strongly Disagree up to 5 Strongly Agree), and add them up over the 5 questions so we get a score of 5 to 25 for each person where 5 is the most right-wing and 25 the most left-wing. We plot the distributions of these scores separated according to which party the person voted for in the General Election.
We see that Conservative voters are the most right-wing with a median of 17, next are Lib Dems with a median of 19. UKIP and the BNP have a median of 20 and on the left are Labour, the SNP, Plaid and the Greens with identical distributions and a median of 21.
Taking 15 to be the centre, the centre-right is indeed an electoral desert. But you can only count the centre as 15 if you believe the questions to be unbiassed. The questions are biassed and the data suggests the centre is at 20.
What this does show is that the economic centre-left is incredibly crowded. Not just the 4 parties we expected, but UKIP is also competing here – left wing grievances are a natural part of its politics of fear and grievance.
What do we expect to happen in this fractious and fragmented centre-left? And who is going to compete with the Conservatives for the votes of “people who just want a moderate, competent government which keeps the economy on track. One which ensures that there are decent public services that don’t cost the earth.”
* Joe Otten is a councillor in Sheffield and Tuesday editor of Liberal Democrat Voice.