A common refrain heard from the left of Labour during the Corbyn era was that ‘left-wing policies are popular’. This was a reference to the fact that when polled, policies such as rail nationalisation turned out to have widespread approval. Yet this was not the silver bullet the Corbynistas always thought it was because it immediately prompts the question: if Labour policies are incredibly popular, then why aren’t Labour doing better electorally?
The water is muddied somewhat by the fact that a lot of policies which could be considered rightfully left-wing really are popular, but other left-wing policies are certainly not. For instance, the four-day week doesn’t poll well, mostly because people have worked out that it might lead to job losses – it could lead to fewer people doing fewer things, meaning fewer positions in the workforce. But I don’t think this is really the crux of Labour’s electoral problem. The public is in a ‘spend more’ mood and has been for a few years now and a left-leaning economic platform should do well, whatever weaknesses its constituent parts carry.
You could say the problem was Corbyn’s personality and the fact that people just didn’t like him. While this was certainly a factor in why Labour lost so badly in 2019, I don’t think this is the whole problem either. If it was, Labour would be ahead in the polls now.
No, I think the real problem is that the part of the electorate that Labour wants to win back and who are attracted to the economically left-wing policies are relatively socially conservative. In other words, they don’t like the woke stuff, very broadly speaking, and it puts them off Labour, particularly when there is already a big spending Conservative party in office. This is the bit that the left of Labour continues to fail to understand.
By the way, I’m not telling them not to believe in what they want to believe in. I would just suggest that while rail nationalisation is popular, ‘children are born without sex’ is definitely not. Saying this out loud, it’s really obvious, but yet this is perhaps the biggest thing the left still do not understand. The idea that the culture war stuff really hurt Corbyn is obvious to the point of tedium to me, and yet I’ve never heard a prominent Corbynista publicly admit this.
The most interesting thing about the recent European football championships was that it demonstrated how easy it is to blindside the right on culture war shit; how simple it is for the left to find themselves on the correct side of it all, from a public popularity point of view, for once. People in England like the England football team way, way more than any politician and certainly more than any political party. They are also broadly not racist and feel defensive of English footballers when they are being racially abused. Beyond even that, the fact that a multi-ethnic England team managed to get to the finals being supported by 98% of the country demonstrated beautifully how English patriotism – not even British, but English – could be mixed with a progressive idea of what England actually is these days.
Yet the Labour party has yet to fully embrace the gift that was the Euros, particularly following how badly the Tory frontbench handled the whole thing, because the frontbench of that party still doesn’t know how to handle the culture war stuff. But at least in comparison to the Corbynistas, they know that they do have to find a way to deal with it all in order to stand any chance of a parliamentary majority. Say what you want about Starmer, it’s clear that he understands what a problem this is for the Labour party. If there were nothing else about him that was an improvement on Corbyn, the fact that he doesn’t go and support gender self-ID and then wonder why the rail nationalisation shtick isn’t cutting through would be enough. He knows the problem, which is at least half the battle.
Now, people on Labour’s left will shoot back, ‘Things like trans activism are more important than winning elections’. That’s a perfectly defensible position to take, intellectually speaking. But again, don’t then wonder why not enough of the electorate like what you’re buying. I would like the Labour party to be more openly pro-European, taking at least a rejoining the single market stance, but they aren’t because they want to win back the red wall seats. Trans activism is at least if not more harming to Labour’s chances of winning in these seats in the near future than wanting to rejig Brexit, so the left of Labour should stop using the ‘But electoral popularity’ argument if they want to keep doing the culture warrior stuff to the degree that they do.
While I’m here, I’ve got a new book coming out in the autumn entitled The Patient. It’s about a woman who goes into the hospital to give birth to her child, being two weeks overdue….and ends up staying in the hospital for a year, still pregnant the whole time. If you want to find out more, here’s where you can have a better look.