Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Labour should learn from Robin Hood

Two recent surveys of public opinion reveal something rather interesting. The Financial Times reports that more than three quarters of voters think that both Labour and the Tories are influenced by 'big business', while fewer than a third think they ought to be. The same survey found that more people thought that Labour listened to big business than thought that they listened to the trade unions.

Meanwhile, a survey for Compass by YouGov found that 67% supported a 'one off tax on energy and oil companies' profits', with 13% disagreeing or strongly disagreeing. Even amongst Tory voters, 57% support a tax, and 23% disagree.

It is always wise to treat with caution these kinds of surveys, which tell lefties what we would like to hear. The Compass survey was designed by a pressure group in order to get a certain kind of answer. Just because people say that they don't like the influence of 'big business' doesn't mean that they would support any given set of policies which big business didn't like.

But nonetheless these surveys do suggest a political opportunity for Labour. According to the Conventional Wisdom, the surveys should have shown that a majority of people oppose any proposal with the word 'tax' in it, that it is politically suicidal to antagonise business, and that Labour's links to the trade unions are well known and unpopular. But there is no evidence from these surveys that any of these pieces of received wisdom are true any more.

The same survey showed that Labour is currently 22% behind the Conservatives. It seems pretty clear that just going along with the Conventional Wisdom and more of the same until 2010 is likely to result in a very heavy defeat, whether under Gordon Brown or any other leader. Equally, a year and a half of Faction Wars where leftie activists try to force a weakened leadership to adopt a shopping list of pressure group policies won't result in glorious victory either. But neither of these options is inevitable.

There are few examples from Western democracies of governing parties of the centre-left managing to overturn large opinion poll deficits in just a few months. Two examples from the past few years, however, are Gerhard Schroeder in 2005, who started the federal election campaign 21% behind the CDU/CSU and finished up about 1% behind; and Al Gore, who trailed George Bush by 13% in late June 2000, and ended up ahead in the popular vote less than five months later. Both Gore and Schroeder saw their share of the vote rise after they adopted more populist economic policies. Gore campaigned on the theme of 'the people versus the powerful', while Schroeder's SPD called for higher taxes for people earning over 250,000 euros. In both cases, these drew clear dividing lines with their right-wing opponents.

More populist 'Robin Hood' style economic policies and messages which help people on low and average incomes at the expense of the wealthiest aren't going to be sufficient for Labour to win the next election. But both recent opinion polls and lessons from history suggest that they are a necessary first step.


At 10:38 pm , Blogger Andreas Paterson said...

I agree completely, but I do wonder exactly how often this point needs to be made before our party's leadership actually realise this.

At 10:40 pm , Anonymous Al said...

Actually, both Schröder and Gore were at times even further behind than that (I distinctly remember one poll showing Gore *40pts* behind (a one off and a rogue of course. And maybe may memory is playing tricks to an extent. Still) while 2003 and 2004 were for the SPD what 1968 was for Labour.

At 9:11 am , Blogger Cassilis said...

I understand the thrust of this argument but there are dangers for Labour too (and of course I come from a different political angle).

The characters and policy choices are different but this is a similar argument to that advanced in the late 70's / early 80's by people like Tony Benn - "we're bing timid, people actually want bold left-wing policies etc." And when certain figures add weight to argument (like the ones you quote) then it becomes very persuasive.

It's worth pointing out as well that neither Schroder nor Gore ended up in office after the examples you cite (and yes, I know about the 'buts' to that observation). You'll struggle to find a recent example in UK politics of a party advancing explicit 'Robin Hood' -esque policies and achieving a solid and lengthy mandate to govern.

At 10:54 am , Anonymous tim f said...

"and achieving a solid and lengthy mandate to govern"

I think at this stage most Labour Party members would settle for governing until 2015 and seeing what happens by then. I don't think the current planning is "well we're going to win in 2010, but what about the 2015 election? We mustn't compromise our ability to win that one with our messages this time"

At 11:51 am , Anonymous Al said...

Benn and his followers weren't arguing for a few radical and potentially popular policies; they argued in favour of a total change of direction in economic policy. There is a fundamental difference between calling for a windfall tax on energy companies (to use a high profile example) and calling for the introduction of a command economy.


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